Smithsonian curators look for history in Freddie Gray unrest

Construction continues on the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum is to open in 2016.
Construction continues on the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum is to open in 2016. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

As Aaron Bryant walked along North Avenue on the night of Freddie Gray's funeral, his photographer's eye noted how the rising flames framed the "waves of police in riot gear" and the wall of ministers calling for calm.

Instinctively, the Baltimore man says, he began mentally cataloging the most evocative "visual cues" around him. He knew they would help inform his work chronicling the moment as a photography curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History & Culture, now under construction on the National Mall in Washington.


As he surveyed the unrest on the evening of April 27, Bryant asked himself a series of questions.

"Who's in the photograph and what is the impact they're having on the people around them?" asked Bryant, 50. "Why are they here? Why are these people in front? Who are the people behind them?"


Later, when colleague Tulani Salahu-Din looked at an image Bryant had snapped of a burning car on North Avenue, her eyes immediately zeroed in on a single object: the overturned bar stool in the front seat that had been used to smash the car's windshield.

In the bar stool, Salahu-Din saw an item the museum "might be able to salvage" in the days or months after the unrest, to help tell the human story of the clashes as part of a future exhibit.

"What did it mean to the person who threw it?" asked Salahu-Din, 55, a content development and three-dimensional object collection specialist at the museum. "What did it mean to the shopkeeper who lost it?"

As Bryant and Salahu-Din see it, the protests and unrest in Baltimore last month left an indelible mark on the conscience of a major American and historically African-American city — reason enough for a closer look by museum staff.

But they also see the events as part of a broader cultural force writ large across the African-American community nationwide, one that has spread from the Florida neighborhood where Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer to Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was shot by police.

They describe the Black Lives Matter movement as a modern manifestation of the civil rights struggle — and say it must be documented as such.

"We're bearing witness and documenting the events that are going on," said Salahu-Din, a former director of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore who lives in Owings Mills.

"Many of the issues focus on police brutality, but it's also bigger than that," she said. "It focuses also on the social, political and economic injustices that have been with us for quite some time."

"As a history museum, it's important for us within this moment to put it within a historical context," said Bryant, who grew up and still lives in the Forest Park neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore.

"Black Lives Matter is part of a continuum that has been a part of the African-American community, whether it's going back to the 1960s, looking at what happened in Watts [the Los Angeles neighborhood that erupted in riots in 1965] or in other cities across the country and even farther back," he said. "There are always going to be some social, economic ties or strings that connect what's happening today with what happened years ago."

The National Museum of African American History, which is rising slowly near the Washington Monument, is set to open late next year with about 80,000 square feet of floor space for exhibits on cultural themes such as music, theater and art; community themes such as regionalism, sports, military, faith and activism; and historical themes such as slavery and the struggle for freedom.

It will include space for events since 1968 — when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and riots broke out in cities across the country, including Baltimore.


Plans are for the post-1968 section to mention Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement without going into depth on the subject. But that could change.

Beyond the permanent exhibits, staff have been directed to take the pulse of the nation so as not to miss opportunities to collect important items from history as it unfolds.

Contemporary items could become part of temporary exhibits in the museum, inform academic publications, be featured on the museum's website or get wrapped into educational programs, said Bill Pretzer, the museum's senior curator for history.

As a child, Bryant often went to the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues, the center of the recent rioting. His mother worked for the city health department in an office there, and both his parents' family churches were nearby.

Salahu-Din was born in East Baltimore but moved to Salisbury as a child. She returned to Baltimore in 1977, attended and taught at Coppin State University, and directed the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue.

She also was a consultant on the design of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture in Baltimore.

Pretzer said Bryant's and Salahu-Din's connections to Baltimore will serve the new Smithsonian museum well — as will Baltimore's proximity to Washington.

"We have a close-by laboratory where we can look at the variety of things that are part and parcel of this larger moment, and we can examine it in some great detail because we have staff members who are so familiar with the community," Pretzer said. "One can imagine that we will end up doing a more thorough job of examining the events in Baltimore — both the short-term and long-term, just as we would try to do with [events in] Washington, D.C. — than we might with a city elsewhere."

The curators said they could not discuss items they are pursuing from the Baltimore events, in part because the Smithsonian maintains strict rules on collections. But they say they will be looking for all sorts of things — from mass-produced buttons and signs to items that tell a more personal story.

"We look for public expression," Pretzer said. "We look for artifacts that are evocative of events, so something that has emotional power, something that may have been attacked or destroyed, something that was damaged in the process."

They will also be looking for items that show "multiple points of view," he said, including those of law enforcement and government officials.

Salahu-Din wants artifacts that show "the dynamics of the people in the community," from the roles of women and men to the involvement of students.

She wants to show "the spirit of change" and the sense of hope that she says she felt on the corner of Pennsylvania and North on the day the six officers involved in Gray's arrest were charged.

Bryant hopes to capture the leadership role of young people and online activists.

"They weren't the head of some big national organization, but they had a camera phone, and that allowed them to create a different kind of mobilization," he said. "We're starting to see a maturation of that today, which is another reason why Ferguson and Baltimore are historically significant."


The curators are encouraging anyone interested in donating items from Baltimore's protests or unrest to fill out an object donation form for museum staff to review at nmaahc.si.edu/Collections/Acquisitions.



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