Museums Extend the Conversation

The following column was featured in The Greenville News on Monday, January 27, 2014. See it on GreenvilleOnline here.

In a world where digital technology stores all of our information, the role of the museum as an archive of curation and reflection seems more important than ever.

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Fifty years after the tumultuous 1960s, the Upcountry History Museum in downtown Greenville is commemorating the anniversary by sharing the story of our city and region. “Protests, Prayers, and Progress: Greenville’s Civil Rights Movement,” an exhibit which opened Jan. 18, gives the account of our local history.

It bears witness to an important period in Greenville’s development — the integration of schools, lunch counters, airports, and churches — through the eyes and voices of those who experienced it.

The newspapers and television programs of the day captured some of the sights and sounds of civil rights and integration in Greenville, but daily news stories are short-lived features. Washington, D.C.’s, Newseum quotes former publisher of the Washington Post Philip Graham as saying “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” The best journalists know that their work and writing can only tell part of the story — a moment in time.

Many people would suggest that in an age of social media, we are all becoming journalists — citizens armed with technologies that capture moments in time. Through our mobile phones, computers, and newspapers, we write a first rough draft of our lived experience. Facebook and Twitter tell the story of what’s happening right now. Instagram and YouTube archive our images and videos for posterity. Our email boxes are full of connections. We are saturated with rough drafts.

Museums develop a much wider conversation. When a museum curator, historian, or author takes all the drafts and synthesizes them into a story, the ideas and experiences knit together. The connections between them become apparent, and the themes of a community of people emerge.

At the Protests, Prayers, and Progress exhibit, I’m looking forward being immersed in the experience of the “separate-but-equal” classrooms on display, seeing images of a 1960s Greenville captured for national news, and hearing the memories of lawmakers and citizens who lived the struggle shared in their own words.

In the life of a community, museums cause us to see ourselves, to share a common story, and to narrate and enact our story together. This role is one that we cannot afford to overlook or discount as our city continues on a path toward progress.

And, when I visit, I will likely tweet about it or maybe upload a selfie to Facebook. I hope you will too. The act will connect us to our shared history and our city. We can draft today’s history together. In another 50 years, we might even be part of another story of progress worth telling.

Dr. John A. McArthur, who lives in Greenville, studies experience design as an associate professor of communication at Queens University of Charlotte. His website is jamcarthur.com or follow him on Twitter @JAMcArthur.

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