Presenting the History of Lynching in Museums

Last week’s discussion about how to tell the history of lynching in museums was a difficult one for me to conceptualize.  I must admit, I could not even look through the grotesque exhibition content on the Without Sanctuary website because it upsets me to have to witness this tragic part of African American history.  In fact, I have gone back and forth on whether or not I should even write a class reflection post about the subject matter because I am not certain about my opinions on the best way to present the story of lynching in museums.

The practice of lynching, as not only an atrocious, but well-documented, extralegal punishment has weighed heavily on me.  I have seen such horrid lynching images throughout my life, that I think perhaps I’ve grown weary of the subject matter.  The images of nameless victims strung up on trees will forever be imprinted in my brain.

Last semester in Introduction to Museums, our class discussed the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, Michigan.  In one of the rooms in this museum, there is a full sized replica of a tree with a lynching noose hanging from it.  As a class, we debated the impact of such an exhibition on various types of audiences.  Some of my peers thought such a realistic interpretation could be helpful to many people.  I agree that it would be beneficial to some people, but I can’t help but wonder if it would hurt some people along the way.

From my perspective, I cannot fathom myself as a young black girl learning about the lynching of my ancestors in such a public and humiliating way.  I think the lynch tree at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia and the Without Sanctuary Exhibition would have been very difficult for me to handle in a museum group setting.

As a child, my parents educated me about America’s horrific racial past in the privacy and security of our home.  This idea of the intimacy of death is one that we discussed in class last week, and has me ruminating about how to tell the history of lynching in a museum setting.

Upon finishing my studies at CGP, I want to create educational outreach programs for inner-city and disadvantaged youth of color.  The history of lynching is one that certainly needs to be told to such a demographic, but I wonder if in an open and exposed museum setting would be the best way to go about it.  Would poor black boys gain a positive experience and image of self from seeing thousands of photos of people just like them mutilated and dangling from trees?  Right now, I honestly don’t know my position on this, and would love to her everyone’s thoughts.

So my questions to you all are: How would you present an exhibition on lynching?  Would your exhibition change based on the audience that your museum serves?  Why or why not?  How would you use such a museum exhibition to teach children?  Jesse Washington lynching (image from

4 thoughts on “Presenting the History of Lynching in Museums

  1. Photos of lynchings and displays such as the lynch tree at the Jim Crow Museum are disturbing, but so is the history of lynching. Using these in exhibits gets across a message far more powerful and memorable than a simple textual panel by making people feel uncomfortable. An audience won’t remember all the facts and statistics, but by seeing such images, they will never forget just how terrible lynching was.

    As museum professionals we have choices on just how we want to teach the public and I’m not really sure how I would approach such a difficult topic, especially when the question of the audience’s race is raised. Museums are unique learning environments and making people feel uncomfortable and upset is a part of the learning experience when we create exhibits focused on injustice and violence.

  2. Colincgp, I wonder if your comment is predicated on the assumption that lynching images in museums will be viewed by a predominantly white audience. Georgied14 is questioning their value for African American audiences, suggesting that they might do more harm than good.

    1. It is a history that everyone should be aware of, but I think that there are different reasons why white and black audiences should understand it that touch upon the legacy of racism in this country. I do not necessarily know if it is right to confront a black audience with this at such a visceral level (even if it does leave a stronger impression) because they would probably be more aware of what racism means in the United States than a white audience would. That makes me question if the element of discomfort is really appropriate in such a case. That said, museums are for everybody, so there have to be ways to reach different audiences all at once.

  3. Today in Cindy’s American Material Culture class, we were discussing the pros and cons of preserving buildings from the segregation era, and I found myself struggling with similar questions, even with an issue not half as viscerally horrifying as lynching photographs. Must we, in essence, force people to be reminded over and over of a time period when the very environment was used to terrorize? From a position of privilege, it’s very easy to say, “yes, we need to preserve the horrible things,” and goodness knows, there are plenty of people (especially white people) who need to be reminded of our awful history – and how far we still have to go to create a truly equal society. But at what cost? And what right do I (or any of us) have to say, “white people need to be taught a lesson, so black people will just have to suffer”? But minimizing these stories too much is dangerous and destructive as well. Your point about the problems with making an exhibit or lesson about lynching a public experience is something I hadn’t thought about, and maybe that is the direction to go in. Maybe, instead of a traditional exhibit, museums (or schools, or cultural organizations) should find a way of creating more intimate, semi-private, guided experiences/discussions when confronting these issues.

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