The New Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Refuses to Sugarcoat History

The New Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Refuses to Sugarcoat History

In the average art museum such features would feel unacceptably over-the-top. But this is a different kind of museum. Organized by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History under its director, Katie Blount, it is clearly designed for a digital-age audience, one accustomed to synthesizing a controlled chaos of words and images. And it’s a museum that privileges truth-telling, messy facts over clean-cut aesthetics. Fine art museums have a lot to learn from its example.

At least one, the Mississippi Museum of Art, has already taken up the challenge. The museum’s biennial show is a lesson in how objects from across eras, cultures and genres can be brought together to yield both ethical awareness and visual allure.

The curator, Jochen Wierich, bridges the two straightforwardly. Setting Native American objects beside 19th-century paintings of European colonists with Indians cowering at their feet serves as a reminder — no label needed — that racial violence was a New World tradition here far in advance of African slavery. At the same time, an exhibition often startling in its political candor — I can’t imagine anything like it at the Metropolitan Museum — isn’t afraid to dwell on the region’s very real beauties, embodied by an 1823 Mississippi landscape painting by John James Audubon, or in a 1934 photograph of three chicly dressed African-American women on a Saturday stroll in Grenada, a city about 100 miles northeast of Jackson.

The photograph was taken by Eudora Welty, who worked as a photographer before she published her first short stories. As a pair, her witty picture and the idyllic Audubon landscape correspond pretty closely to my vision of “South” before the summer of 1964. As it turned out, this wasn’t a vision that Welty shared.

Only years later did I read her 1963 short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” Produced in a white heat just hours after she learned of the Evers shooting, it’s a first-person narrative set inside the assassin’s mind. Years later, Welty recalled, “What I was writing about really was that world of hate I felt I had grown up with, and I felt I could speak as someone who knew it.”

Welty died in 2001. I never did meet her, but recently, in Jackson, I visited her home, now a museum, and closed a circle in my memory. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum offers no closure. The story it tells is still in progress: from 1960s Jackson, to Ferguson, Mo., Charlottesville, Va., and the 2017 White House. That the new museum says this outright, and leaves us upset, its story unresolved, is what makes it work. We don’t need our museums — any of them — to calm us down; we need them to sound alarms.

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