The Varying, Unpredictable Role of Media History in US History Museums

29 Sep 2017 11:23 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

By Dr. Dane S. Claussen, Intelligencer Editor

Visits to more museums around the USA continue to show the varying ways and varying degrees to which media history can be and sometimes is incorporated into history museums.

In July, I finally had the opportunity to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. For those who have never heard of it, Eastern State was once the most famous and most expensive prison in the world, as well as having been, from sometime after its founding in 1829, the world’s largest and most modern prison (and the model for 300+ other prisons around the world). Visiting it now, as a US National Historic Landmark, it is a crumbling ruin and the fact that it continued to be used until 1971 surely is a major embarrassment for the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

As it turns out, between navigating and absorbing the cell were Al Capone stayed in, the synagogue, a temporary art exhibit, and much more, visitors find an exhibit of the Eastern Echo, the prison newspaper from 1956 to 1967. “The articles range from essays on prison life to the ranking of Eastern State’s football, baseball, and basketball teams. Numerous articles on Eastern State’s hospital and medical staff reflect how central medical services had become within this institution.”

For information on the museum, see: https://www.easternstate.org/

Also while in Philadelphia: many people know about the recreation of Benjamin Franklin’s printshop in Philadelphia (http://www.benjamin-franklin-history.org/printing-house/) but one should also see the printing office of Edes & Gill, which has authentic equipment and historically accurate reproductions, plus top-notch employees giving excellent talks, near the Old North Church. See: http://oldnorth.com/printing-office-of-edes-gill/.

In Richmond this summer, I had the opportunity to visit the American Civil War Museum (https://acwm.org/), which is, at least for the time being, housed next door to the so-called Confederate White House. The Virginia Commonwealth University medical school and hospitals continue to expand and the museum building will be torn down, with its contents moved to another site a couple of miles away, while the Confederate White House obviously stays where it is—a huge inconvenience for tourists.

In any case, again I went snooping for media history. A Civil War museum should be a goldmine of media history: they can include copies of newspapers, magazines and photographs from the time, perhaps biographies and artifacts from journalists who covered the war, etc. The reality is something different. On display is one envelope mailed (without stamps) by the Petersburg (VA) Daily Express & Weekly Express, one envelope mailed with two Confederate postage stamps from the Montgomery (AL) Advertiser, an “extra” edition of the Charleston (SC) Mercury that is a broadside announcing “The UNION is DISSOLVED!”, a couple of newspaper clippings, the January 17, 1863, issue of the The Southern Illustrated News (featuring a large woodcut of a startlingly young-looking Robert E. Lee), a bodice sleeve pattern made from the page of an 1864 New Orleans Picayune, and a “Richmond Bread Riot” woodcut from the May 3, 1863, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated. And that is all! Not a very impressive showing of media/journalism history, but then the entire museum is, in many ways, not very impressive considering its name, age, location, and potential importance.

In contrast, a goldmine of media history is the new National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution (https://nmaahc.si.edu/). Plan ahead or pay a scalper for a supposedly free ticket to the museum; when I was there in early July, tickets were already all gone through the end of November! (Paying a well-established scalper who advertises every day on Craigslist was worth every penny.) In any case, this museum has it all when it comes to media: the African American press, how African Americans were covered by the dominant media, African Americans in movies, television, and radio—even a set from Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. Where does one start?

Perhaps in more or less chronological order, as the museum does, which means starting at the lowest level underground and working your way up. I may not have seen all exhibits in exactly the order intended by the curators—there’s one floor where exhibits in one room are in a huge circle and other exhibits are in various rooms and hallways leading from the circle—but I’ll give it my best shot. An “early” exhibit shows a photo of William Lloyd Garrison, his watch, and of course describes his paper, The Liberator. However, no photo or copy of the paper is on display, which is rather odd: copies of The Liberator are scarce but not rare. Even I own a couple copies that did not cost me a lot (granted, they are not in excellent condition!). But next is Frederick Douglass, with a copy his The North Star newspaper. A little later, we see a page from Frank Leslie’s Illustrite Zeitung, the German language paper, featuring an engraving of Hiram Revels, the USA’s first African American US senator, and then a copy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s book, Lynch Law in Georgia.

