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Between Mourning and Hope: Our Smithsonian Journeys

In his July 2019 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander reflects on the MSU Museum team’s recent visit to the annual Smithsonian Affiliations conference, a gathering of the nation’s many museums affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian has declared 2020 to be the year of “Earth Optimism,” dedicated to highlighting positive stories worldwide in struggles to ameliorate or remedy the impact of global, human-induced climate change. Dr. Auslander considers the challenges of optimism and hope at the present moment, capabilities which he notes may be anchored, paradoxically, in our human ability to mourn in the face of loss.

Each June, representatives of the many Smithsonian Affiliate museums across the nation attend the annual “Smithsonian Affiliations” conference in Washington D.C. Here, we have a chance to exchange ideas about innovative and experimental trends in the Smithsonian Affiliates network, see new Smithsonian exhibitions firsthand, and reflect on future directions within the Smithsonian system and the overall museum world.

The MSU Museum was unusually well represented at this year’s Affiliations Conference, since the team involved in the much-discussed exhibition “Finding our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak,” had been invited to present on the exhibition development process. We were joined by sister survivor and community co-curator Amanda Thomashow, who eloquently reflected on her experience in helping create the exhibition. The whole audience listened with rapt attention as Amanda described her early love of MSU, and her sense of deep betrayal over many years of institutional failure by the university to protect hundreds of vulnerable girls and young women from the notorious serial predator (whose name we tend to avoid using). Amanda had been extremely reluctant, she explained, to trust any university unit and had only cautiously joined the Museum’s Survivor and Allies Advisory Committee. In time, however, she has come to take great pride in “Finding our Voice” and now regards co-curating the exhibition as a significant part of her healing journey.

That week, as it happened, marked the 47th anniversary of the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), which provides safeguards against gender discrimination and gender-based violence in educational institutions. That evening, Amanda joined Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, who represents MSU and surrounding areas, as a resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives celebrating Title IX and all the protections it has afforded millions of girls and woman across the nation. (Rep. Slotkin and Amanda recorded a touching video outside of the House floor, reflecting on the Title IX anniversary: https://www.instagram.com/p/BzIZCgzh5uQ/)

Afterwards, it occurred to us the range of emotions Amanda had traversed that day—from deep mourning over all that had been lost during the sexual abuse crisis at the University to a sense of renewed commitment to a just and equitable future— served, in a sense, as the bookends of our shared experience during the Smithsonian conference. All of us found ourselves continually moving back and forth between positions of mourning and hope, two seemingly irreconcilable poles, as we reflected on “Finding our Voice” and on everything else we encountered that week on the National Mall.

Facing Tragedy

Perhaps the most powerful emotional range was encountered by team members who visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the newest Smithsonian Museum. Everywhere we visited in the Smithsonian system, staff members were thrilled with the ascension of NMAAHC founding Director, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, as the first person of color to serve as Smithsonian Secretary, overseeing the entire Smithsonian Institution. In that sense, our time in NMAAHC was suffused with hopeful optimism: under Dr. Bunch’s new leadership, it is widely expected that the institution’s commitment to honoring historically marginalized voices will be greatly expanded.

“Ashley’s Sack” now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

“Ashley’s Sack” is now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (on loan from Middleton Place).

Having said that, the dominant tenor of our team’s visit to NMAAHC was one of deep mourning. All were profoundly moved by visiting Ashley’s Sack, the enigmatic object of slavery and memory which I have been researching for several years. Embroidered on this 170 year old seed sack is the story of the nine-year-old enslaved girl Ashley, sold away from her mother around 1851. Our Director of Development, Chong-Anna Canfora writes, “Going to see Ashley’s Sack was a pilgrimage for me. I felt Ashley’s presence when I stood in front of the seed sack her mother gave her before little Ashley was sold away from everything she knew. The heartbreak and deep sorrow that I felt looking at this seed sack almost drove me to my knees…Standing in front of it and seeing this object in person was deeply moving and haunting. I will never forget seeing the sack that she and her mother touched, and that her descendant Ruth Middleton so lovingly embroidered with her story.”

Nearby, our Exhibition Director Teresa Goforth was equally moved by the installation of Emmett Till’s coffin, commemorating the fateful decision by Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to allow her murdered fourteen year old son’s brutalized corpse to be viewed publicly, a courageous choice that helped catalyze the modern Civil Rights movement. In Teresa’s words, “The exhibition of Emmett Till’s coffin may be one of the most emotional museum experiences I’ve ever had. As a human and a mother, one can’t help but be overwhelmed at the violence and senselessness of the murder of a child and, at the same time be astounded at the strength of his mother to understand that his death could have power and meaning…This is a room where no photography is allowed. It is filled with church benches, and yet no one is sitting. Behind the coffin that sits on a platform is a large black and white wall-sized mural of mourners at Emmett Till’s original funeral…The room is filled with the sound of hymns being sung by gifted voices and you, as a visitor, are waiting in line at the viewing of Emmett Till, waiting your turn to pay respects. This is the potential power of the object, enhanced and honored through careful exhibition design, to make visitors feel deeply. I will never forget this experience.”

