Friday, February 5, 2010
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum opened last week in Greensboro, N.C. -- a recent review of the site in the Times has much to say in praise of the museum, which is housed in the Woolworth's building where the famous February and March sit-ins occurred in 1960. A focus on the resistance of ordinary people -- at the museum's heart is the story of the four young men who led the sit-ins -- and the use of immersive sounds and stark images makes the humiliation and trauma of living under Jim Crow a visceral experience for modern-day visitors, according to the review. But apparently the ICRCM does not necessarily complicate the traditional narrative of the black freedom struggle; it leaves out nuance and detail about institutional faultlines, for instance, or about differing opinions over protest strategy, instead focusing on "broad impact."
I'm reminded of the findings of Owen J. Dwyer and Derek H. Alderman in their work, Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory (Chicago: Columbia University Chicago, 2003): Most of the sites "do not call attention to the ambiguous motives, painful doubts, or alternative interpretations; the point is to offer public testimony to what happened, to whom, and where."
Their conclusion can be extended to most official memorials, perhaps; I can't think of any, other than those that are part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, that consciously attempt to not only commemorate the historical event in question but also to comment on how interpretation of the event changes or gains new meanings over time.