- Telling Our Stories: Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum by Mississippi Department of Archives and History
On December 9, 2017, the state of Mississippi gained two new catalysts for public memory. To commemorate Mississippi's bicentennial, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) opened the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History in Jackson. The museums are two distinct physical buildings, sharing a lobby center that positions the visitor within both interpretive spaces. Given the violent legacies of racism and white supremacy in the state, the establishment of two museums dedicated to telling a fuller story about Mississippi's past represents a powerful moment.
Telling Our Stories: Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is a companion book that surveys selected stories from each museum while providing narrative histories with images and artifacts drawn from the collections of the MDAH. The book is divided into two sections with introductions by historians Dennis J. Mitchell and John E. Fleming, respectively. "Museum of Mississippi History" begins with the Paleo-Indian period and proceeds through the civil rights era to the present. "Mississippi Civil Rights Museum" opens with the earliest forms of African slavery in prestatehood Mississippi and interweaves personal stories to chronicle the primary cycles of development between civil rights organization and white resistance through the 1970s.
From the outset, the MDAH writers of Telling Our Stories employ a clear and pointed interpretive strategy. Rather than ease the reader into a celebration of Mississippi's founding or promoting a linear-progressive drama of civil rights victories, the writers unapologetically frame their histories within a context of struggle between competing visions of freedom in a state (and country) whose foundations were firmly grounded in racism. This position is all [End Page 237] the more striking considering the historical legacy of Dunbar Rowland, the influential first director of the MDAH from 1902 to 1937. While Rowland is tangential to the book's specific focus, it is worth recalling that Rowland worked diligently for the development of state and national archive institutions, and he embedded an elite, white-dominant perspective into the MDAH's original professional philosophy. Without referring to Rowland or recalling his influence on early MDAH policy, Fleming upends white-centric institutional and statewide legacies by stating flatly, "This exhibition offers the state of Mississippi an opportunity to reconsider its collective memory that is marred by racism, bigotry, and the notion of white supremacy" (p. 101).
For years, blues music has been integral to Mississippi's public identity. While Telling Our Stories correctly positions music as a key component of Mississippi's global contribution, it mediates the blues legacy by grounding it within a general survey of various music genres and art practitioners associated with the state. This contextualization is a welcome tactic, as the commodification of blues through modern tourism often constrains nuanced understanding of why this music developed. However, Mississippi native David Banner (Lavell William Crump) is not listed in the book's treatment of important musicians. The omission of Banner, a successful rap artist, actor, and social justice activist, subtly reinforces a broader disconnect between a viable hip-hop form that often carries political and social critique and an oft-marketed blues tradition seemingly devoid of those functions, rendering both artistic forms historically removed from one another.
Ultimately, Telling Our Stories is an impressive and attractive volume providing a strong companion to the physical museums. By directly confronting the realities of racism and white supremacy in the pages of a book intended for broad public audiences, the MDAH writers and curators heed the call for a more complete history, a task that is especially important in crafting a new public memory for Mississippi.