Our designer Kelly Hansen, who did such a remarkable job with “Finding our Voice,” also found herself profoundly impacted by the museum’s treatment of histories of oppression and injustice across four centuries, even as she took a measure of hope from seeing a tour of Washington DC Metropolitan police officers carefully and thoughtfully making their way through the exhibitions. At a time when the nation remains convulsed by debates over officer-involved shootings in minority communities, Kelly was inspired by the sight of law enforcement professionals seriously engaging with our shared history of racial injustice and enduring struggles for equal justice under law.

My wife Ellen and I are dazzled by NMAAHC each time we visit. Among our favorite sections, on the upper floors, are a recreation of an early 20th century West Philadelphia millinery shop, and the 360 degree digital community wall, a visually sumptuous celebration of African cultural production in the arts, including dance and all forms of movement. Improbably, after the indelible journey in the lower floors of the museum through the subterranean horror of the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow, the dominant tenor in the upper floors remain a sense of awe over the cultural resiliency and creativity of communities of color, suffused with cautious optimism over our shared national future.

Next door, in the National Museum of American History (NMAH), visitors find themselves similarly torn between positions of mourning and hope in the newly opened exhibition, “Illegal to be You: Gay History Beyond Stonewall,” guided by the work of curator Katherine Ott. Among the most moving objects in the museum’s LGBTQ collection are those associated with Matthew Shepherd, the young gay man who was the victim of a brutal hate crime in 1989 in Laramie, Wyoming. When Shepherd’s remains were interred last year in Washington D.C. at the National Cathedral, his parents generously presented to the Museum a superhero cape he had worn as a boy and a wedding ring he was, tragically, never able to use. As with Ashley’s Sack and Emmett Till’s original casket, such displayed objects convey in the most startling, intimate ways imaginable the true horror of the lost promise of a human life. And yet the overall trajectory of the installation, tracing fifty years of LGBTQ activism since the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, is far from dismal; we see, again and again, heroic struggles for human dignity, as fundamental rights are, however slowly, secured for long marginalized communities. (On a more unambiguously optimistic note, our curator of textiles and social justice Mary Worrall took particularly joy in noting how many girls of color entering the NMAH exhibition of First Ladies Inauguration gowns raced to see Michelle Obama’s gown, glimpsing within it a vision of the nation’s expanding canvas of opportunity.)

Deep Time

America’s T. Rex, on display in the "Deep Time" exhibition, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

America’s T. Rex, on display in the “Deep Time” exhibition, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

In turn, immediately west of NMAH, the newly opened “Deep Time” mega-exhibition in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) invites us to ponder different scenarios of loss and hope. All of us were awed by the magnificently re-installed paleontology specimens, centered on the “Nation’s Tyrannosaurus Rex,” the much-celebrated fossil bones of the theropod Wankel T. rex (MOR 555), on a 50-year loan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (previously on view at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana). The vast dinosaur and fossil hall takes visitors on an ambitious and sophisticated journey back through 3.7 billion years of life on earth. Along the way, we learn of the successive history of mass extinctions on the planet, often associated with dramatic instances of climate change. This framework allows the museum to tell a hard-hitting story about the enormous dangers of human-caused climate change and human-caused mass extinction at the present moment in history, developments which threaten the continued existence of our species and much of the biosphere. And yet, the overall tenor of the narrative, at least for attentive visitors, is one of cautious optimism. Great emphasis is given to positive, experimental developments in climate mitigation, transition to renewable energy sources, ecosystem protection, and species conservation initiatives.

All of this is consistent with the Smithsonian’s decision to devote 2020, the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day to the theme of “Earth Optimism.” As museum professionals around the world have learned, exclusive emphasis on the horrific consequences of global climate change has proved incapable of seriously moving the dial in terms of policy and political will necessary to mitigate human-caused carbon output. Something else is needed if we are to avoid the paralyzing abyss of despair: people need to believe that individual and collective impact can make a profound impact, and that hope for a better world is in fact possible.

