Abstract

Caricatures of African Americans and associated racist imagery, once commonplace in American life, have been used to display dominance and oppression over African Americans. These images were created in order to support the Jim Crow hierarchy, which white Southerners established in the late 1800s and upheld until the 1960s, with white people reigning at the top and black people at the bottom. This Southern social construct was not limited to this geographical area, but also influenced white opinions and attitudes towards the black population in the north as well. In part, white supremacy was maintained through the creation of everyday consumer objects to reinforce the idea that black people were inferior to white people. This tactic was used on any number of manufactures, such as on salt and pepper shakers, restaurant buildings and lawn ornaments, and was also seen in the visual culture during that time in TV shows, cartoons and commercials. Their relevance eventually became overlooked and the items fell out of favor in the post-Civil Rights era. Nonetheless, these objects still exist, and subsequently leave those that come across them wondering what we are supposed to do with such items. In this thesis, I have conducted a case study of one such situation. The focus of this case study is the racist imagery removed from an amusement park-like attraction in Rochester, New York, the Dentzel Carousel, in 2016 and the charge of a local institution, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, to create a display and interpretive plan surrounding it. This examination and the related analysis is based upon interviews with museum staff and members of the Rochester community as well as recent press clippings and documents regarding the controversy surrounding the carousel. I combine these with a review of museum ethics and recent approaches to exhibiting like materials to answer the following questions: What is the responsibility of a museum to its community in addressing and facilitating the display and interpretation of difficult content? How can these activities reclaim the past and re-present it within an appropriate context? While the topics researched in this paper center around racially sensitive objects and depictions of African Americans in particular, the discussion is applicable across other contexts.

Publication Date

5-2017

Document Type

Thesis

Student Type

Undergraduate

Degree Name

Museum Studies (BS)

Department, Program, or Center

Department of History (CLA)

Advisor

Juilee Decker

Advisor/Committee Member

Michael Brown

Campus

RIT – Main Campus

Plan Codes

MUSEUM-BS

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