Where is Trayvon Martin in our Museums and Social Media?



Silence in My Twitterverse
The other morning I was enjoying a cup of coffee and scanning through tweets.  I had just finished reading an article about President Obama stating that if he had had a son, he would look like Trayvon.  While I was zipping through Twitter, I was listening to commentary about the case on the radio.  All of a sudden I was struck by the total absence of anything about Trayvon Martin on the social media I was following.  As mentioned in a previous post I pretty much follow museum folks, with a few exceptions, and mostly (but not always) they tweet about professional concerns.   On this Saturday morning, among many notes about upcoming conferences, exhibitions, and must-read articles, I also saw the usual comments about good or bad weather; great music or food; about James Cameron’s dive to the bottom of the ocean. But no Trayvon.  It’s not that I wanted more news about him – I’m sure that if I typed in #trayvonmartin I would be inundated.  But why no mention from the people in my Twitter community?  Many of the articles we share are about museums as forums for engaged discussion; museums and their links with communities, especially minority communities; museums and youth.  The disconnect made me curious.

Trayvon Martin
For readers outside the United States who may be unfamiliar with Trayvon Martin, this link provides a timeline of events.  Trayvon is a teenager who was shot and killed by an armed “neighborhood watch” volunteer who thought that the teen looked “suspicious” as he was walking home from an errand at the store. The guard is claiming “self defence,” even though Trayvon was unarmed; the shooter has not  been arrested. The story has touched a nerve in the United States, setting off demonstrations and discussions about racial prejudice, about racial profiling, about the unfettered use of weapons, and many other issues, both current and deeply embedded in our history.

Questions and Answers
I put out a question on Twitter, and I also emailed a number of colleagues in museums of various types in different cities.  This was in no way a scientific survey, but I wrote to people I know who are involved with museum youth programs, or who work in museums with American history, African American history, and civil rights collections; also some science museums that have hosted  the traveling exhibition RACE: Are We So Different?. I asked if there had been any discussion of the Trayvon Martin case in their programming or social media feeds.  Most of my correspondents replied that so far they had seen no discussion on the floor or in their social media. 

I received two affirmative replies over the weekend,  one that might be expected and one less so.  Jamie Glavic at The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center replied that she had been blogging about it in the context of civil rights marches in the 1960’s, and that she planned a post about the connection to Emmit Till; also that Angela Davis had spoken at the museum and had mentioned the issue.  So the NURFC seems to be dealing with this highly current topic in a variety of media.  Just today @NURFCjamie was tweeting about the location of a Trayvon Martin support march in Cincinnati. And she has now posted that blog on the connttections between Till and Martin.
The other response I received was from the Science Museum of Minnesota.  This might be surprising, unless one realizes that it was SSM that created and toured RACE, and that they have very active youth and community programs.  They are discussing the issue with the young people they work with, and are following the case closely. 

Creating Opportunity or Being Opportunistic?
But what about other museums?  Is silence appropriate? A “wait and see” approach?  A response rather than an initiative?

In February of this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Review of Books co- hosted a forum on the global economy  The panel consisted of international economic commentators such as financier and philanthropist George Soros, Nobel Prize winner in economics Paul Krugman, author and economist Jeffrey Sachs, and others.  Although it might seem like a stretch to link the Met with this topic, this was a program hosted BY the Met, not just presented IN their auditorium.   Director Tom Campbell welcomed the speakers and firmly placed the program within the purview of the museum as an institution of and for the world community.  Was this an opportunistic grab for publicity by linking the museum to a current hot topic?  It didn’t feel like that to me as I watched on CSPAN.  Instead, it made me proud to be a part of the museum field. I thought to myself – this is what “museum as forum” can mean.

So it seems to me that Trayvon Martin, and all of the issues that surround his tragic story, belongs in American museums.  Not necessarily every one, but let’s say more than have taken on the case so far.  The responses (and initiatives) can range in nature from very low key yet effective discussions to high profile programming:

–    Low key: Talking with colleagues, especially African Americans who are parents, or with kids in your youth and community programs:  What are their concerns? Are they tweeting and texting about this?  Are they demonstrating? How can you show your support and understanding within your museum?



This picture of Emmett Till was taken by his mother some months before his death. This image, along with graphic photos taken of his open casket, at the insistance of his mother, was widely circulated. Some say these photos helped spark the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.



–    Medium level:  Providing historical context.  If you have a collection or focus related to American history, African American history, civil rights, tolerance education, etc., how could you use that collection or focus to provide historical background on this current event?  Many news accounts have compared this story to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old African American boy who was accused of flirting with a white woman. Who was Emmitt Till?  Why is he important in this context?  Perhaps you have an available vitrine or a spot on your website for some information on Emmett Till and the role his case has played in U.S. history.
–     High profile:  If you have a relevant collection or mission, maybe you can sponsor a program or discussion on this issue.  Even if you don’t have a specifically related collection, perhaps you are neighbor to a church or community center that is in need of a place for discussion.  What about working with other organizations in your community to hold a discussion or forum on the issue, not just IN your auditorium but CO-HOSTED BY you and your community partners?

I’d be interested to hear what readers think. It would also be great to learn of any programs or social media content museums are developing in connection with Trayvon Martin, his short life, and his unforgettable death.


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