Friday, April 8, 2011

Stealth Collecting the Past

Old Christ Church. Friday afternoon.

With a nod to Elaine Gurian, panel commentator James Gardner introduced the session "Remembering the Bad Times: Collecting the Material Culture of Difficult Subjects" by bringing up an idea: that "museums should be safe places for unsafe ideas." He followed by commenting on the need for museums to challenge visitors and move beyond being what they often are: "safe places for safe ideas."

Panelists dealt with the complications of collecting material culture objects related to histories of undocumented immigration, high-stakes underground borderland economies, sweatshops and police brutality. In many cases, collecting objects that tell these stories are not easily acquired. Panelists, for example, noted the difficulty in acquiring objects and the need to work with federal agencies in building trust to acquire artifacts that might help document hard-to-tell narratives. On the other hand, as one panelist noted, when your artifact repository is your own garage, sometimes collecting is as easy as pulling off the road, and opening one's mind to what objects might be worthy of collection -- such as empty milk cartons used as flotation devices by Mexicans heading for the U.S.

The three panelists each described collecting objects that tell "unsafe" stories -- even if those objects haven't yet reached the point of being exhibited or interpreted-- as was the case for Laurie Baty, formerly of the National Law Enforcement Museum. At the NLEM, Baty discussed how collecting objects related to the 1992 L.A. Riots --such as a melted parking meter-- was not looked on kindly (no doubt because the Riots were the flames fanned from the spark of the infamous Rodney King court decision).

In such climates, some curators have taken to what panelists and audience members alike began referring to as "stealth collecting," that is, collecting potentially contentious artifacts that may not be slated for exhibit or interpretation.

Larger themes emerged regarding how complicated and difficult stories can be told even when they are not widely embraced by the public. What should one collect when boards, partners, donors, etc. have an interest to honor a particular point of view? What are the risks of collecting "unsafe" objects that "remember the bad times" especially given ways that internal and external politics affect historians and the institutions they serve?

Posted by Amy Tyson & Brent Nunn

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