To coincide with our March 2017 special issue on Reconstruction, we interviewed Nancy Bercaw, curator of the Slavery and Freedom exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Dr. Bercaw contributed to our roundtable discussion on how Reconstruction is represented in public history contexts. In this interview she discusses the challenges, surprises, and pitfalls she encountered while preparing these exhibits, and she also provides some timely advice for those interested in pursuing museum studies.
What were some of the challenges of telling the story of Reconstruction at the Museum of African American History and Culture? How did curators address those challenges?
Perhaps the greatest challenge we faced was how to maintain the complexity of the Reconstruction era without overwhelming the visitor. From teaching, I knew that students get lost in the twists and turns of Reconstruction and drown in legal acts and proclamations. The result is that they can’t see the forest for the trees. We addressed this by using physical space to our advantage. We set the legislative acts on a wall that literally faces another wall that explores the variety of African American expressions of freedom. Then we were careful to make sure each wall referred to the other. The ungodly violence was more difficult to convey. So we made a media piece filled with voices and images from the period to give force and movement to the period.
Do you have any sense of how visitors react to the parts of the exhibits that deal with emancipation, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow? What questions do they have? What surprises them?
Perhaps the biggest surprise for many visitors is that emancipation was the result of African American thought and action. People are used to the Lincoln story or the fact that “the nation” waged a war against slavery. They see this as inevitable. So when they see the story through the African American lens they understand that the demise of slavery was far from inevitable, far from complete, and that it took thought, action, and political ingenuity. They are also taken aback that African American men held elected office after the Civil War and that so many homes, businesses, and institutions were built in this period. Jim Crow is less of a surprise.
In light of new developments like the museum, the new Reconstruction Era National Monument, and public commemorations of the Memphis Massacre, do you think it’s increasingly possible to talk about Reconstruction in public life today?
I certainly hope so. I certainly see it referred to more on social media and in the press. That being said, we have a long way to go. I think most Americans have no idea what Reconstruction was. We hope to use social media and our website to provide a public forum for debates that are largely confined to academic discussion and social activism.
Many people have drawn connections between Reconstruction and our current moment. What do you personally think is the best, most historically honest way to make those connections and tell that story? What are the stakes when we do so, and what are the potential pitfalls?
I think the pitfalls lie in telling any story that makes history seem cyclical, inevitable, or unchanging. This shapes the way I make connections between past and present. I have really appreciated using the concept of afterlives—a sedimentary vision of history—to display past and present. We can do this in a three-dimensional medium through juxtaposition and repetition. For example, when you enter our history galleries you can see down three levels with the Edisto Island slave house on the first floor and the Jim Crow railcar and the Angola prison guard tower on the second floor. You can see the passage of time but you can also see (quite literally) the past in the present.
You moved from being a history professor to being a museum curator. What are some of the biggest differences between the two jobs? How is writing history different from producing it in a museum?
What I have found so delightful and satisfying is how the two careers really work well together. At the University of Mississippi, I was responsible for teaching survey classes that were often quite large. Lectures, therefore, were inevitable. It turns out that this is quite valuable experience for putting together a museum exhibition. For one thing, you are always concerned about your audience. How can you invite them into a topic? How can you make it useful, engaging, and relevant? How can you leave spaces for them to put together the material themselves and own it? Finally, I really enjoyed surveys because you take a large and complex topic and break it down in such a way that it remains complex, but knowable. Exhibitions work the same way. You are faced with a vast array of material and stories (such as U.S. History to 1865). Then you consider your overarching goal. After you gain clarity on that, you construct “units” (or in the case of an exhibition “sections”) that deepen and challenge that thesis. You provide tools for your audience to make sense of and test your assumptions.
What kinds of work experience did you have, prior to going to the museum, that made it possible for you to get a position as a curator? What advice would you give to graduate students in history and other people interested in making a similar transition?
My experience is very dated in many ways. There was no pathway into the museum field in the 1980s. In college, I kind of felt my way through it and studied history, art history, and literature. I kept looking for history with a life in it. Today that would be in a studies program but they really weren’t developed much in my day. So I became a history major. When I told my advisor that I wanted to work in museums, he was disappointed with me. I am not sure he took me seriously after that. But I was pretty determined so I found my own way. When I graduated from college I lived at home, worked, and saved money and then applied for an internship at the Smithsonian. Against all odds, that turned into a temporary job where I worked on the Inventory Team, then as a museum technician, and finally as a research assistant for Gary Kulik, the Chair of History and Culture. Over those three years, I got pretty restless because I wanted to be more creative and do history. But only curators could do that. And to be a curator, I was told, you had to have a PhD. So I applied to the Department of American Civilization at Penn which had a strong program for material culture and Southern history, and remarkable scholars in African American Studies. After being credentialed in this way, I again felt the pressure to conform and became a professor rather than a curator. It turns out this was great experience. I taught at Rhodes College and at the University of Mississippi, got tenure and all that and then got restless again. I was working on a book about museums and the reconstruction of race when a job came open at the Smithsonian. I jumped at the opportunity. I think my restlessness paid off in the end. Every deviation from the straight path gave me experience I could build on later.
As far as advice to others? Make sure to study material culture and think about it seriously as a form of evidence. A PhD is helpful but not always necessary. Teaching, either formally or informally, is critical. Don’t take “no” for an answer and slough off disrespect. Jobs and job descriptions may define you and define your value, but life’s too short to let that stop you.
We really appreciate Dr. Bercaw’s willingness to chat with us. If you have questions for her, please leave them in the comments! To learn more about the future of Reconstruction studies, please check out our online forum and the rest of our March 2017 issue, available on Project Muse.