From John Hennessy (for part 1 of this post, click here):

Conceding that comments written in the notebook are written for public consumption, they nonetheless reveal a great deal about how the public sees the Klan hood, the people who might have worn it, and even the museum that has put it on display.

The staff at the Fredericksburg Area Museum opted for minimalist, neutral interpretation of the hood in its adjacent label copy, clearly putting the emphasis on the question, “What does it mean to you?”

As a way to provoke a renewed sense of social consciousness (at least as expressed in the notebook), this approach has been exceedingly successful. But does this constitute “mission accomplished?” Are the assumptions visitors make about hood accurate?  Do they bring enough knowledge to the artifact to truly understand it? Does it matter that visitors leave the display with little greater understanding of the role the Klan played in early 20th century America, and Fredericksburg in particular?

In interpretation, provoking an emotional response or moral outrage in visitors is the low-hanging fruit. On a battlefield, for example, it’s fairly easy to bring people to tears, for the stories there are unspeakably sad. So too at Wounded Knee, Birkenau and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which all provoke outrage too. Is the value of these places (or the Klan hood) rooted in their ability to renew a sense of societal virtue and moral direction? How can you read the notation from the young student who declared, with obvious patriotic passion, that after seeing the hood, she wanted to grow up to fight hate crimes–because, she was reminded, “they still happen today”–and not conclude that the exhibit has done good beyond a thousand more traditional and forgettable displays (including every single one of the hundreds that I have done)?

It’s clear from the notebook that people’s reaction to the hood is derived from its association with terror and violence, perpetrated by people who were, as one visitor called them, “cowards, ignorant, inhuman.”

Certainly many were, but by reducing the Klan hood to a simple (though often valid) association with violence and barbarity, aren’t visitors missing something important, something perhaps even more important than the capacity of individuals to be evil?

The label for the hood vaguely says the item was “used at a time when the KKK experienced a resurgence in popularity in the United States.” Unsaid, presumably, is that this was the 1920s, when membership in the Klan soared to more than 4,000,000 members across the nation. The governor of Indiana was a Klansman. Klansmen in Fredericksburg formed their own group in 1924 (and thus begot the hood and other items in the museum’s collection). The Klan was mainstream and anti-union, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and racist.

The same year a Klan group organized in Fredericksburg, the state of Virginia passed its vile Racial Integrity Act, intended to make racial purity government policy.

A restroom door from Falmouth, on display at the Fredericksburg Area Museum.

The point is, the brief rise of the Klan in the 1920s in America, Virginia and Fredericksburg was not the act of crazed individuals, but part of a political movement that would leave a legacy that endured for decades. Shouldn’t visitors know that in fact the hood on display was probably not worn by a bloodthirsty fanatic wielding torch and rope, but rather by a man who might have lived the next block over, owned a shop downtown, played with his grandchildren, sat on the school board, and whose only overt racial act was to vote for politicians who institutionalized white supremacy–and that he was joined by hundreds of other men just like him? In some ways, isn’t that more frightening?

It’s an interesting conundrum. Is the provocation of an emotional, moral response a worthy end goal of an exhibit like this? Or should we challenge visitors to go beyond their basic emotional reactions (sometimes based on incomplete or inaccurate assumptions) and foster a greater understanding of history, the artifact, and the society that produced it? Can we do that AND still expect people to have the moralistic emotional responses they have had?

And what of the outrage the exhibit provoked toward the museum–the visitors who were offended that the label copy was far too neutral, that it needed to declare and demonstrate the hate-filled nature of the Klan? Does a museum have a responsibility to assert the immorality (in modern terms) associated with an object like that?

This is fascinating stuff, and these are timely questions.  The museum staff will soon be reconsidering the Civil Rights exhibit and, especially, the display and interpretation of the Klan hood. I expect they’d be grateful for whatever input readers of Fredericksburg Remembered might have to offer.

Whatever the outcome, I hope that the $1.50 notebook will remain part of the equation. In many ways, it’s more valuable than the hood itself.

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