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Friday, August 28, 2015

Collecting Katrina at the National Museum of American History

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the major devastation it wreaked.  It formed as Tropical Depression Twelve over the southeastern Bahamas on August 23, 2005, but became Tropical Storm Katrina the following morning, then a full-fledged hurricane on August 25. Katrina gained Category 5 status on August 28, although it weakened to a Category 3 by its second landfall on August 29.  Continuing as a Category 3 hurricane for its third landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi border, its winds were measured at 120 mph.

Many deaths and catastrophic flooding occurred in New Orleans due to the notorious failure of the levee system, in addition to the damage caused by the hurricane itself.  National Museum of American History curator David Shayt visited Louisiana after the storm to collect objects for the Museum that helped tell the human story of the disaster.  (See Erin Blasco’s blog about his collecting activity.)  He and his team concentrated not only on New Orleans, but the entire Gulf Coast area.

Hurricane Katrina’s horrendous legacy could be seen along the Gulf Coast from central Florida to Texas.  Severe property damage occurred along the coast, especially Mississippi beachfront areas, where more than 90% of the towns were flooded.  Vicksburg resident and free-lance photographer Melody Golding served as a Red Cross volunteer in the aftermath of the hurricane.  Transporting relief supplies as well as her camera to the battered Mississippi Gulf Coast, she began keeping a photographic journal of the days following the storm.  After her initial wrenching exposure to the ruined buildings and landscapes and suffering storm victims, and concerned that the New Orleans catastrophe was becoming the primary symbol of Katrina, she set out to document the devastation in her home state thoroughly, and ended up devoting a full year to her self-assigned project.
Melody Golding.  See-Through House, Katrina, Gulf Coast, Mississippi, 2005.  Gift of the artist.  From the Melody Golding Katrina Photographic Documentation Project, 2005, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Although Ms. Golding photographed all aspects of the disaster in both still photographs and video, some special themes emerged.  She was particularly attuned to the sufferings of women whose homes and lives were directly affected by Katrina, and interviewed and photographed them in their deeply altered circumstances.  From these photographs an exhibition and a book were developed, both entitled “Katrina: Mississippi Women Remember.”  The exhibition was shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, and as a national traveling exhibition sponsored in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council.  Among the women she met during her project, she took a special interest in artists, and royalties from the sale of her book are aiding artists from the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Photographic prints from the Katrina project have been acquired by private and institutional collectors, but by 2008 Ms. Golding was anxious to place her entire Katrina archive, including original negatives, in a public repository in order to focus her energies on other photographic projects.  She invited me to meet her and see her exhibition in November 2008, while it was on display at Mississippi College.  I was deeply impressed with her artistry, sensitivity, and humanity, and the quality of the photographs both as documentary evidence and as works of art.  I have to resist the urge to say I was “blown away,” but I thought this project well deserved to be collected in its entirety.

Fortuitously, my Archives Center colleague Craig Orr was able to pick up the exhibition photographs from her home in Vicksburg while he was already on official travel for other purposes, and she later delivered her original negatives, contact prints, and other components of the project, including visitor comments from people who viewed her exhibition.  This remarkable, comprehensive archive, combined with the objects collected by David Shayt and others, gives the Museum a rich record of this monumental event, which will undoubtedly remain one of the most significant natural disasters in twenty-first century American history.  We hope it will never be exceeded in power and scope.
Melody Golding.  Smashed House, Katrina, Gulf Coast, Mississippi, 2005.  Silver gelatin print.  Gift of the artist.  From the Melody Golding Katrina Photographic Documentation Project, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
The Archives Center remains indebted to Ms. Golding for her thoughtful and important gift, and I certainly concur with her rationale for selecting us as the repository for her Katrina photographs and documents.  On one hand, she reasoned that Katrina was far more than a regional event: it was national and international news that captivated Americans for days and weeks, then months, so she felt that the collection deserved a national institution for its home—although a Mississippi institution also would have been appropriate.  In addition, as an advocate for her home state, she suggested that Mississippi might not be adequately represented in the national collections and that her coverage of Katrina would partially remedy that.  I don’t intend to establish anything resembling a state or regional quota system for representation in Archives Center photographic collections, but her point was well taken. We do need to strive for regional and state diversity in our collecting if we are truly a museum of American History.  Melody Golding’s most recent gift portrays a fascinating and far more pleasant aspect of Mississippi history—to be described later.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Heartland Activists

The Bil Browning and Jerame Davis Papers (Collection AC1334) are among some of the newer acquisitions of the Archives Center in the National Museum of American History. Mostly unassuming and full of things that would not look out of place pinned up to a corkboard above a desk, it will indubitably become a valuable resource to historians of the LGBT rights movement.

