From John Hennessy (for part 2 of his post, click here):

The notebook cost about $1.50, but in many ways it is the most interesting and valuable thing in the multi-million dollar exhibition at the Fredericksburg Area Museum (and that’s no slam on the rest of the museum, which is excellent).  It sits on a table beside a case containing a hood worn by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  The donor of the hood was anonymous, the history of this specific hood, beyond its connection to Fredericksburg, is uncertain.  Yet the reactions of the public to it, as recorded in the notebook, are a vivid chronicle of visitors and residents confronting a difficult piece of our collective past.  The exhibit asks visitors, “How does it make you feel?”  This simple interactive has stimulated both reflection and anger—some of it directed at the hood, some of it at the museum.

By way of background, the text label accompanying the hood reads:

click to enlarge

The big question: is the hood a point of departure for learning and understanding, or is it simply stimulus for emotional reaction based on what visitors already know—or think they know? In Part I of this post, we’ll look at people’s reactions to the hood. In Part 2, we’ll look at how the object is handled interpretively, and exactly what visitors seem to be getting out of the exhibit.

The hood and the notebook.

The overwhelming majority of visitors who recorded their thoughts expressed appreciation for the museum’s attempt to raise consciousness of a difficult, still-current issue.  Many saw virtue in the mere presence of an artifact like the hood in a museum.

The very nature of this artifact being displayed speaks volumes.   No longer a history to sweep under the rug or pay a fleeting lip service in 11th Grade, perhaps we can have a genuine dialogue about past, present, and future race relations in this country.  Display of this object requires the viewer to recognize the KKK’s deep and broad influence on our history.  Hopefully in this recognition we can find acceptance and healing.

Another visitor recorded a mixture of revulsion and appreciation.  The KKK hood made my heart sink to the ground in fear, disgust, and a sense of reality.  There should be more artifacts in museums that bring the forefront of reality.  As ugly as it is.

Clearly visitors see the hood as both artifact and symbol.  “Thank you for opening our eyes to the symbols and stories of a very black part of American history.”

Many used words like “powerful” and “chilling.”  One visitor called the hood a “sick and disturbing sad truth about America.” Another said it “was one of the scariest pieces I have seen in a museum exhibit.” Others commented on the people who must have worn the hood:  “cowards, ignorant, inhuman.”  And still others were reminded of their own unpleasant experiences: “It reminds me of the Stafford deputy who made fun of my ‘exotic’ name a few months ago.”

Ad for the largest Klan rally in Fredericksburgs history, on August 7, 1926. As many as 5,000 attended at the Fairgrounds (then north of town). Note: "parcels will be checked."

The hood reminded many visitors that the Klan is not just a relic from the past, but is still active today (something that is not mentioned in the label copy).  “Scary thought. The KKK still exists today,” wrote one person, who also saw a lesson in the display: “Awareness is important, and so is knowledge. Learn to look deeper than the skin and think for yourself.”

One child wrote, “It makes me want to grow up and work hard against hate crimes. Hate crimes still happen today and America, our country, has a long way to go.  – An American.”

While some felt the exhibit reflected “a part of history we must own up to,” more than a few felt the display of the hood was a needless provocation.

I  believe it is time we put the past behind us, & move one, quit bringing up things that we had nothing to do with.  We should not feel guilty for things that  happened by a few people.

The hood bears a couple of stains on its front, and many visitors assumed the stains were bloodstains. Further, some presumed they were the result of violence (the display copy doesn’t mention the stains).

At least two writers found fault with the label copy that accompanied the hood–suggesting the copy was far too neutral. They expressed their outrage in vivid terms.

To display the hood with the statement: “The hood represented different things to different people,” followed by the question “what does the hood mean to you?” is historically and socially irresponsible.  The Klan was a hate group , to display a Klan hood without any mention of this fact is totally ignorant!!

And another visitor wrote, “This display is disgusting.  Add something about the evil nature of the KKK.  I’m offended.”

With all this commentary in mind (if you want to read it all, go the museum–a trip well worth the effort), in our next post we’ll look at the exhibit from an interpretive perspective. What does the exhibit accomplish? Is it effective? How should a museum manage the interpretation of an object that is both artifact and cultural symbol?