In an age when social stigma based on arbitrary distinctions of “race” has been forcefully rejected by most, no reasonable person would argue for racism. But to challenge and question the right of The Jim Crow Museum to display racist memorabilia represents a societal impulse equally as malign as those it catalogues: to obscure the more challenging and vicious incidences of history, for the reason that they cause us discomfort.
The collection and study of cultural artefacts is an intrinsic part of public life in any mature society. A potted history of the word ‘museum’ uncovers its etymological roots in Greek civilization, as the term was coined in homage to the University Library of Alexandria, “a shrine of the Muses”. To ‘muse’ means to engage with the complexities of a given subject matter, to the ends of gaining new knowledge and insight, or at least one would hope. But citizens of the twenty-first century will recycle the past if they reject the value of publicly confronting its myriad problems.
In the English speaking world, the earliest recorded use of the term ‘museum’ was in 1610, in reference to the institution of the British Library. It is far from serendipity that museums made further strides in to public life during times of great progress and learning; they found good company during The Enlightenment and for good reason. To argue that any material should be pushed beyond the remit of a museum seems scornful and ignorant of two exceptional circumstances: firstly, the invaluable work of museums in bridging the private and public and secondly, our historical priveledge of having any access to museums in the first place.
Publicly displaying racist artefacts in their historical mode does not promote perverse ideas associated with them, but officially classes them as outdated. This further reduces the legitimacy of racism and tells its’ adherents that they are now subject to the scrutiny of ordinary people, who, despite being talked of as if they are incapable of thinking at all, will probably come away from the exhibit appreciating tolerance all the more. Tolerance, however, will wither in a society that refuses to accept that people are intelligent enough to decide for themselves whether they are or are not racist.
The public reflex to repress content within The Jim Crow Museum suggests that we are still not ready to come to terms with our own racist past. But a society outraged by the persecution of Trayvon Martin should surely realise that a forum is necessary and that this museum fulfils a critical and timely duty worthy of commendation rather than condemnation.