By Peggy McGlone , Washington Post
Small shackles from the 1800s are among the artifacts that will be on display at National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)
They are heartbreakingly small, these rough-hewn iron shackles with openings that are just 21/2 inches in diameter. They are menacing, too, their five-pound bulk disturbingly heavy for the tiny wrists they confined. Despite their small size, they deliver a gut punch by summoning the horror and humanity of the slave trade in a way that no history textbook could ever do. The shackles are among the thousands of items that will be on view at the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens Sept. 24. These artifacts will tell stories of slavery, Reconstruction, segregation and the civil rights movement. Museum officials anticipate tears, sighs and even some anger as visitors proceed through the galleries.
The visitor experience has been a priority from the beginning, addressed in the design of the building, the organization of exhibitions, and the text and videos that supplement the displays. And now, with less than six months to opening, the effort turns to the front lines, to the staff and volunteers who will interact with visitors.
“Not a lot of (other institutions) are taking on, head on, one of the most difficult things society is facing today, which is the history of our country and how that impacts today,” said Esther Washington, the museum’s director of education. “The idea of letting people sit with a little bit of discomfort is something we have to do because of the stories we have in the museum.”
Louise Lawrence-Israëls knows firsthand about the difficulty of talking about race, identify and social justice. The 73-year-old Bethesda resident is a volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where for 22 years she has encountered a range of responses, from shock to tears to surprise. The work is exhausting — though she doesn’t notice until she gets home after a day of tours or talks.
“It is not tiring for me when I’m doing it. It’s uplifting,” she said. “It’s so important that you can make an impact on people. People just don’t know. It’s baffling how little they know.”
Lawrence-Israëls was a “hidden child” who was not sent to the camps. She says visitors reveal their emotions by grabbing her arm or taking her hand, and they often ask personal questions (“Do you still believe in God?” is a common one). “They can’t believe anyone has survived that,” she said. “It’s too much for them.”
Officials with the African American museum turned to their colleagues at the Holocaust museum and the National September 11 Memorial Museum for advice. They are among some 200 museums in the United States that focus on difficult subjects, from the Holocaust to terrorism to World War II, according to the American Alliance of Museums. Their experts say a critical first step is acknowledging the difficulty of some of the exhibitions and the conversations they will prompt.
“There’s no such thing as harder, or hardest. There’s just hard,” explained Sarah Pharaon of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a network of memorials, museums and historic sites. “This is history that is personal, and creating an atmosphere that allows for people to share their personal truths is vital.”
Design is also critical. Many museums have incorporated spaces for reflection and quiet. The Holocaust museum, for example, includes spaces on every floor and a Hall of Remembrance. The 9/11 museum places its more challenging exhibits in alcoves that can be bypassed and has spaced early exits along the gallery.
“There are visitors who don’t want to have the whole experience. They’ve had enough,” said Clifford Chanin, the 9/11 museum’s vice president of education and public programs. “We’re allowing visitors to make choices within our choices.”
Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton praised the African American museum for anticipating the need for visitors to decompress. “The sensitivity of the designers, especially director Lonnie Bunch, the thinking that went into it, even includes some contemplative space, so after being face to face with areas of tragedy or challenge, there is a space for someone to reflect,” Skorton said.