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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

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