When we think of LGBT activism, our thoughts turn to the overcrowded streets where televised Pride parades and festivals are held in cities along the east and west coasts. Yet, Bil Browning and Jerame Davis both hail from two small, largely obscure towns in rural Indiana. Their collection – which is comprised of various documents, photographs, home videos, and even a scrapbook – provides a rare glimpse into LGBT activism as it unfolded in the Midwestern United States and the struggles that accompanied it.
Photograph by Perry Bidelf.  Left to right: Phil Reese, Anthony Niedwiecki, Wayman Hudson, Bil Browning, and Jerame Davis at National Equality March, 11 October 2009.
From the Bil Browning and Jerame Davis Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

I had the rare opportunity to speak with Browning and Davis about the materials they had donated to the Archives Center. While my primary objective was to have them identify photographs that were lacking names or dates, I was also able to talk to them about the events depicted in their collection. It was one thing to spend my day processing the photos and documents, pulling individual papers out of their messy arrangements in cardboard boxes and then sorting them into crisp legal folders. It was another thing entirely to sit down and talk face-to-face with the people who lived the events that I was merely a spectator to, ten or twenty-some-odd years after they took place.

It’s impossible for thoughts to be conveyed through static items, so my interview managed to add a distinctly human element to a process that evokes, at some times, a sense of disconnect. In our discussion, I heard about the discrimination lawsuit that catapulted Davis into activism, and in his own words, “changed the course of [his] life”, listened to Browning discuss his experience running his blog, The Bilerico Project, and learned about why the two of them wanted to include anti-LGBT materials in their collection (the answer to that, as I learned from Davis, was that “future generations need to know all the nasty, horrible things those [expletive deleted] said about us”).

My conversation with the two LGBT activists was truly an incredible experience and helped to flesh out the collection more so than it had already been. I hope that future historians, researchers, and even the general public, will one day take advantage of the rich materials within it and educate themselves about the struggles that members of the LGBT community have faced and continue to face on their journey to achieve equality.

Sara Dorfman, Intern, NMAH Archives Center

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Robert Scurlock's Street Scenes of Black Washington

During my time looking through the many photographs that comprise the Scurlock Studio Records collection in the NMAH Archives Center, one of my colleagues, Aysha Preston, also a research fellow, showed me a set of photographs Robert Scurlock took of seemingly candid scenes of young black children playing in the streets of Washington D.C. My interest in street photography drew me to these images, ranging from depictions of children playing in the water, to four black boys posing in front of a graffiti-filled cement wall. Although my area of focus for my dissertation research is in adult-age black men living in America’s urban environments, Robert Scurlock’s photographs encouraged me to think about the portrayal of black childhood in places of urban decay. The photographs beg the viewer to think about the kinds of effects living in disadvantaged neighborhoods can bear on those who are still in the process of growing and learning about themselves and their relationship to the world. The children Scurlock captures in this series might not have had a full understanding of the complex systems around them that played a role in their families’ hardships.
1.  Robert S. Scurlock.  Untitled, Washington, D.C., ca. 1970.  Chromogenic print.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
What these photographs taught me was the dynamism of the Scurlock Collection. While the collection is illustrative of the important racial uplift projects that advanced civil rights for blacks—particularly those of the early 20th century—Robert Scurlock’s street photography partakes in a somewhat different agenda: to display the harsh realities of black life.
2.  Robert S. Scurlock.  Untitled, Washington, D.C., ca. 1970.  Chromogenic pirnt.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

In the images Addison Scurlock’s son captures, black children are not propped and dressed up for a studio portrait like in Figure 3. Contrarily, as Figure 2 shows, the children are captured right in the middle of their mundane activities. An important research question I had while examining this photograph was the purpose behind Robert Scurlock’s artistic choice to capture scenes of urban decay through the experiences of black children. In Figure 2, four small black boys are playing with several dogs right in the middle of trash. The boys are in front of a row of dilapidated houses. The composition of the photograph heightens the dreary images of the rowhomes—my focus started at the foreground of the photograph and jumped back from house to house. Each house in the photograph is in disrepair, and the viewer is almost overwhelmed by the endless rows of homes in obvious states of decay. Your eyes travel from the cheerful, curious boys to the vanishing point where the two lines of row houses meet; your eyes are not given a break from the pattern of squalor in the image.

Addison N. Scurlock, photographer.  Cellulose acetate photonegative.  Undated but probably ca. 1910-1920.
Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

The houses, combined with the trash and the seemingly wet streets, make the landscape very unsettling to observe. As a viewer, you are almost disgusted by what you see, particularly how the trash seems to encircle the boys and the dogs they are playing with. What heightens this discomfort for me as a viewer is the juxtaposition of the landscape with the cheerful pose of the boy in the center of the group, wearing a bright orange shirt. The shirt’s color grabs the viewer’s attention, along with his playful display of arm muscles.

As a viewer, I wonder what was going through the mind of these four boys as they posed before Robert Scurlock’s camera. They seem unabashed as they stand innocently with their dogs, despite the scenes of abandonment that encircle them. As I continue looking at the photographs, I have yet to reach a conclusion about the message being conveyed: are these images of sadness, meant to garner pity for the black underclass? Or is Scurlock capturing the paradox that is deeply embedded in black culture, strength amidst suffering? At this point, I see the interplay of both of narratives in these street photographs.

Lucy Mensah
Graduate Fellow, National Museum of American History

Ph.D. Candidate, English, Vanderbilt University
Graduate Fellow, NMAH Archives Center