A Tale of Three Museums
Last July’s Dismantling White Supremacy Culture resource was the story of a visit to Bryan Stevenson’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Rev. Lucas Hergert of the North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, Illinois, wrote about how the North Shore youth had led the way in the anti-racism and justice work of that congregation. In this case, that leadership included a memorable trip to the Legacy Museum.
Last October, the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) Fall Con was also in Alabama. The conference included a daytrip from Birmingham to Montgomery for a visit to the Legacy Museum—a trip that I, as an attendee, made sure to be part of. Like the North Shore youth group, I found visiting the Legacy Museum to be an extraordinary experience, one I would highly recommend to those seeking “a one-of-a-kind opportunity to investigate America's history of racial injustice and its legacy.”
Last month, while the MidAmerica Region staff group met in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, I found that one doesn’t need to travel outside of the region to have a similarly profound experience. Several of us took advantage of being close to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, located inside the city's Midtown Cultural Center. Once again, I benefited from a meeting schedule that made room to explore a culturally significant site for African American history.
The main permanent exhibit at the museum, And Still We Rise, “a 22,000-square foot exhibition [with] more than 20 galleries that allow patrons to travel over time and across geographic boundaries,” especially impressed and deeply moved me. There, I encountered the museum’s “riveting, lifelike exhibits” that span the “cradle of human life” in Africa to “the tragedy of the Middle Passage to the heroism of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.” For me, the most challenging part was the exhibit recreating a Middle Passage slave ship’s living quarters.
Passing through those living quarters, hardly more than a cargo hold, I was struck by the contrast between the reality it represented and that of an exhibit I had seen at another museum, also located in the MidAmerica. Menno-Hof is a non-profit information center in Shipshewana, Indiana, I visited once with my spouse’s family during a trip to our home state. One exhibit recreates a 17th century sailing ship, including the living quarters of families who emigrated from Northern Europe to North America.
When I saw the Menno-Hof exhibit, I thought that though the living quarters were cramped, they were cozy. I know the Anabaptist ancestors of the Mennonites experienced many hardships when they came to this country, but their reality included beds, blankets, and pillows. The contrast between those living quarters and the living quarters of a Middle Passage slave ship couldn’t be starker. Experiencing cultures other than your own is key to developing cultural competency. I’ve learned that visiting culturally significant places like the Legacy Museum, the Museum of African American History, and even Menno-Hof, is a memorable way to do so.