Museums Bring Out New Feelings and History

We each visit a museum of African American history, and tell what it means to us. Guy goes to the George Washington Carver Museum in Tuskegee and Amy to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.  

By Guy Trammell Jr.

Visiting museums is an exciting part of life for me. I enjoy exploring history, and it’s the museums that bring out aspects that could easily be missed.

The Slavery and Civil Rights Museum in Selma, with Sister Yomi as curator, is a great example of that. Sister Yomi enters the character of historic figures and interprets the history through their lives. I have visited museums throughout the southern U.S. and other areas of the country, including the Smithsonian in D.C. The Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta and Hitsville in Detroit, the birthplace of Motown Records, both stand out as extraordinary examples of interpreting history.

However, my very favorite museum and the one that has the most meaning for me is right here in Tuskegee. The George Washington Carver Museum, which is part of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, is one of the first museums I ever visited. It made a major impression on me as an elementary school student. The displays of all the vegetables and fruits Carver experimented with, along with the hundreds of products he invented from the peanut, amazed me. I looked in wonder at his laboratory, the automobile part he created from the peanut, and his numerous publications.

My interest in science caused me to wonder how so much knowledge and inventiveness could come from one person. My fascination increased when I saw the art and the crafts he created. I viewed his painting, and saw the colors he created from the clay soil I played in every day. Then I saw his needlework, the crochet and knit art he created at the same time he was teaching school, managing the campus farm, developing the campus landscape of flowers, trees and shrubbery, creating more inventions, and exploring science. The experience was simply amazing.

On top of that, the early Carver Museum had dioramas. These were scenes from the world’s history, with miniature figures of people, animals, trees and buildings depicting a particular time and location. It was like traveling around the world and back in time, viewing the great civilizations. I loved toys, of course, but these miniatures were teaching me history.

Later I learned that the building housing the museum was once the campus laundry. This was appropriate, I learned, because Carver did laundry to pay his way through school. The more I have learned through the years about this incredible scientist, artist and human being, the more I have grown to appreciate the museum and the things I am still learning when I visit.

By Amy Miller

In the fall of 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opened in Washington DC, the only national museum devoted exclusively to African American life, art, history and culture. The opening ceremony was simulcast into the Portsmouth Public Library where, gathered together, was a group that included the most people of color I had been part of in the Maine/New Hampshire Seacoast area.

Two years later I was lucky enough to get tickets to this museum, a crown set on the corner of the National Mall in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Here too I entered a museum where I was surrounded by more people who were not white — as in more African Americans– than I had ever experienced in a museum in the United States.

The museum celebrates African American pioneers and highlights the successes of African Americans at the same time it takes us through the economics and brutality of slavery that is our shared history. Walking through the museum in the company of so many people whose experiences with race are different from my own was as powerful, perhaps, as the exhibits I saw.

I loved seeing a plane of the Tuskegee Airmen flying above the crowds, and feeling that I had some small connection to those heroic pilots through my friends in Tuskegee. I was moved by seeing Nat Turner’s bible, and horrified by the small shackles that must have been used on children and the auction blocks that once held people who were put up for bid.

The most emotional moment for me was in a quiet room with the original casket of Emmett Till. Till was beaten to death in 1955 at the age of 14 for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. His mother decided his coffin should be open so the world could see her son’s mangled body, the result of racism. His remains have been reburied and the original casket sits in the museum. I stood before the velvet barrier while tears streamed down the face of an African American man beside me. It was not my moment to share, but nonetheless I was there, a witness to a kind pain that will never be fully mine.

The Washington museum has a contemplation room so people can sit with their feelings after they pass by the exhibits of tragedy and achievement. I wondered what it would be like if there were also a “connection room,” a place where people passing through the museum,– people who might not normally come together — could talk.

In his speech at the museum’s opening ceremony in 2016, President Barack Obama said, “Hopefully this museum can help us talk to each other. And more importantly, listen to each other. And most importantly, see each other.”

That same fall, South Berwick approached Tuskegee about becoming sister cities. We quoted Obama in our letter to Mayor Haygood and other leaders. We said our mission was precisely this: to better talk to each other and listen to each other.

Perhaps our Sister City relationship is our form of a “connection room.” Maybe this column can be another form of connection room.

President George W. Bush had set the stage more than a decade before the National African American museum opened to ensure the newest Smithsonian institution was on the National Mall, in a place of prominence.

“A great nation does not hide its history,” he said at the museum’s opening. “It faces its flaws, and corrects them.”

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