Correcting the Record
Changing attitudes are pushing cultural brands to rethink how they commemorate the past
“It’s hard for an individual — or a country — to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.”
- Michelle Norris
In April 2018, National Geographic published The Race Issue, a special issue of the magazine. Susan Goldberg, the publication’s Editor-in-Chief, contributed a piece of her own titled For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It. She discussed the findings of historian John Edwin Mason, who was tasked by National Geographic with exploring the magazine’s coverage of people of color in the U.S. and abroad. Goldberg concluded her own recounting of those findings with a call to action for readers to continue to explore the legacy of racism in this country, no matter the difficulty, and followed by sharing Michelle Norris’ quote from her own article in the special issue.
As defined by Merriam-Webster, to commemorate is ‘to call to remembrance’ or ‘to mark by some ceremony or observation.’ For nearly a century-and-a-half, National Geographic has done just that, documenting science, geography, history and culture. It has done this not only for immediate consumption, but to help future generations understand the past. While we’d like to assume these efforts were always well-intentioned, The Race Issue calls out the fact that the process was flawed. The issue is a mea culpa that acknowledges past mistakes and declares the contemporary staff’s intention to proceed more mindfully and considerately. But it is also an act of commemoration that offers a more transparent and holistic view of stories that were incomplete.
In the past, commemorative tools were used to enshrine a particular version of history. More recently, we’ve started to see an effort to create commemorations that help paint a more panoramic picture. This changeover has been especially striking at monuments and museums, places that have historically been regarded, not always a fault of their own, as offering the be-all and end-all narratives of their subjects. Instead of telling a story or perspective of history, they were perceived as telling the story. Today, cultural brands are rethinking what it means to commemorate.
In the same month that National Geographic’s Race Issue was published, two new cultural sites opened in Montgomery, AL, a city with a deep history of racial injustice that played a major role in the civil rights movement. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, highlights this history through exhibits on slavery, mass imprisonment and unjust executions. Nearby, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice serves as a monument to victims of the nearly 4,000 lynchings that took place across 800 American counties.
Says Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the driving force behind both of these projects: “I became focused on cultural spaces for people to deal honestly with the past. We’ve done a terrible job in America of talking honestly about slavery and segregation.”
The just-opened Statue of Liberty Museum is also trying to bring honesty and clarity to the greater cultural conversation, this time by recontextualizing one of the world’s most iconic monuments. Built to tell a comprehensive history of Lady Liberty, the museum has a refreshingly transparent approach. Wrote Julia Jacobs in the NYT:
“Recognizing the need to focus on more than just the vague and often dubious ideal of American ‘liberty,’ the museum’s designers highlight the doubts of black Americans and women who saw their personal liberties compromised on a daily basis in the 1880s, when the statue opened.”
Indeed, even the most iconic sites that have come to symbolize one clear idea are often much more complex. As American University professor Alan M. Kraut puts it: “It’s an incomplete message in a lot of ways. Liberty was denied to many, many people when the statue was first being conceived.”
In order to help us learn from past transgressions, our monuments and other commemorative sites need to tell more complete stories — both individually and as a general principle. For its part, New York City is making a concerted effort to heighten the awareness of people and movements that have gone overlooked for too long. Last year it announced a new initiative, She Built NYC, to address the absence of women in public art and monuments. At the time the program was announced, only six out of New York’s 150 statues depicting historic figures were of women. She Built NYC aims to increase that ratio to 50%.
The first five of statues commissioned by project are being installed in each of the five boroughs: Rep. Shirley Chisholm (Brooklyn), Billie Holiday (Queens), Elizabeth Jennings Graham (Manhattan), Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías (Bronx), and Katherine Walker (Staten Island). A sixth monument was announced this month to honor transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, placed down the street from the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Not only is this particular monument a step forward in the representation of women in New York, it also expands the way that gender is represented in the city’s commemorative landscape. “[The LGBTQ movement] was portrayed very much as a white, gay male movement,” says the city’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. “This monument counters that trend of whitewashing the history.”
People are no longer looking towards museums, monuments, or other commemorative places for a one-sided take on history. In a pluralistic society, demand is growing for wider views on historical events — views that include multiple accounts and allow us to form our own conclusions. For cultural brands looking to attract new visitors, this is an opportunity: a chance to create a more diverse future for their institutions by widening perspectives on the past.