-Written by Erin Burke ’18
This summer I was fortunate to have the opportunity to intern for the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum (NAHOFM), located in Peterboro, NY. NAHOFM is a non-profit museum that explores the history of American abolition by offering exhibitions, guided tours, educational programs, and special events. NAHOFM’s main historical exhibition spans from antislavery agitation in the Colonial period to the Reconstruction amendments that granted African Americans citizenship and African American men the right to vote. Although NAHOFM is a museum that ostensibly deals with the past, NAHOFM interprets the history of abolition to be living history that continues up to the present day. NAHOFM thinks beyond abolition and questions what legal equality really entailed and entails. In the period following Reconstruction, the establishment of Jim Crow, poll taxes, and the KKK sought to deprive African Americans of their rights and restore white supremacy; today, institutional racism and a resurgence of racist politics continue to oppress Black Americans. NAHOFM’s mission statement reflects their commitment to sharing the past in order to question the present and imagine a better future: “The National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum honors antislavery abolitionists, their work to end slavery, and strives to complete the second and ongoing abolition: the moral conviction to end racism.”
Currently, NAHOFM wishes to work more on the final part of their mission statement – the moral conviction to end racism. In the wake of an election that emboldened and even celebrated intolerance, the members of NAHOFM have recommitted themselves to understanding and combatting racism and they hope to become more of an activist museum. This activism will manifest itself through more programs and installations that explicitly connect the political, economic, and social inequities of slavery to their modern-day legacies.
This summer, I am responsible for moving the museum further in this activist direction. I have been tasked with designing an installation that helps visitors understand implicit racism. Implicit biases are attitudes that shape cognition and therefore behavior, but unlike explicit attitudes, escape conscious control. These implicit biases are generally shaped by societal factors, such as media and stereotypes, beginning at a young and impressionable age. Although explicit beliefs override implicit biases in most situations, implicit biases often win out when one is stressed, tired, multi-tasking, or has to act quickly. Implicit racism is a complex issue, as it is possible for a person to be explicitly egalitarian and yet implicitly biased against people of color. Understanding implicit racism is key to understanding and countering racial injustice today, as although explicitly racist statements and actions have declined significantly in the past 40 years, racial injustice persists.
The installation I design will be a part of NAHOFM’s upcoming exhibition at the New York State Fair. Although the final form of this installation has yet to be decided, it will likely compose of an activity that helps visitors see how media images are often racist in ways that can escape immediate attention and yet nevertheless reinforce negative stereotypes about people of color. This activity works to combat implicit racism because the first step to mitigating the effects of one’s implicit biases is to understand implicit bias and how this bias is formed. This activity will jumpstart this process of awareness because it reveals to visitors a major source of implicit biases: media representations. This activity will also generate a conversation about race while avoiding targeting people individually, which can often lead to a defensive response.
This internship has been an enriching experience, both experientially and existentially. As a history major and museum studies minor, this internship has enabled me to gain more museum experience that will be invaluable as I head to the University of Glasgow for my Masters in Museum Education this September. Not only do I regularly welcome visitors and lead tours, I have also learned how historical material can be mobilized and made relevant to current social issues, such as racism. Museums are not dusty repositories or irrelevant places lost somewhere in the past. They are places of impassioned discussion, places where differences can be bridged (or at least slightly mended). Existentially, this internship has reenergized me with feelings of efficacy. I have struggled in this political moment, knowing my convictions, wondering how to live them. It is often uncomfortable or frustrating to have conversations about race, especially when these conversations so often devolve into shouting matches in Facebook comments. However, in a country where police brutality still disproportionately affects young, Black men; in a country where the Ku Klux Klan has reemerged with a vengeance; in a country that is more concerned with respect of the National Anthem than respect for the rights and freedoms it’s supposed to represent – silence is violence. At NAHOF, it becomes clear that the past is demanding something of us – to finish what the abolitionists started.