Letters to the Museum

Courageous Work

Dear Dr. Pilgrim,

I write to thank you and your staff, especially Lisa Kemmis. First, thank you for the warm welcome and hospitality you provided during my recent visit-and at very short notice. But thank you even more for the vital, challenging, pertinent, and courageous work you are doing collecting and curating the popular culture of racism.

I've been trying to find the right words to describe what it was like to visit the museum, and the best I've come up with is "a guided tour across the rim of a well of insanity." And that tour is guided well. The intelligence and enthusiasm of the staff, the rhythm of the spaces and the relationship between them, the arrangement of the documents and objects in the cases, and the dizzying variety of, well, stuff not only provided me a far deeper understanding of the culture of anti-black racism, but a richly textured experience of the sordid pleasures that helped sustain-and continue to sustain-that culture. I was particularly struck by the experience of walking through the reproduction of the entrance to the Coon Chicken Inn and then encountering an old-fashioned kitchen, its surfaces groaning with the bric-a-brac of everyday hatred. By highlighting the enormity, banality, and ubiquity of racist objects, juxtaposing those objects with their real effects on human beings, and by framing them with intelligent commentary, you avoid the dangers that some scholars claim must necessarily accompany any collection of racist memorabilia. Truly one of the most intelligent, perceptive, and high-impact uses of museum layout and display that I've encountered.

I plan to visit again within the year, this time with time, money, and equipment to better utilize the experience for my scholarly projects. This time, I'll let you know well in advance. In the meantime, I have been strongly inspired by the visit and will be referencing the museum in three publications. I am in touch with TDR, the leading performance studies journal, to write a review of the museum, focusing on the affective and bodily experience of negotiating the space. I will be incorporating reflections on the collection and the larger issue of racist commodities in the introduction to the lead essay in my book, The Black Arts Movement: Collected Essays. And I'm developing an essay called "The Avant-Garde of Kitsch" which will further develop work on the subject, but focusing on contemporary white supremacist and anti-Obama culture. I think you're getting the point: I find your work exciting and significant, and I want to make use of it and get the word out.

Please let me know other ways that I might publicize your work and further the mission of the museum. I learned a lot and I would value the opportunity to help others do so, too.

Sincerely,

Mike Sell
Professor
Graduate Program in Literature and Criticism
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

-- July 18, 2013
Posted September 3, 3013

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