Kathleen Hulser is
the public historian at The New-York Historical Society. Her work
there includes curating exhibitions ("Petropolis: A Social History
of Urban Animal Companions," "The Rosenbergs Reconsidered:
The Death Penalty in the Cold War Era" "Reading Uncle Tom's
Image," and "New York on the Brink: The Fiscal Crisis of
1974."), and working with collections (Recent Acquisition: The
Last Liquor Store Sign on the Bowery), public speaking (Mapping Women's
History on Lower Manhattan at Historic Districts Council, 2004; Teaching
in a Time of Terror at The New-York Historical Society"), film
curating ("Watching the Unwatchable: September 11th Films and
Their Makers," 2002; "Moving Images on the Deuce: A Short
History of Times Square Film" at Gotham Center, Dec. 2004), and
public program series ("Enterprising Women: Notable Women in
Business Today and Yesterday" panel discussion series, spring
2002; ongoing work with "History Responds to Sept. 11th").
She works to make history more widely accessible to the public and
to foster public engagement with the practice of history and memory.
She has also taught American history, women's studies and urban affairs
in the Metropolitan Studies Program and History Department.
Methods Adopted for Difficult Material
Hulser of the New York Historial Society described planning techniques
used for the lynching exhibit that the institution had not used before.
For instance, the Society included security staff in planning the
exhibit because they have the most contact with visitors. Kathleen
believes that if the opportunity to mount the exhibit had been offered
two years before, it never would have happened. However, under the
current director, the decision to move forward was made even before
funding came through.
Lots of Work Required from Lots of People
The exhibit was launched within two months of acceptance.
Its success, Kathleen attributes to some institutional strengths,
- The President's great
relationship with the Board of Trustees
- A core group of 5
or 6 staff willing to put in long hours
- Security guards very
invested in this exhibit
- Museum owned objects
they did not know they had or never used before in this context.
These included an Abolition collection that ended with Emancipation
and Ida B. Wells' Red Record, a record of race
lynchings in America that she published in 1895.
The venue however, came
with its own set of obstacles. The museum had to overcome the big,
grand, Beaux Arts scale of the building that made it difficult to
jar people from their "reverence for the institution."
The majesty of the physical surroundings dampened the natural instinct
to react vocally to the images.
Because there were only
two months to prepare, the museum was unable to secure images of
New York lynchings for the exhibit. These Civil War era incidents
in New York were related to opposition to the draft. Some saw African
Americans as the reason for the war and the draft and subsequently
engaged in lynchings.
The photos were displayed in austere manner, in a dark
room with pinpoint lighting. The images were not blown up for viewing.
The exhibit was very real with the materials rendered more powerful
because of their ordinariness.
The museum realized that
"we can't put these photos out without recording how people
react" and created comment books and online journaling opportunities
The experience of mounting
the exhibit was incredibly empowering for the institution. Now that
they have dealt with this difficult history once, they have been
encouraged (and funded) to do so again.
Kathleen Hulser's session presentation is available below:
The musarium no longer
has their powerful Without Sanctuary materials on line. However,
if you visit the website, you can view the Society's treatment of
other difficult stories. Their web site includes: The World Trade
Center 1993 bombing, the September 11, 2001 attack, and a revisiting
of the Vietnam War.
photo to the left and the description below were part of the
musarium Without Sanctuary website. Most of the powerful photographs
were accompanied by descriptions that both personalized the
event and made the fundamental dehumanization of it more shattering.
Description: Grief and a haunting unreality permeate this
photo. The corpse of Laura Nelson retains an indissoluble
femininity despite the horror inflicted upon it. Specterlike,
she seems to float - thistledown light and implausibly still.
For many African Americans, Oklahoma was a destination of
hope, where they could prosper without the laws in southern
states that codified racism and and repression. What was to
be a promised land proved to be a great disillusionment.
Judge Caruthers convened a grand jury in June 1911 to investigate
the lynching of the Negro woman and her son. In his instructions
to the jury, he said, "The people of the state have said
by recently adopted constitutional provision that the race
to which the unfortunate victims belonged should in large
measure be divorced from participation in our political contests,
because of their known racial inferiority and their dependent
credulity, which very characteristic made them the mere tool
of the designing and cunning. It is well known that I heartily
concur in this constitutional provision of the people's will.
The more then does the duty devolve upon us of a superior
race and of greater intelligence to protect this weaker race
from unjustifiable and lawless attacks."
Last Updated -01/02/2005