Activist New York at the Museum of the City of New York and the Work of Public History in Moments of Turmoil
Sarah J. Seidman
As historians, we know how historic the events of the past year and several months have been. Future scholars will undoubtedly present insightful analyses juxtaposing the momentous events of 2020 and 2021: a pandemic that has ravaged communities and caused unfathomable loss and economic devastation across the globe, including in our own homes; antiracist uprisings that decried ongoing state violence against Black and brown people and drew some of the largest and longest-running crowds in United States history; and political upheaval, including authoritarian mobilizations and white supremacist insurrection in the seat of U.S. power. This extended moment has felt overwhelming, and it presents challenges as we work to process it ourselves, not to mention make sense of it to students, readers, and, for public historians, general audiences. And yet, this is a rich moment to utilize our skillsets with whichever audience we interact with, to push ourselves to broaden the stories we help illuminate while continuing to connect past and present.
Museums have a range of missions, but they all foreground objects, images, and/or stories. The Museum of the City of New York, through its mission to foster understanding of the “distinctive nature of urban life” in New York, is committed to sharing multiple perspectives while also reflecting the makeup of a diverse city with a strong history of both liberalism and division. As curator of the ongoing exhibition, Activist New York, this means showing histories of bigotry as well as social justice and the power of the status quo as well as forces for change. More complicated still, how do we deal with unfolding histories that are interpreted and experienced differently by various participants and stakeholders? As a historian happy to squirrel away in an archive and a white curator addressing many past and current events foregrounding New Yorkers of color in a field that needs more diverse voices, I have come to consider forging relationships—with living people above all, but also historical figures, and objects and images—to be essential to this form of public history work.
Activist New York provides an ideal historical foundation for grappling with difficult issues—in this case through a New York lens. An ongoing exhibition on view since 2012, it explores New York histories of activism from the 1600s through today. Fourteen chronological case studies examine an array of topics, from struggles over who could live in the Dutch colony of New Netherland and the fight over slavery in New York to the garment worker mobilizations in the early twentieth century, postwar liberation movements, and the Movement for Black Lives. Case studies and individual objects rotate over time. A grant-funded project made possible by the Puffin Foundation, a website, book, public programs, and extensive educational programming through field trips for students and professional development for teachers expand and deepen the exhibition’s reach. Activist New York is a unique endeavor, but one that, given its ongoing nature, as well as its topic, offers more broadly applicable insights into how to grapple with difficult topics during difficult times.
Above all, it demonstrates that group work is integral to doing public history. Activist New York opened in 2012, with a few years of planning prior. There were always a multitude of voices in this project: the original guest curator and author of the book, Activist New York: A History of People, Protest, and Politics, Steven H. Jaffe, worked with Chief Curator and Deputy Director Sarah Henry and the museum’s curatorial team, as well as an active advisory committee of scholars and cultural creators. I joined the museum in 2014 and made my own mark on the show over time, along with additional advisors, new museum leadership, postdoctoral and pre-doctoral fellows made possible by the Mellon Foundation, and interns. Further, colleagues at the museum in education, public programs, design, collections, and development all contribute to the exhibition in myriad ways. Internally, the museum has been engaged in IDEA work (inclusion, diversity, equity, and access) to consider both exhibition content and who works at and visits the museum.
Over time we have sought to broaden stakeholders in the Activist New York exhibition through the voices of living activists and community members. Community interaction was always envisioned; initially, viewers could email various grassroots organizations in New York City from gallery kiosks. We still include a sampling of community groups and feature videos with current activists, many of whom I have reached out to over the years for information, ideas, or images. But we also began convening official planning conversations with activists and community members that shaped new sections of the show, such as recent ones on the Young Lords and trans activism. These conversations have not always been easy or comfortable for all, but they have always led to important insights and connections. One often needs to be a generalist in public history, but that doesn’t mean knowing everything; it means knowing who to ask, where to turn for expertise, and how to identify those leading the way.
In addition to seeking specific expertise and input, there is also a crowd-sourcing element to Activist New York that has proved pivotal at particularly contentious moments. We initially asked viewers to submit photographs of activists—including protesting, making murals, or attending a meeting—to a blog projected as a slideshow in the gallery. Over time we switched to a more sophisticated digital platform for collating images of activism by encouraging viewers and all New Yorkers posting to social media to use the hashtag #ActivistNY with their images, which then appear in a montage format on a wall of the exhibition and online. Last spring the museum used our existing technology for an additional hashtag, #CovidStoriesNYC, and last summer we put out an open call for the submission of images and objects for potential accession using both hashtags. Photographers who used these hashtags were featured in the juried exhibition on view at the museum from December 2020 to May 2021, New York Responds: The First Six Months. The exponentially increased pool of #ActivistNY posts introduced a new generation of photographers to the museum and also deepened a digital archive of events unfolding in real time.
