A museum visit can be such a powerful experience that you walk out of a gallery feeling like the world has shifted on its axis. Sometimes it’s because you see an artifact so remarkable that it stops you dead in your tracks. Sometimes it’s because of exceptional stagecraft on the part of the exhibit designers. And sometimes it’s both, a combination of artifact and stagecraft so outstanding that it knocks the wind right out of you.
It happened to me a couple of weeks ago at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The artifact was Emmett Till’s coffin. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story of how it ended up at the NMAAHC, click here and here.)
It’s not just the object itself, but the presentation that packs such an emotional punch. It’s in its own small gallery, set up to look like the front of a church. You can hear a choir performing. You line up with other visitors and file past the coffin, just as you would if you were one of the mourners paying your respects in Chicago more than six decades ago. In a small anteroom there’s a short video with interviews from Till’s mother and other people who knew him.
Sometimes I’m skeptical of attempts to recreate or generate the emotions and perceptions of people caught up in past historical circumstances in a museum setting. But I think the Emmett Till exhibit works because the emotions it stirs up in visitors are the very same emotions that made Till’s murder and funeral such a watershed. The sight of his body confronted people with the monstrous nature of racism. And the exhibit serves the same purpose. It turns the history of racism into something concrete, immediate, and individual. Putting the coffin on exhibit in the NMAAHC accomplishes the same thing in the present that putting it on exhibit in a church effected for people living at the time.
And the effect is magnified by the setup. Visitors are going through the same physical motions as the mourners themselves, standing in line and filing past in order to see, to bear witness for themselves. The distance between the 1950s and the present—between that Chicago church and the museum gallery that represents a section of it—collapses. For a few moments, you forget that you’re a tourist in a museum.
I watched visitors stand there in the anteroom and literally weep, while others would spontaneously walk by and comfort them. I’ve never seen an exhibit generate such emotion, let alone prompt strangers to embrace one another. Lots of exhibits recreate or simulate historic settings, but this is one of the few that deserves to be called transportive—and transformational.