Preserving Hateful Objects
A: Great question, Rosemarie. I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I continue to navigate my own relationship with the collection. As Collections Manager, my role is to care for the objects to make sure they last as teaching tools into the future. My duties include the documentation, digitization, and preservation management of the collection. Currently, we have around 20,000 individual objects in the collection, which is growing at a significant rate every year.
People donate artifacts to the museum knowing that we take our roles as stewards seriously. However, on a personal level, it can be challenging to reconcile my responsibilities with the original purpose or history of the object. Demonstrating tender care to things that have been used to hurt, oppress, dehumanize, and harm other human beings is difficult.
I do not like the objects; however, I see them as valuable documents of our history as Americans and worthy of preservation. As a steward of material culture, I have a duty to make sure they are protected in our facility. I strive to treat a saltshaker with the same professional courtesy as I do a painting or sculpture.
I don’t think I can give you a definitive answer on how I feel about caring for this collection. However, I can tell you that I do not like what the objects represent; I do not like how they have harmed (and continue to harm) fellow humans; I do not like handling them with tender care knowing the role they played in perpetuating a system of racism. Our collection is unique, and therefore our relationship with the collection is very different when compared to other museums.
The collection represents a period of our history that we cannot repeat, that we need to learn from, and that must not be forgotten. I hope that by caring for these objects, I can use my work for good - albeit with hurtful ‘tools’ - to further our mission and make the world a better place.
Jim Crow Museum