National Geographic : 2016 Oct
134 national geographic • October 2016 clamp them on someone else’s ankles. “ You will see yourself in this exhibit, regard- less of your race,” says Mary Elliott, who helped create the Slavery and Freedom exhibition, which presents the contradiction personified by the nation’s third president: the framer of the Declaration of Independence and a slaveholder. “ We humanize this story, so if you are a man, if you are a woman, if you are a child, you look at Thomas Jefferson and say: What would I do? How would I have justified it?’ ” Some who donated artifacts say that was part of the attraction. For the musician Chuck D, em- cee of the politically confrontational rap group Public Enemy, the museum is in keeping with his group’s 1989 number one single, “Fight the Power,” in which he laments that “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.” “First, the fact that they wanted to include hip-hop and rap in the history of African Amer- icans in America was impressive,” says Chuck D, whose real name is Carlton Douglas Ridenhour. “Add to that they wanted to confront America, to ask America to confront itself, and look at all of its people and all of its history. That’s power.” Chuck D and his bandmates gave the muse- um a boom box used in their 2010 tour that’s so large it could serve as a coffee table. For Olympic medalist Carl Lewis, the appeal of the museum is that it offers a kind of immor- tality for his accomplishments and his story. Lewis idolizes the track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, but marvels at how many young people don’t know Owens’s story. Lewis said part of his motivation was to make sure people remember not just his medals but also the story behind them. Nine of his 10 medals are at the Smithsonian—all but the THE MUSEUM’S culturally diverse team of curators has spent the past decade making the case that examining the black experience is key to understanding America. It’s a high-stakes approach, particularly within the Smithsonian’s conflict-averse culture. In 1995 the National Museum of American History installed an exhibit featuring a section of a Woolworth’s lunch counter from Greens- boro, North Carolina, where four black students in 1960 protested whites-only service by launch- ing a sit-in that spread nationwide. Some vocal North Carolinians feared that it would create a black eye for Greensboro on the National Mall. Woolworth officials worried it could hurt their brand. Some African Americans objected that it was Disneyesque, emphasizing the nobility of the students rather than the racism they were fight- ing. All that conflict about a single exhibit. Now imagine a collection of nearly 40,000 objects. The exhibits have a strong point of view but are based on rigorous scholarship. And even though the museum speaks primarily with a black voice, the approach is meant to draw in visitors of all backgrounds. The experience be- gins underground—a bit of choreography that evokes the National Association of Colored Women’s motto, “Lifting as We Climb.” Visitors learn about a new nation struggling to establish the rule of law and wrestling with the “para- dox of liberty.” Nowhere does it explicitly say slavery was an abomination or segregation was evil, but through carefully designed exhibitions, visitors are encouraged to examine political, economic, or moral issues from a very personal vantage. The idea is that learning about a slave shackle might prompt a visitor to contemplate what it would be like to wear the iron cuffs or The museum wanted artifacts that represented historic milestones but would reveal those stories in a personal way.