Why Museum London is using racist artifacts to fight prejudice

Difficult Terrain features items from the museum’s collection that reflect harmful stereotypes. TVO.org talks with co-curator Amber Lloydlangston about how it encourages visitors to talk about racism and discrimination — past and present
By Matthew O'Mara - Published on Aug 27, 2019

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When Amber Lloydlangston entered Vault 054 at Museum London, she was shocked by what she found, but she knew right then and there she had an exhibition.

Lloydlangston, the museum’s curator of regional history, had gone to the vault to search its collections. There, she discovered children’s toys and games featuring racist depictions of Indigenous people and collectibles that reflected derogatory views of Chinese people, Black people, LGBTQ people, and people with mental illnesses.

For Lloydlangston, the items represented an opportunity for discussion, a chance to explore and consider the prejudices that have shaped the lives and experiences of Londoners, past and present. She reached out to community members Eaman Fahmy, Leroy Hibbert, Samantha Matty, and Amanda Myers, and, together, they created Difficult Terrain, an exhibition, on at Museum London until September 15, that showcases 25 objects and 10 images from the collection. The co-curators share their perspectives on the items through accompanying text, and visitors are invited to contribute their own thoughts and responses at the exhibition’s feedback station.

TVO.org spoke with Lloydlangston about how she navigated the creation of this exhibit, what historical artifacts can teach us about contemporary values, and why she hopes other museums will steal her idea.

What kind of response has Difficult Terrain received?

I’ve been really pleased with the way it’s been received. We have a feedback station within the exhibition, and people have been, not 100 per cent, but 99.9 per cent positive about the exhibition and what it’s trying to achieve. I wasn’t sure what folks would think. I thought it was really important, and my community colleagues were convinced it was important, too.

You said the response has been 99.9 per cent positive — what was the 0.1 per cent?

They were criticizing that the exhibition wasn’t a historical exploration of racism in London. Where’s the history? Where’s the context? How are we supposed to understand how this came about? It wasn’t meant to be that kind of exhibition, but sometimes that doesn’t matter.

Have there been any noteworthy notes?

I’ve got this really nice one that says, “Thank you for the honest dialogue. Let us keep listening to each other. Love yourself, love each other.” Here’s a rather comical one: “Don’t be racist or I’ll kick your ass! Be humanist and stand against racism!” I like that one. This is an interesting one: “My gentle, loving grandmother called persons of colour negroes yet had no trouble accepting my Indigenous father, and he and my mother married. Growing up in the ’50s, I heard all the names and sneers. My mother was shocked that I like R&B and soul music, but that didn’t stop me. So proud to be part of the generation that invented multicultural society.” That one is pretty nice.

object in a museum display
Two mid-20th-century toys displayed as part of Museum London’s Difficult Terrain exhibition. (Lucas Stenning)

A large number of the objects in the exhibition were intended for children. Why do you think that is?

Pure and simple: it has a socializing function. Children internalize attitudes and behaviours from the games and toys they play with. Whether it’s a toy that promotes racist imagery … it’s a way to teach racism without really consciously being aware that you’re internalizing these attitudes. Something you imbibe so young can really frame the way you think. It takes quite a lot to jolt you out of that way of thinking. It’s a way for adults who buy these toys to transmit attitudes and behaviours they consider appropriate. Whether it’s a toy that teaches a girl that she should be submissive to boys or a toy that denigrates a radicalized individual — it’s still a parent making a decision on what a child should learn.

We also included objects to address attitudes toward mental health. The restraint crib, which is a nasty piece of work, raises an interesting point because the creators of this torture device thought they were creating a more humane way to restrain somebody who was a danger to themselves or other people. We look at it now and say, “Humane — really? Are you kidding me?” That was the idea behind it. I’m not the only one to think, “Okay, what are we doing now that we think is good, but however many years down the road they’re going to say, ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, how could they have done that?’”

I guess it comes from that idea of “at the time, things were like this.” What do you think of that idea?

I think we have to be conscious of context, and I think we have to take at face value that this doctor thought he was creating something humane. Amanda [one of the exhibit’s co-curators] saw [the restraint crib] and recognized it as a tool that was used to restrain Indigenous children in schools. Then I posed the question in text, “What are we doing in good faith today?”

Think about how many homeless people now are there? One day, someone is going to think of a better way to help people with mental illnesses, and people are not going to end up homeless on the streets. People are going to look at what was happening today and say, “How could they be so heartless? How could they let this happen? Why didn’t they do x, y, and z?”

Could other museums put on this kind of exhibition?

Absolutely. There is no way that we are the only museum in Ontario or in Canada with collections like this. Any museum in Canada could stage this exhibition.

Is it a question of their having these objects in their vaults but not knowing how to  display them in a meaningful way? Could Difficult Terrain be used as a template?

I modelled myself, in certain respects, on a place in the United States. David Pilgrim is a professor of sociology at Ferris State University, and he created the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia and produced a book where he talked about his process and attitudes toward this kind of collection and displaying it.

The exhibition will be closing in less than a month.  So what’s next?

It’ll get put to bed just like all the others. It’s always a little hard, and my working-group members ask, what will happen to it now? If I had all the time in the world, this would be an interesting one to write up as an exhibition for an article for Muse or some other magazine, but it’s a question of time. You get one down, and then there are three exhibitions coming up. It’s always hard to capture the lessons learned.

In terms of [other museums] having an exhibition like ours at Difficult Terrain, many could do it, and if they wanted to use the model we used here, that would be wonderful.

A little thing I took away from an Ontario Museum Association conference a couple years back was from somebody who was lauding the value of R&D. And they said, “By the way, that means rip off and duplicate.” I am all over that. I think that’s absolutely the right idea. If someone wants to rip off and duplicate this, I wish they would.

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