In addition to working alongside living people who make both activism and exhibitions possible, my work fundamentally seeks to highlight stories of individuals past and present. All of the shows I have curated at the Museum of the City of New York—along with my academic writing—foreground individuals as starting points to tell stories about mass movements. The Activist New York website includes a specific “Meet the Activists” feature. But this approach could serve as a guiding force for doing public history work writ large. Individual stories can help avoid stereotyping, and they show a multiplicity of voices while avoiding over-generalized false equivalencies. In Activist New York, we explore stories of lesser known activists operating on the New York stage, such as abolitionist Abigail Hopper Gibbons and school de-segregation leader Reverend Milton Galamison, and demonstrate how better-known activists operated in New York City, from Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery to the city, and the formative New York years Ella Baker spent working with the NAACP. Unknown stories of well-known activists and stories of those lesser-known and marginalized can draw in a five-year-old and an elderly visitor alike. Individual complexities abound, and racist views that co-exist with organizing and mobilizing should be addressed (Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and her involvement with eugenics is one example that comes to mind). Taken together, in a chronological march of history that just as often features steps backward and repetitive repression as change over time, an important takeaway is that there are always people mobilizing for justice.
As historians we know that past is never past, and that historical events can be as contentious as current ones. New events give another opportunity to re-visit and re-interpret older histories in Activist New York. We regularly rotate objects for conservation, a frequently invisible but important part of a curatorial job. But we also update objects and one or two new sections every year to keep content fresh, show that New York’s activist histories are endless, and reflect the evolution of social movements themselves. One example is a section on LGBTQ liberation movements in New York, which we changed in 2019 from the gay liberation movement to trans activism. We had previously updated objects and text to reflect historical changes, such as the passage of gay marriage, and language choices, such as changing Stonewall “riot” to “uprising.” To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall in 1969 as well as a wave of current trans activism, we installed a new section exploring the pioneering trans movement in New York City led by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and their organization STAR (originally Street Transvestite Action Revolutions, prompting conversations about the changing nature of language itself). Tracing the long trajectory and broad impact of their work, we connect it with current activists, artists, and mobilizations, from the campaign for gender neutral bathrooms to continuing protests of police violence against trans people—particularly trans women of color. Some activists who participated in the planning conversation also participated in recent events such as “Brooklyn Liberation: An Action for Black Trans Lives,” on June 14, 2020, and a new round of rotations of objects from these events are slated for summer 2021.
The final section of Activist New York, on the Movement for Black Lives, is fully devoted to recent and current activism concerning police and vigilante violence against Black people in New York and beyond. Co-curated with scholar and activist Christopher Paul Harris in 2017, we focused on organizations that emerged in New York after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013; the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island by police officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014; and local campaigns such as Swipe it Forward, which creatively mobilize around issues of transportation access and disproportionate police targeting of Black youth for fare evasion. When gathering objects, we reached out to Dante Barry, who founded the group Million Hoodies Movement for Justice in 2012. The use of a graphic from the groups’ first protest in response to Trayvon Martin’s killing was not only significant as an object; it highlighted an ongoing relationship with Barry, who had been featured in one of our videos on current activists and spoken as a panelist on a Museum program. While the group’s original iteration no longer exists, Barry’s role in the early days of New York’s Movement for Black Lives remains significant, and the multifaceted interactions suggest the importance of community stakeholders and connections between programming and exhibition content.
As another wave of anti-racist uprisings began in the wake of the murder of George Floyd during the museum’s closure in the spring and summer from COVID-19, we began planning new additions for when the museum reopened (which occurred in late August). Using the existing Movement for Black Lives section as a foundation, we expanded and re-periodized it with new objects such as artwork of George Floyd used at city protests and masks with the text “Defund the Police” and “Stop Killing Us.” This planning time also lent itself to extensive work with our education team to train and discuss how to speak about these objects, activists, and subjects in their newly digital tours, and to connect past with present. At the request of educators, we had previously added a photograph to our civil rights section of a demonstration after Black teenager James Powell was killed by white police officer Thomas Gilligan in Manhattan in 1964, suggesting once again that how an ongoing exhibition can be continually modified with evolving—and repeating—events.
Further, the #ActivistNY hashtag enabled us to call for new objects and images. A few submissions appeared physically in the updated section of the exhibition. Other objects have been accessioned or are being considered for the museum’s collection. As historians such as Michel Rolph-Trouillot have shown, archives are as affected by power as anywhere else and are unequal and discriminatory in what they have preserved. Adding historical pieces to a museum collection can shed light on hidden and marginalized histories, but collecting objects now—and establishing relationships with people who may be interested in sharing these objects—will help prepare for exhibiting difficult histories in the future.
As historians we engage in notions of time and the pandemic has affected perception of it. The sheer number of things that have happened makes time feel compressed, but days and months have felt interminable. Doing public history work right now entails sustaining relationships in real time and long term. It could mean calling to check in on an elder activist who has maintained a relationship with the museum for decades. It also means conveying to public audiences how decades of activism and organizing from historical figures and living folks alike have built up to this moment. Scrolling through social media coverage of Martin Luther King Day this year brought home this point. Taken together, the posts about King, who appears in Activist New York speaking out against the Vietnam War from the pulpit of Riverside Church, seemed to emphasize his radicality, his antiwar stance, and his inclusion of police brutality in “I Have a Dream” more than in previous years. These posts built on decades of organizing but also on decades of scholarship and, hopefully, in turn, public history spaces, including museum exhibitions and programs—on seemingly quiet days as well as ones of visible turmoil.
Sarah J. Seidman is the Puffin Foundation Curator of Social Activism at the Museum of the City of New York, where she curates the ongoing exhibition Activist New York and other shows. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and an M.A. in Public Humanities from Brown University. Her writing has also appeared in Radical History Review, the Journal of Transnational American Studies, and The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture.
The website includes current and past exhibition content, pedagogical materials for teachers, and more. See http://activistnewyork.mcny.org.