Field Tripping: Lewis Museum Redux-ing

One of the great things that happens when someone close to you dies is that you find out that a whole bunch of people love you and wish they could make it better, even though everybody knows that's impossible, because the only thing that makes it better is time, and nobody's figured out how to make it move any faster, and grief-time is even slower than regular time. But people can help fill it with stuff. Rachael sent an Edible Arrangement, Sarah sent gold stars and a coloring book, and Valeska left a fancy dessert on my doorstep. Jodie made enchiladas, Olivia sent flowers, Christine and Josh sent a puzzle, Amy texted pictures, and Sarah brought over a king cake—so many kindnesses, big and small, getting me through the last six months.

People further along the grief road have told me that six months isn't long, that the waves of grief are bigger than this small chunk of time, and I'm sure they're right. But right now, six months feels pretty good, considering. I can concentrate long enough to read multiple pages in a book and go for a bike ride somewhere beautiful without bursting into tears at the fact that I can't call my dad and tell him what I'm seeing. Being open to grief means being open to the moments when it isn't the most present thing and the present feels, well, good.


But there are still the moments when it feels terrible. A few columns ago I wrote about one such moment, on a tour of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. I found myself crying in the museum, lamenting the ways grief has muted my curiosity, depression flattening out my usual exuberance at learning new things. It sucks to miss yourself. It's passing—I've already seen it pass through and return—but knowing that doesn't make it any less of a bummer.

After that column came out I got another kindness, this time from Helen Yuen, marketing manager of the Lewis Museum. She emailed me to see if I might like to come back for a private tour of the newest exhibit with the curator himself, maybe that would be a balm for that rough feeling I had on that earlier visit to the museum. What a kindness! Sure, it's her job to get folks to talk about the museum in public, but it was too nice an offer for me to let cynicism take over. I decided to say yes enthusiastically and schedule a visit, and this past Tuesday found me riding my bike through the wet haze of a Baltimore summer afternoon to learn about their new exhibit: "Now, That's Cool."

I rolled up to the museum and locked up to a street sign next to the Flag House Museum on Pratt Street; Little Italy is a bike rack desert, I tell you. I was early, so I chilled on a bench in the Flag House courtyard and bragged about my good fortune on The Facebook and waited for 25 minutes to pass. I then headed around to the back entrance to buzz in, sign in, show my ID, and wait for Helen to come fetch me. She was finishing up with a few press people and then it was my turn. She escorted me upstairs, and introduced me to the Lewis's newest curator, Charles Bethea.

We started at the start of things—not the museum, but with our own interest in this stuff. Bethea started visiting museums as soon as he was tall enough to turn the D.C. Metro turnstiles; my first history museum was the Idaho Historical Museum. That place has a two-headed taxidermied calf, a recreated blacksmith shop, and a regrettable Chinatown exhibit. Bethea cut his teeth on better stuff, but wherever we come from, we're both interested in history, and more than that, the ways we interpret history now. History happened, Bethea said, but what we think it means keeps on changing.

This is Bethea's first curated exhibition. There's a display case featuring two original carte de visite of Frederick Douglass—"Maryland's native son." That characterization always makes me a bit nervous, because Douglass hated Maryland. Sure, it's where he learned to read and where he returned, in 1892, to build rental housing for black people, but Maryland was the state where he was enslaved. That's hardly "home," even if now Maryland wants to claim him as more than somebody's private property.

The interpretive signage told me that Douglass was the "most photographed African American of his time" largely because Douglass was interested in the science and art of photography. Whenever he was in a new town he would track down a photographer to take his picture, and his picture circulated widely as his personality grew larger. "One has to wonder what his life would be like if he lived during today's age of celebrity paparazzi and 'selfies' on social media," the signage concluded.

And that gave me pause. What would his life have been like if he could have taken selfies? Seriously? I asked Bethea if he was at all concerned that people might take offense at the lighthearted nature of this interpretation. Nope, he said. Maybe some will be taken aback by it, but the point of the exhibit is to shift people's perspectives and help visitors make new connections between past and present. And it did that for me—shifted my perspective just so and reminded me that Douglass was a complex person, not just an icon. He was a guy who was really into photography—Now, that's cool. Bethea then showed me an old door from Druid Hill Park that announced it was for white men only, a broadside taken out by the family of Maryland's first governor offering a $40 reward for the return of an enslaved person they owned, and a number of other artifacts on view for the very first time. The exhibit's open to the public now, and I wonder if everybody will think this stuff is "cool." I hope everyone checks it out so we can share what I expect will be some very different interpretations.