Short Take: Museums and the Contemporary

Bill Caraher

Last week, I spent a few days in Greensboro, North Carolina on a trip to visit family in the southland. Despite the miasma of COVID hanging in the air, I managed to visit a few local landmarks including the International Civil Rights Museum located in the Greenboro Woolworth’s where the Greensboro Four, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond, staged their famous sit-in to protest racial segregation.

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Down the street from this museum was the less well-known Greensboro History Museum, where I visited an installation called “Pieces of Now: Murals, Masks, Community Stories and Conversations.” This exhibit featured a wide range of street art, video commentary, and other objects associated with the Black Lives Matter protests in Greensboro, the COVID pandemic, and the 2020 local and Presidential Elections. As the name of the exhibit implies, the emphasis is on the narrowest possible slice of the present, the “now,” and the narrative that it presents is messy, complicated, and pluralistic.

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The contrast between the two museums and the stories that they told got me thinking about how our cultural institutions are responding to what some scholars have called the “great acceleration” which has created an ever shorter present. In fact, a few years ago, North Dakota Quarterly published an issue dedicated to the “slow movement,” which represents an effort to pump the brakes on rapid pace of contemporary life and the vanishing experience of the now.

The International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro speaks to a view of the contemporary situation that begins with the protests against segregation in the United States in the 1960s and culminates in the presidency of Barak Obama, efforts to resist voter suppression, and vague allusions to ongoing battles to ensure civil rights on a global scale. The “international” character of this museum remains bound closely to a narrative to American exceptionalism that places the US at the center of a global movement toward equality. More than that, the message is inspiring, but also uncomplicated. As the song goes “No one remember old Marcus Garvey,” Malcom X exists without the Nation of Islam, the SNCC without the Black Panthers, and the diversity of global voices is homogenized into a triumphal procession. To be clear, I found nothing particularly objectionable at the International Civil Rights museum and the opportunity to encounter the lunch counter at Woolworth’s made the bravery and commitment of the Greensboro Four all the more palpable.

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The “Pieces of Now” at the Greensboro History Museum offers an encounter with an altogether more complicated present. The most striking objects in the exhibit is the art painted on the plywood sheets erected to cover shop windows damaged during the BLM protests. The artists come from diverse backgrounds and their work presents diverse messages which range from calls for justice, unity, and change.

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A hastily scrawled graffito “White Power” defaced a plywood sheet painted with the name of a barbershop “On Point,” “Black Owned Business,” and the smiley face with a bullet wound in the forehead. The tension between the “Watchmen” inspired smiley face (which may well also allude to subversive political power of masks) with its message of non-violence and the scrawled message of “White Power” reflects the complicated negotiation of the now present across the entire exhibit. The thoughtful interview with Brian James, Greensboro’s Black police chief, is a room away from a description by Azariah Journey, a white woman, of her intervention in a confrontation between a police officer and a Black BLM protestor.

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A display of scrubs and masks stands opposite a display of campaign posters. Photos of broken windows stood opposite plywood decorated with powerful messages in the subversive style of street art. The exhibit’s first gallery features a photograph of a poem written on a sidewalk that was quickly erased. In some ways, this now-erased poem is an icon for a rapidly advancing present that continuously defies resolution into a tidy narrative.

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Bill Caraher is a historian and archaeologist and the editor of North Dakota Quarterly.

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