Contemporary History: Ratings to Rebellion

From the Detroit Historical Society Collection.

From the Detroit Historical Society Collection.

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.

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22 Responses to Contemporary History: Ratings to Rebellion

  1. juliafell17 says:

    I’ve thought a lot about representation of black people and families in television, and have come to the conclusion that it’s a topic just waiting to have a thesis written on it, or maybe a museum exhibit. I think there are so many perspectives to be explored within that category. I’ve actually had a quite extensive conversation with my parents about socially revolutionary television, and another with my mother specifically about black representation. Hearing from my parents about what is was like to experience these shows as they were airing and how things have evolved since the 60s was great.

    I think museums should grab a hold of topics like this while the people who grew up with them can share their stories. Particularly at a time in history where racial tensions are mounting, examining how we got through another time of particular unrest via its media can teach us lessons in every-day actions against injustice.

    • kwebberj says:

      Very good point! I like the idea of collecting perspectives from different people witnessing that change as television viewers.

    • saraumland says:

      I agree with you Julia about a museum exhibit on black representation in television. Showing the representation in the 1960’s with the Civil Rights movement and comparing it to black representation now in television and the #BlackLivesMatter would be a contemporary and thought evoking exhibit.

    • pnorman02 says:

      I really like your response, Julia. The importance of interpreting the events of the past and drawing parallels between the present is something we’ve been discussing a lot this semester and this is the perfect time for a museum exhibition that focuses on racial tension and injustice. Involving the community and their voices in this type of exhibition would start a very important and much needed dialogue.

    • mickcr says:

      Julia, this is a great point and idea. A thesis exploring representation of black people and families in television is an important topic that should be explored. Museums can help convey understanding expression and identity and share contemporary history.

  2. at01lang says:

    I too have found the evolving representation of African-Americans in popular media, particularly television, a compelling topic. Having seen many of the older shows addressed in the book, I always find it interesting to compare them to more contemporary fare, simply to put each in its respective context and see how they have evolved over time. And what I personally think to be the case is that in many respects, television from this period took a more evident stand on social matters given the context in which these shows were produced. Now, we have shows that comment on any number of things that would have been taboo at that time, but the cultural context has evolved. In this period, you had shows addressing topics that were prohibitive only a very short time before; they were trend-setters and broke the mold on things that would could be addressed, how people were represented, and the ability of media to be a nexus point of relevant ideas. It set the course for all forms of media to this moving forward, which, when I look at today, I find a mixed record. There are plenty of shows that continue to take provocative stands for the present, and yet at the same time, I can find myself disappointed at the expanse of reality that gluts the airwaves, abounding with surreptitiously-scripted nonsense. But that is just me, and that is why this form of contemporary history is important: it takes a relevant context and places it through a lens, both past and present, where opinion has a significant shaping effect.

    • kwebberj says:

      I agree that it’s important to remember the cultural context. Even a show that seems (by modern standards) to have a very backwards representation of racial issues could have been the most progressive thing possible for the time period. Remembering that gives these pioneering shows the proper respect and opens up the potential for good public discussions.

  3. thankyouluke says:

    Awesome post Kate! I was particularly interested in how museums portray populations. One group that pops out in my mind is how American museums have treated Native Americans as a monolithic, primitive, and extinct group. I know museums are TRYING to be better intemperate Native American cultures, but its a slow and painful transition. Thanks for sparking the talking point!

    • kwebberj says:

      Thank you! I was thinking of the same issue when I wrote this–it’s hard to know when to give museums credit for the strides they’ve made with limited resources, and when to put your foot down when you see what you feel is an offensive portrayal of a group of people. I know it’s a tough issue, but it’s so important that we take it on.

      • kiewma93 says:

        Oh, this was my point too. What do we do to make sure that we give minorities their own voice in museum portrayals? I think it is a difficult question. NMAI tried to use community curators and still met a lot of controversy. While I love the idea of community curators, it is far from being a perfect cure-all and it is quite labor intensive. How could we improve upon that idea?

  4. kiewma93 says:

    I think it is quite interesting how museums and television have, historically and in contemporary times, decided to portray minorities. The way that museums have dealt with Native Americans has been quite unfair and not at all representative of their culture. While museums are taking steps to rectify this problem, it has not been an easy process. Television has not tried to push the proverbial envelope with Native American portrayals. What steps can we, as burgeoning professionals, take to insure that minorities are well represented in our institutions?

  5. hoffsm90 says:

    Representation is an extremely important topic. Whether you are talking about race, gender, disabilities, etc. representation in the media is crucial. Having an exhibition on this topic is such a great idea since it is so important and has such an impact on societal identity and reaction. However, we also have to think about how we represent in our our exhibits, programming, education, everything. How can we talk about the the issue of representation if we don’t do a good job of it? Too many museums still seem to miss out on representing minorities.

    • kwebberj says:

      Definitely. But as we saw in “Displays of Power,” representation and identity can be particularly difficult and controversial. I guess this is why partnerships and community participation are so important.

  6. I think it’s notable that the issues regarding race and police brutality in 1967 are the same issues we are dealing with today. Although it’s been 50 years (technically on the cusp between contemporary and historical), the lessons from Detroit are incredibly relevant today. Museums should not be afraid to talk about these connections through relating the past to current movements like BlackLivesMatter. As far as self-representation, I think that the oral histories the museum is collecting will help the museum share authority with the community and in turn, allow for self-representation.

    • kwebberj says:

      Tobi Voigt definitely had the same thought, Christine. On the one hand, it’s great that your content is so relevant to modern audiences, but on the other it’s incredibly frustrating that things haven’t improved more.

  7. emerbr84 says:

    Contemporary history offers a great way in which to discuss issues we face today. The living memory offers links that people have seen and see today. By discussing it we flesh out similarities, but can also show growth that society has gone through, if there is any.

  8. joshdtaylor says:

    Contemporary history is a tricky thing. On one hand they need to be talked about but on the other hand much of the public does not want to talk about it. It is a balancing act that museums have to walk in order to stay fresh while also keeping the doors open.

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