Next comes a one frame exhibit called “The Black Press.” It shows the flags (front-page nameplate), with or without headlines form the Chicago Defender (two), California Eagle, and Richmond Planet, plus photos of the Eagle and Planet’s offices. It doesn’t make much of an impression, but it’s not the last we see of the Defender in particular. A little while later we see Defender publisher Robert Abbott’s desk and information about Pullman porters distributing his newspaper on the railroads, one cause of African Americans’ great northern migration. A free-standing exhibit case offers “Printing for Progress,” with copies of The Messenger, Alexander’s Magazine, Competitor, Opportunity, and other African-American magazines.

An exhibit titled, “The Battle Over Lynching” includes reproductions of newspaper clippings and an editorial cartoon, though difficult to impossible to figure out exactly where they were published, followed soon by an exhibit noting how The Crisis responded to African Americans serving in World War I. Next, a 1919 Chicago Daily Tribune front page blares, “RIOTS SPREAD, THEN WANE” about race riots, then we are confronted with an April 1929 copy of Kourier Magazine, official organ of the Ku Klux Klan, then a 1918 Chicago Defender front page covering various hot topics, and then a 1921 copy of The Afro American about the Tulsa Race Riot. A 1940s article from the Chicago Defender illustrates African American women organizing against sexual assaults.

Media history picks up later with a 1969 issue of Negro Digest, a 1970 issue of Black Creation, a 1976 issue of Black World, a famous 1977 issue of Ebony with Alex Haley and African very distant relatives on the cover, and an undated The Black Scholar. Later, there’s mainstream media coverage of African Americans: an undated Playbill (on the cover: Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf), a 1974 TIME with the cover story “Middle-Class Blacks,” and the 1969 Newsweek issue with “Report from Black America.” Then there's a 1968 issue of Jet, a 1973 issue of Ebony with “The Black Middle Class,” a 1968 LIFE issue with a crying black child cover photo, and Newsweek’s 1970 issue with “The Black Mayors: How Are They Doing?”

But before get to the Playbill and other magazines, we are off to African Americans in film and television, which fills several rooms: Sidney Poitier, Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree and, of course, Amos ’n’ Andy, and much, much more. After going by the Oprah Winfrey TV set, we get to see a small exhibit on African American community radio, then Essence’s 2011 special issue on “Hot Hair.”

African-American achievements in education, military or business are illustrated in part by an old Harper’s Weekly cover, The Teacher magazine from 1948, and a 1973 Black Enterprise issue.

Just when you think you have seen all you will see about media and journalism, the museum pays particular tribute to several individual journalists: the Nashville Banner’s Robert  Churchwell, Provincial Freeman (Canada) editor/publisher Mary Ann Shadd Cary (an American), Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press company, Ebony magazine, and The Pittsburgh Courier’s Charles “Teenie” Harris. These are nicely accompanied by a “The Power of the Press” exhibit highlighting the Philadelphia Tribune.

African-American achievements in sports are given plenty of attention, and those exhibits include the April 1968 Esquire magazine feature Muhammad Ali shot by arrows like Saint Sebastian and Althea Gibson on the cover of a 1967 Sports Illustrated.

When I was there, a separate area only for media exhibits (entirely photographs and videos) featured “Everyday Beauty” photographs, but also photography artifacts such as a stereoscope, a 1920s vintage photojournalist's camera, and other items.

I recommend the museum highly for all of these reasons and more (although I won’t soon forget the jam-packed exhibit spaces or the grossly overpriced food in the cafeteria). It’s not often we see so much media history content in a museum that is not media-oriented and has no shortage of other items to show.

(Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of occasional articles about media history's role in museums and history books.)

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Claussen is Editor of The Intelligencer and the James Pedas Professor of Media, Communication & Public Relations/Executive Director, James Pedas Communication Center, Thiel College, Greenville, Pa. Regardless of what he might say or write about them, he enjoys visiting any and all museums in the USA and abroad.

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