Museum Visit Part II: I only wanted to learn about history — I became depressed instead

I did not get enough punishment from my visit to the Cincinnati Museum of Art as I outlined in my last piece, Museum Visit Part I. So I could not leave well enough alone and decided to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. In hindsight, it was not the best idea I could have had.

Spoiler alert: I became depressed again. After looking at all of those chains, reading about family separations, illustrations of packed slave ships, films about bombing and lynching, the struggles for voting and education, the lunch counter sit-ins, protesters being water hosed, MLK assassination, photographs of smiling spectators standing under a limp black body hanging from a tree, the FBI infiltration of the Black Panthers, the redlining of neighborhoods — enough already!

Often I wonder about the effects of exposure to a never-ending stream of negative information. Whether the topic is politics, sports or economic statistics, African Americans are always at the worse end of that news. Museum visits should not be a traumatizing experience. For a large number of people, it is not a traumatizing experience. But for African Americans, it can be like a trip to the dentist; not for teeth cleaning, but a mental root canal. The white experience of American history can be really inspiring. But American history from an African American (and Native American) viewpoint is a much uglier experience.

Add to this the daily grind of watching the local or national news.

Tom Burrell, a marketing communications pioneer stated in an NPR interview,

“… after all of the efforts that have been made, we are still, as a people, at the top of just about every bad list and at the bottom of just education, income, incarceration, out-of-wedlock childbirth, teen pregnancies, HIV, childhood obesity, infant mortality.”

Actual holding cell For slaves
interior of the cabin that held shackled slaves

This bad list is what I hear about daily whenever I watch the news, read an article, or apparently, go to a museum. It never ends. Seems everything turns to race eventually. Visiting the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was not a refreshing break from the news media, but a continuation of all the awful news, stats, and images that have been forced fed to me, and a bitter reminder that this news has been flowing since the moment Africans stepped foot on the American Continent.

The names of enslaved African Americans contained in a slaver’s inventory of 1834

Good grief, walking through the museum, experiencing one atrocity after another, is a test of mental strength and fortitude. Even the good parts of the museum, the areas that concentrate on African American achievement; the inventors, politicians, musicians, scientist, etc, has a mental asterisk next to it. A closer look at all those success stories always reveal trials of unnecessary struggle, no matter how brilliant the achiever.

On a human level, all people have obstacles to overcome. Poverty, alcoholism, health, war, loss, etc. Now take all of those issues and add the burden of overcoming racism, and all that it brings to the table, whether it is restricted travel, denied access, and the ever-looming threat of physical violence, the history of African Americans is unlike any other American history. And of course, there’s slavery.

In the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. book “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro” an updated version of the same book first published in 1933 by Joel Augustus Rogers, I broke down the topics and divided them into areas such as slavery, education, war, etc. Well over a third of those topics had dealt with slavery. The illustration below outlines the topics.

Apparently, slavery is a huge part of the story of Africa Americans. This is supposed to be a positive book, designed like a Who’s Who, or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. There is absolutely no escaping covering American history without going over the sordid details of slavery. The other sections of the book, even though there may be little or no mention of slavery, is still packed with stories of people overcoming racism and the hardship it causes.

All of the past is connected to topical challenges today, no matter how long or circuitous those connections. Slavery is ancient history to most people, but it is really not far away. My great-grandfather was born in New Orleans in 1878. Both of his parents were slaves. I have known and lived with my great grandfather, the son of slaves, until I was a teenager. American slavery and the contemporary problems it has caused is very close to all of us.

So, as I stated, I’m walking around the museum, taking in all of this stuff. It is not anything that I did not already know, but the accumulative effect of looking at all of those museum displays and artifacts made me think that I probably could have found something else to do that would have been more relaxing. Or is it just me?

I have to admit, maybe it is just me. This was not the first time I felt this way while going through some sort of history lesson. Years ago, I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. I felt (emotionally) sick after getting a lesson on how families suffered and were tortured under a brutal Nazi dictatorship. In New Mexico, I felt sadness as our teenaged Native American tour guide went over the history of the Puebloan people. In Amsterdam, a visit to the Ann Frank House reminded me of how African Americans had to hide for most of their lives even after being freed, for fears of hunters coming north to take them away. I guess I am just a sensitive man.

