Mid-Year Steering Share: Dealing with Controversial Collections-the Remnants of Racist Artifacts and Objects

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post is from Issues & Advocacy Section chair Hope Dunbar, an Archivist at SUNY Buffalo State. The Mid-Year Steering Share was developed to discuss projects currently active or recently completed, either personal or professional.

The materials that comprise the Lester Glassner African American Experience Collection were gifted to the SUNY Buffalo State Archive & Special Collections in 2009 upon Mr. Glassner’s death. From his late teens onward he collected dime store memorabilia and other pop-culture artifacts until his collection amassed many rooms within his New York apartment and numbered into the hundreds of thousands. A significant portion of his collection centered on black memorabilia—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Collection items range from 1850 to 2005 and include a staggering span of African American depictions in pop culture within the United States.

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Upon the donation of the collection, the Archives & Special Collections had to determine how this material would be treated. Would it be displayed? Would it remain in the collection? Many items, most of the collection, depict patently racists images ranging from Sambo, Mammy, Uncle Rastus, and general “pickaninny” depictions. Archivists and librarians adhere to codes of conduct and ethics developed by both regional and national organizations, including SAA. We are taught through coursework and practical experience the complex nature of archival assessment and collection development, however we are rarely told what to do with offensive items. If we have tackled such topics, it is likely in our direct work with donors, patrons, and administration, as opposed to a formal introduction through classroom instruction.

In this instance, the Archive & Special Collections decided that the act of repressing such images would be to pretend such images, and consequently such opinions, did not exist. Instead, we framed the collection through the lens of discussion. These artifacts exist, they were produced to a mass market, and they depict cultural understandings of a historical period. Lester Glassner’s collection is extensive because he documented a full range of African American depictions through various time periods. He insisted the collection remain intact to provide context to the patron and student. Later items include positive representations such as African American Barbies, Santas, action figures, soldiers, and individual character depictions, such as Star Wars’ Mace Windu, Kendra from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Morpheus from The Matrix.

A selection are displayed in the main reading room and students who visit the department are encouraged to join the active discussion as we talk about the background and how the collection informs or clashes with their cultural perspectives. In addition, our collection page includes the historical background of the collection written by a former archivist in the department, again, to give context to the items.

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5 thoughts on “Mid-Year Steering Share: Dealing with Controversial Collections-the Remnants of Racist Artifacts and Objects

  1. We have a master’s thesis written in 1971 that examines the history of the Ku Klux Klan in this part of Wisconsin. In the course of doing his research, the author was given items by people he interviewed, including a full KKK robe and hood. Two years ago it was borrowed by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, but we have not displayed it since I have been here. We did display a small child’s KKK robe a few years ago in an exhibit about Freedom Summer in a window talking about who opposed the civil rights movement in Mississippi and did those elements exist in Wisconsin. We had a professor (not history) who came in over the lunch hour and yelled at a student worker about how could we perpetuate such a thing. He did not leave his name, however, so we were never able to talk to him. We did add a statement written by one of our history professors about why it is important to not hide such history.
    We now have a Black History Month display, done by a local county historical society, on the Negro Baseball league in this area and nationally. It includes a panel on the KKK in the area at the time. We are displaying it in the Archives, not in the main library where the rest of the exhibit is. Along with it we are displaying the KKK adult robe for the first time since I’ve been here. My main problem is that it can be seen through the large glass windows without anyone coming in to read the material that goes with it. I am going to mount something outside for those who don’t come in. It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction there is this time. I plan to reuse the history professor’s statement from the last exhibit. It is also near my office, so I can go out to talk with anyone who does come in.
    Displaying such items does have potential problems. Our museum counterparts are probably better prepared in their professional training to deal with these issues and how to present these kinds of objects to the public.

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