Judging by our preliminary conversations at the Affiliations conference, museum leaders in the Affiliate system are deeply torn over the planned “Earth Optimism” theme. We are all worried over the risks of complacency, of giving audiences overly easy reassurances that the deepening crisis will be resolved through simple “techno-fixes,” rather than wholesale restructuring of global energy and socio-economic systems. We know that the impact of polar ice loss, sea level rise, desertification, habitat loss, changing growing seasons, erratic storm systems, and the many other dimensions of global climate change are not equally distributed across the human population. Humanity’s poorest and most vulnerable populations are most directly, and literally, in the line of fire. “Optimism” is only a legitimate ethical stance if we resolve collectively to reorganize fundamental relations of inequality between the world’s most privileged and most marginalized communities. We have in the decades ahead the opportunity to achieve humanity’s finest moments, if we can somehow resolve our differences, deepen our shared scientific literacy, and strive to produce a more just and sustainable planetary economy. The road ahead will be harder than any we have yet faced, but all is not yet lost.

Facing Danger, Then and Now

In that light, my favorite installation in “Deep Time” is one that confronts us as we enter the hall from the Grand Rotunda (dominated by the much beloved African bull elephant). We see in bronze a life size human family from the upper Paleolithic period, presumably about 20,000 years ago. A man with a spear and a woman carrying a baby and a piece of gathered fruit turn to confront the fossilized skeleton of an enormous snarling saber tooth cat. The question we are forced to ask is what happens next? We know that somehow our ancestors must have survived many such encounters with apex predators: otherwise, how could any of us exist today? Yet we don’t know if this particular family will survive this encounter, just as we don’t really know if our own descendants will survive the modern day crisis born of climate change and mega-extinction. Here, then, is encapsulated the basic theme of the entire 31,000 square foot exhibition: through traveling back in time through the history of life of earth, we just might learn how to face the future with deep knowledge, ingenuity, and courage.

To be sure, as much as I admire this installation, I am troubled by its gender politics. As an anthropologist who has worked in African savannah-woodland societies, I know that the classic distinction between “Man the Hunter” and “Woman the Gatherer” needs to be viewed rather skeptically; indigenous women are often highly capable of defending themselves and their kin against carnivores and other deadly animals at moments of crisis. (During my years of fieldwork in isolated rural Zambian communities, my life was saved more than once from venomous snakes by quick witted courageous women, in one instance armed only with a boiling cauldron of porridge). If protection against big cats and other dangerous creatures had been entirely outsourced to males it is unlikely any Homo sapiens would still exist.

Having said that, I do find the overall duality of mourning and hope, which runs through so many Smithsonian displays, to be deeply resonant. The entire Deep Time exhibit can be, after all, thought of as commemorating uncountable species and organisms that have been lost across the eons in mass extinction events. While we can mourn their loss, we also can take hope from the extraordinary resilience of life on planet Earth, as the evolving web of life again and again has repopulated landscapes, oceanscapes, and skyscapes. Watching children race with unalloyed delight under the tails of long-extinct dinosaurs, play with touch screens exploring the mysteries of evolutionary pathways, and gaze with fascination into the glass walled paleo-conservation lab, is to be filled with a sense of deep joy: in the shadow of so much loss across hundreds of millions of years of natural history, we behold the miracles of human creativity, as young minds pursue the age-old drama of discovery.

From Mourning to Hope

As an anthropologist I tend to think that these two attributes, our capacities for mourning and optimism, are intimately bound to one another. To truly know the loss of loved ones implies that we have partaken of the deepest fruit of knowledge, that is to say we have become acutely aware of the inevitability of our own deaths. Yet, with that knowledge is born a longing for a more significant form of immortality than mere individual survival, a commitment to bequeathing fundamental gifts to our posterity — be it in the form of art, scientific invention, new social institutions, or new stories that can be passed on from generation to generation.

As a child growing up in Washington D.C. I particularly loved an installation of a Neanderthal burial site, which once occupied a section of the current “Deep Time” exhibition. A corpse was depicted having been laid to rest bound in a fetal position, surrounded by family members. At the dawn of the human journey, our ancestors and close evolutionary relations demonstrated an awareness of death and a common hope that death could be transmuted into something else: the tomb itself could function as a womb for another kind of life beyond this life. Out of Death could come the regeneration of Life.

That is the shared dream to which all of our museums—in the Smithsonian, the Smithsonian Affiliate system and the world over—are dedicated. We gather up all manner of human-made artifacts and natural specimens, most of them dating from times long ago. We commemorate and often mourn all manner of loss and injustice, some of it unbearably painful. Yet out of that shared, felt sense of absence we draw renewed dedication to the idea of that which will succeed us. Museums are resolved to preserve and interpret diverse elements of natural and cultural pasts, to last long beyond our individual lifespans, even if we cannot quite yet imagine what those moments yet to come might look like. Museums, then, are vital foundations of humanity’s long journey, emerging out of our uniquely human ability to mourn that which comes before us, and to envision, against all odds, the grand, unfolding spectacle of the future worlds that lie beyond.