The coronavirus pandemic turned Americans’ lives topsy-turvy more than three months ago, though few realized to what extent the disruption would go. Usual day-to-day tasks were no longer the priority — life-threatening health risks were now top of mind.
But then centuries of history smacked the country in its face. The killings of innocent Black people by the police let the world know there still is so much work to be done regarding equal justice.
Where do cultural institutions like libraries and museums fit amid this turmoil? How do these important individuals and institutions survive?
“Cultural institutions can offer historical context,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “These institutions are reexamining and continuing to look at how we present information and history to our publics making sure we are part of a solution.”
That was the opening statement from Hayden for the virtual discussions, “Cultural Institutions at Times of Social Unrest.” She recently had the conversation with Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie Bunch.
Bunch received notoriety as the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American and History and Culture. As Smithsonian secretary, he now leads the world’s largest museum and research complex that includes 19 museums, nine research centers, and other affiliates around the world.
The Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution, the largest library in the world, and serves as the research arm for the U.S. Congress. That both cultural organizations are led by African Americans is history-making during this unprecedented time in history.
“I believe that cultural institutions are the glue that holds the country together,” Bunch said. “They are the place people look to for trust and guidance. It is important to use that trust to help people find ways to understand this moment, to find some optimism, to find some hope.”
Bunch continued with saying cultural institutions can help the country address what has always been the great chasm of race and institutional racism. By explaining what America is experiencing now is not a unique moment, but there are unique characteristics.
“Whether you go back through the history of slavery, lynching, or riots there is always a struggle between democracy and fairness, and the discrimination and violence to enforce that,” Bunch said. “But people need to know this is a moment where we are seeing things differently. You see a multiracial group of people protesting to show this is not a Black problem, it is an American problem.”
Both Bunch and Hayden said they find hope in the history that is housed inside the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.
“That hope comes from seeing positive things did come from that negative history,” Hayden said. “What’s inspiring for me is that many of the people that are part of this now, are younger.”
On the involvement of today’s youth, Hayden reflected on Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
“They think they can have a role,” she said. “When you think about John Lewis, he put on that backpack and he was only 21.”
Hayden and Bunch agree there is strength is seeing images. Together, they went to purchase the first known photograph of Harriet Tubman, which was used in the 2019 movie “Harriet.” Before that photograph, most images of Tubman were of her as an older woman, bent over.
Bunch said it was difficult to see Tubman as “Moses” leading people to freedom from those pictures of her as an older person, but the image of a young Tubman showed her as a woman of style, with a look in her eye.
“In some ways, the great strength is the marriage of the written word, good scholarship, good books, and the visual,” Bunch said. “What that does is to immediately make it accessible to people. You see an image and it is transformative. Imaginary is what helps history come alive.”
The Library of Congress digital assets and resources can be found at loc.gov. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture recently launched its “Talking About Race” web portal at https://bit.ly/NMAAHCTalkRace.