Spoiling Public Spaces: Exhibiting Racist Artifacts in a Public Museum

A lecture by David Pilgrim, the fourth presentation in the Winter 2007 lecture series, Exhibiting Controversy: From Mapplethorpe to “Body Worlds” and Beyond.

Using The Jim Crow Museum as an example, David Pilgrim will discuss the challenges and controversies involved in displaying racist objects in a museum. The Jim Crow Museum is a collection of more than 4,000 objects primarily, though not exclusively, objects that fall into these categories: segregation memorabilia, anti-Blacks caricatured objects, and white supremacy items. The museum uses these objects to teach about historical and contemporary patterns of race relations. These artifacts are, obviously, offensive to many visitors and necessitate that they be placed in the proper historical, social, and cultural contexts. This session will discuss the strategies used to display the objects in a manner that maximizes their potential as “teaching tools,” without trivializing or sensationalizing their offensiveness. Among the que! stions posed are these: “Are there items–for example, lynching postcards–that are too offensive to display?” “Should children be allowed to visit the museum and, if so, what conditions should surround their visit?” “What pre-visit preparation and post-visit debriefing should occur?”

David Pilgrim bought his first racist object when he was 12 or 13 in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. After he bought the cheap Mammy saltshaker from the antique dealer, he threw it to the ground and shattered it. Pilgrim continued to buy racist objects throughout college, graduate school, and beyond, even though he found the objects disturbing to have around his house. In the 1990s, Pilgrim donated his collection to Ferris State University where he is a sociologist. His only condition was that the collection be displayed and preserved. Currently, Dr. Pilgrim is a professor in the Social Sciences Department and the founder, primary donor and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University where, in addition to his academic responsibilities, he is responsible for collecting, researching, and displaying the artifacts in the museum. In 2006, he co-curated a traveling exhibit, “Them: Images of Separation,” that focuses on the oppression of women, Mexicans, Jews, Asians, and poor whites.