American & Russian museums explore painful national histories

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Last week, I learned about two national museums – a world apart – that have the courage and conviction to deal with the most painful and shameful chapters of their nation’s history. One, in Montgomery, Alabama. Another, in Moscow, Russia.

Legacy Museum Exterior. The Legacy Museum is located steps from one of the most active slave auction sites in America. Exhibits in the lobby detail Montgomery’s prominent role in the domestic slave trade. (Human Pictures / Equal Justice Initiative)

In the New York Times, I read about opening of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. The museum and the memorial deal with “the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror” (NY Times).

Top: Hank Willis Thomas sculpture (Human Pictures / Equal Justice Initiative) Bottom: The new National Memorial to Peace and Justice at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. (Human Pictures / Equal Justice Initiative)

Just looking at the website gives you a chill. You can walk under 800 COR-TEN steel columns hanging from the ceiling, each with the name of an American county and the victims of lynching there. The NY Times article quotes Bryan Stevenson, Founder of Equal Justice Initiative, the force behind these projects, as saying, “just seeing the names of all these people… [many of them] have never been named in public.”

This Slavery Evolved wall traces the evolution of the myth of racial difference from enslavement to mass incarceration. (Human Pictures / Equal Justice Initiative)

Mr. Stevenson has spent years researching archives and county libraries to document the lynchings in the South – almost 4,400 total. He says that he is not interested in talking about America’s history because he wants to punish America. No, he wants to liberate America…

KEN GONZALES-DAY: RUN UP, 2015. Installation View. Image courtesy Luis de Jesus Gallery.

And talking about lynching – this time, an even less explored chapter of America’s history. I am reminded of Los Angeles photographer Ken Gonzales-Day, who showed powerful and heartbreaking photos at Luis de Jesus gallery in 2015, where he recreated scenes of the lynching of a Latino in California as part of his series, Erased Lynching. Gonzales-Day hopes this series will bring greater visibility to the presence of Latinos in the history of lynching in the US.

Gulag History State Museum. Image courtesy Gulag History State Museum.

In a strange coincidence, last week brought news about another museum dealing with a shameful and tragic national history. The Art Newspaper published a story about the Gulag History State Museum in Moscow, which shares the stories of millions of prisoners and victims of Stalin’s forced labor camps.

Gulag History State Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

My father was one of the victims of Stalin’s Great Terror. He spent four years in a Gulag prison in Siberia, and survived only due to his skill as a tailor, making winter coats for the wives of prison guards.

Gulag History State Museum. Image courtesy Gulag History State Museum.

Inaugurating The Wall of Sorrow, the Kremlin’s first official monument to the victims of political repression, President Putin said, “This terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified by anything” (Art Newspaper). This is an extremely rare case in which I wouldn’t disagree with the Russian President.



Kathleen Yore