One thing that is capturing my attention as I travel the country are the ways we convey our history. Many towns that I have been in have small museums conveying their founding and early years that offer fascinating insights. In Springfield, Illinois and Little Rock, Arkansas I’ve perused the collections at the Presidential libraries and museums that glorify the contributions of Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton to our nation.
What is most intriguing, however, is how we convey painful aspects of our collective story. In Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum conveys in excruciating detail an account of the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 Americans and wounded many more. Hard to believe this tragedy was more than 20 years ago. The park where the building stood is a deeply moving site offering an opportunity to reflect on the loss and the adjacent museum is filled with multi-media accounts of the events leading up to the act of terrorism, the prosecution of the perpetrators and the personal stories of those affected including the dedicated first responders and community members that rushed to their aid.
Like the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the history, sense of despair and collective efforts to surmount the catastrophe are much easier to convey when the perspective is shared. It is easier when the “other” is someone that is easily despised such as Timothy McVeigh. It is much more difficult when the “other” is us. Perhaps that is why we often gloss over those stories.
Traveling through Missouri, I came upon the Trail of Tears Memorial by chance, a small memorial along a river where members of the Cherokee nation stopped overnight to rest. Despite the fact that an estimated 4,000 died from hunger, exposure and disease, I’m not aware of any significant site commemorating the forcible relocation of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee people (the “five civilized tribes” – yes, this term was still used by people I met in tourist centers and in side conversations in OK) from their traditional lands in the Southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma.
In Tulsa, I stumbled upon the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which commemorates the horrors of the Tulsa Race Riot when a white mob attacked the African American neighborhood of Greenwood killing 300, leaving 8,000 homeless, and destroying 1,256 homes. In April, I also will have the honor of attending the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL which will memorialize the more than 4,000 lynchings of black men, women and children who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned or beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.
My point is not to drag you into despair. I’m actually quite excited to learn more about when we do this well. To find other examples (e.g., the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin all come to mind but are outside the parameters of my domestic ramblings) where we have wrestled with the dark side of our history. What I’m truly interested in is not building a catalog of such sites but to better understand:
- How are they designed to convey this challenging history in a form that can be digested?
- How do they entice people to walk in the doors (especially those that would be threatened by the recognition of themselves in the skins of the perpetrators)? Are they successful?
- What lessons are they truly trying to impart?
If you know of a site I should add to my itinerary, have read a book on the development / design of such sites or have advice, I’d love to hear from you.