Commemorating civil rights and reform movements at the national museum of american history

Kylie Message*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

    1 Citation (Scopus)


    The exhibits explored in this chapter were developed by MHT/NMAH curators and professional staff who had high levels of understanding about the tensions associated with designing exhibitions to commemorate politically volatile and recent past events like the civil rights movement (Melder, interview; Crew, interview; Mayo, interview). The levels of awareness are apparent in the internal memos as well as in the letters and correspondence with outside stakeholders. In a 1965 memo about the ‘Civil Rights’ exhibition, for instance, associate curator Keith Melder wrote to Frank Taylor, director of what was then called the Museum of History and Technology (MHT), with the following advice: I would prefer not to deal with Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King. In handling the civil rights problem we have tried carefully to be neutral with respect to current affairs and to avoid singling out any contemporary leaders in the struggle. Bunche and King are admirable representatives of their race, but each one belongs to a faction of the current movement. Dr King, in particular, can hardly be treated with any detachment; I know Civil Rights advocates who regard him as an enemy of the cause. (Melder to Taylor, 14 April 1965) Using institutional records as well as contemporary institutional and media reporting and other evidence, this chapter reveals the debate and contention that occurred internally within the MHT/NMAH as well as that which arose between the institution and its stakeholders-namely, the U.S. federal government and Congress (which sets the appropriations for the Smithsonian Institution), but which also extended to include the general public and constituents who were perceived as having a particular stake in the events being commemorated.2.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationRepresenting Enslavement and Abolition in Museums
    Subtitle of host publicationAmbiguous Engagements
    PublisherTaylor and Francis
    Number of pages20
    ISBN (Electronic)9781136667381
    ISBN (Print)9780415885041
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014


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