Contemporary History is a particularly compelling focus for museums. Almost by definition, it allows for a wider sharing of audience members’ own stories and more obvious connections to current events. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is still a part of the country’s living history, whether contemporaries actively joined in marches or just witnessed progress from their own homes.
Popular entertainment of the ‘60s played a pivotal role in social change. Movies and T.V. shows with black actors, producers, and writers gradually humanized black lives for white audiences. They gave black entertainers and public figures a platform to reclaim their identity from the dominant forces that defined and subjugated them. Progress in film and television was, and continues to be, slow, often giving the public what it was prepared to see rather than challenging it. Museums need to avoid the same trap.
Museums are another realm of expression and public identity. They choose how to represent history and which stories will be told. Tobi Voigt of the Detroit Historical Society feels that sharing contemporary history in museums can be a way to shift that authority. As for making exhibits relevant, “Fortunately or unfortunately, the subject matter made the case for us,” Voigt said. The 1967 social upheaval in Detroit (which some call a riot, others a rebellion) was prompted by police brutality. Coming up on the 50th anniversary, Voigt believes it is time to talk about what lessons the city did and did not learn.