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Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

Undeserved Grace:

Difficult Knowledge, Curatorial Practice and the Search for Justice

Dr. Roger I. Simon

Since the year 2000, there have been a series of exhibitions that have presented images from the Allen and Littlefield collection of 140 photographs taken at lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1870 and 1960, an overwhelming number of which targeted African Americans. Not just clandestine acts witnessed in secret by a few, many lynchings were events attended by scores men, women and children. Often at these events, commercial photographers would appear and take photographs not only of the person(s) subjected to torture and death, but as well, the crowd who witnessed the spectacle. The photographs would then be sold as souvenirs, often in the form of picture postcards. Rather than creating a traveling exhibition more or less uniformly presented at different venues, various museums, galleries and historic sites in the United States have differently drawn from the Allen and Littlefield collection, staging and supplementing the presentation of selected photographs in, at times, quite dissimilar ways. This unusual (though not unique) situation, wherein multiple exhibitions have drawn differently from the same archival source, provides the opportunity to explore how different museums have variously pursued the practice of re-framing the presentation of these photographs.

We still seem to be in our infancy in regard to curatorial studies, particularly when it comes to understanding of the issues faced by the development of exhibition practices that attempt a rendition of traces of past violence and suffering. In this respect, there is much to learn through the comparative study of exhibitions. While I discuss in detail the extensive differences evident in the contrasting exhibitions of photographs from the Allen and Littlefield collection held at the Andy Warhol Museum and the Chicago Historical Society, my ambitions are considerably broader. Through this comparative study of the different ways of re-presenting images of deadly violence, this book offers a conceptual language for considering how and why differences among curatorial projects matter, particularly as these differences shape varying pedagogies of public history. While different pedagogies may be grounded in a conviction that a collective encounter with such images is both necessary and desirable, it is how such encounters are conceived that is a core curatorial concern. The comparative study of exhibitions offers the possibility of apprehending the significance of curatorial practice as it bears on the re-articulation of the substance of the public realm and the formation of one’s historical present. In this regard, the act of curating remains a much under-explored praxis for animating thought regarding pressing social, cultural, and political issues. 

Constituted in the wake of death and suffering, museum exhibitions of difficult memories easily fall under suspicion. In their disproportion to the realities of the degradation, terror, and death as well as to the psychological and cultural traumas that threaten to disrupt everyday relations, such exhibitions are easily condemned to cynical judgment. Clearly, public history must provide something more than a palatable version of the past that functions as a fragile “stick-it” note placed on the refrigerator to remind us of our obligations and values - a note that is always on the verge of falling off or getting lost amid the pressing concerns of daily life. Various practices of remembrance have instantiated the anticipation of a future better time that serves as a motivating force sustaining human efforts to mobilize acts of compassion and justice. It has long been acknowledged that remembrance of a broken past may carry with it not only a hope for better tomorrow but as well as a basis for critical judgment as to the inadequacies of the present, inadequacies manifest in the light emanating from a desired future. It is a fundamental premise of this book that the notion of hope that is embedded in acts of remembrance has to be re-thought as both a desire for a future, more just time that is different from the present and an affectively driven, force to thought with the potential to sustain critical insight into the complex, often contradictory terms and conditions of everyday life.