However, for any reasonable person, being bombarded with negative information and knowing that you are a member of a group that is on the losing end of any social-economic, cultural, or financial list, will have some sort of effect on you. I am not saying that I lose sleep over it. It is just that when I am exposed to this, be it news media, reports or museums, it touches me in a certain way that it does not touch even the most liberal-minded of white Americans. This is why I avoid certain movies such as: !2 Years a Slave, Detroit, Precious, etc., and I can name many others. Some of these are award-winning movies but I refuse to watch them. My life is fine without those movies. I have heard all of those stories before.

In an episode of “This American Life”, titled History is Not a Toy, producer B.A. Parker remembers her 3rd grade trip to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. It was traumatizing.

“To be honest, it scared the [BLEEP] out of me. It’s violent and graphic and unlike any other museum I’ve ever been to.”

Some of her classmates described their experiences at the museum had caused them to have nightmares, tear-up and some could not get the images out of their head. Imagine your child having to witness people being force-fed with funnels stuck deep in their throats, chained nude women covered in blood, collections of body parts on shelves, people being eaten by rats, historical photos of lynching’s and I am not even going to talk about the worst part of the exhibit. I don’t know of any family museum or historical museum story that consist of these types of displays.

As Parker described it, “…walking down to the hold below was like walking onto an amusement park ride, only the opposite of fun.”

History is not child-friendly, it’s not even adult-friendly.

It would never be a good idea to be ignorant of history or to ignore history just because it is not pleasant. The most I can get out of any museum is the courage to persevere. All of history is a story of conflict. And the best part of it is overcoming the conflict in some way. We cannot get rid of museums. But we have to approach museums with a vein of strength running down our spine while knowing we are going to encounter some un-pleasantries. Some boast that museums bring history to life and it may very well be that this reason for my malaise.

Sounds weird about this type of preparation when visiting a museum? It is more pragmatic then weird. In a public lecture at the National Museum in Georgetown, Guyana, Emmanuel N. Arinze said this about the role of museums,

“The traditional role of museums is to collect objects and materials of cultural, religious and historical importance, preserve them, research into them and present them to the public for the purpose of education and enjoyment.”

Great statement, but I would have to leave off the enjoyment part. Today, the role of a museum has to be much more than a collection of objects housed in a marble building. We cannot afford to have young people walk in and become bombarded with images, recordings, and artifacts that may be disturbing but captures nothing that would lead to any meaningful engagement. We can easily form bad memories by shocking the senses with atrocious stories and images of violence. But what do we get out of it?

Context and connections have to be made to the current times. Current problems have to be connected to the past and ideas for solutions have to be formulated and acted upon. Museums have to be willing to be active participants in the community they serve and represent. Planned and organized call to action have to be embedded into the experience. Things such as community volunteering, voter registration, free education, petitions signing for social justice that leads to better legislation for housing, law enforcement, and environmental safety, just to name only a few. We have to act on something while at the museum.

There is a sing at the black wax museum that says; “Identify with the victims and martyrs and never forget them. But do not get bitter or despondent over what they endured.”

That is not only impossible, it is a stupid thing to try to do. Keep those strong emotions and turn that negative energy into positive action.

By placing a call to action as part of the museum’s attractions, we will not have to walk out depressed, afraid, or angry. We’ll have a method to defuse our anxiety and bitterness. We’ll feel better for it, and at the same time, we start to make something happen by participating in an action that will plant the seeds of positive change. For all the sorrow and misery that we are exposed to in museums, we deserve at least to make it a more pleasant experience for future African Americans and Native Americans as we continue to build upon our history in America. And maybe those future generations won’t have to come out of the museum needing psychotherapy.

Quilts tell a story




Humanist, educator, writer, photographer, and modern-day Luddite. My writing is a living organism.

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Thomas Holt Russell

Thomas Holt Russell

Humanist, educator, writer, photographer, and modern-day Luddite. My writing is a living organism.

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