Monday, May 18, 2015

Museum experience

A slavery museum located here in the former nexus of the American slave trade is an idea whose time is long overdue.  But, in NOLA Disney, we don't really build museums.  Instead we build visitor experiences.
My concern is that this project sounds like something that could easily devolve into a garish, Disneyesque-knock-off theme park (Epcot not Magic Kingdom). If not so grand as Disney, then maybe it will be the colorful Yeehaw! of Opryland in Nashville. So, one minute a slave ship, the next a party on deck with a brass band. I mean, this is New Orleans.

On the Council's approval of the plan, WVUE reports:

The proposed $170 million museum will include a life-size interactive slave ship built inside a new five-story building and a riverfront park with an amphitheater and two replica African villages.
The museum complex will also include a Creole Caribbean African restaurant, an herb and vegetable garden, a DNA lab, an exhibit and meeting space.
As a part of the museum experience, visitors will have the opportunity to travel aboard a fully functioning replica slave ship that will sail to Natchez, Miss., and Scott's Bluff in Baton Rouge, located near Southern University.” (emphasis added by me)
Does this sound like a museum that will educate the nation about the loss of thousands of lives during the Middle Passage and the enslavement of millions of Africans around the world through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade? Or does it sound more like a Fantasy Land complete with riverboat rides?

Yesterday when we were talking about this someone suggested the similarly Disney-esque  World War II Museum as a comparison. That's fair in my mind though not in a good way.  It also features several discomforting "attractions" including  a celeb-chef branded restaurant, a musical revue, and an "immersive 4D" theater showing a movie narrated by Tom Hanks. All of which has always struck me as a rather crass way to celebrate commemorate a traumatic period of global bloodshed.  But, then again, this was the birth of the American empire and we're conditioned to believe American history always moves us to the best possible outcome.
Louisiana has a problem reconciling with its slavery history. The tourism industry here repeatedly prefers to sugar coat or blatantly lie about slavery's atrocities, and it sounds like this proposed venture will be no different. For instance, one article at the Uptown Messenger, after mentioning that Lazard sees a vision similar to the World War II Museum and the Holocaust museum (or the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center), continues with this quote from someone else who may be involved:

“One component of it is incredible horror and destruction, but they’re mostly places of hope and victory and heroes,” said Michael Mayer, a West End boat builder.
Well, that's just what America needs given its current dysfunction on race and the Black experience, a slave ship museum that lets visitors leave feeling they've been in a place of hope surrounded by victory and heroes. Instead of grasping the depravity and horror of it all, folks can stroll along with their children saying, "See that! Everybody's overcome. Slavery all worked out for the mutual good."

America is the greatest bestest country in the world, its people are all essentially good, and everything always works out for the best.  This is not only the unfortunate way we teach history, it's also the paralyzingly destructive myth at the heart of our politics and the cause of our continuing inability to cope with social dysfunction. 

If everything is always for the best and everyone is perfectly well meaning, then there never is any legitimate cause for dissent. It's a recipe for oppression. Which, in turn, is one reason why why we have and tolerate so much of that.
More than 1.57 million inmates sat behind bars in federal, state, and county prisons and jails around the country as of December 31, 2013. In the federal prisons, more than half of those sentenced to a stints of a year or longer are still there for drug crimes. In states including Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, and Georgia, at least 1 percent of male residents were in prison on December 31. And across the country, racial disparities persist. Black men are six times more likely than white men to be in prison. Hispanic men are 2.4 times more likely, according to a Sentencing Project analysis of the data.

Besides, thinking critically about the events and systems that shape society is bad for business. Even if your business is technically a "non-profit" organization, chances are you and your donor base are trying to tap into the "cultural economy."  Which is a benign way of saying you are in the business of building the sort of amusements that catalyze tourism and real estate development. 

The new civics has, in effect, been disrupted by entrepreneurs. If a thing cannot be branded and marketed, it has no relevance. The new thinking requires us to replace our monuments with "iconic structures"our libraries with jazz-themed cocktail lounges, and our museums with boat rides. 

Or maybe we're replacing the whole city with a museum-like attraction. This grand possibility came up on a previous episode of Shit My Jackie Says.
City Council President Jackie Clarkson said she had been supporting Lazard’s efforts for years.

“We almost needed the city to catch up with that dream,” Clarkson said. “We’ve become a museum city, and that has helped immensely. You had to wait for the rest of the city to catch up with you.”

1 comment:

VParlant said...

Cracked me up with Jackie. :-)