What to do with the noose left at the African American Museum?

Leaving a noose in the segregation galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is an example of what might be called asymmetrical symbolism.

With a small amount of effort, someone managed to send an extraordinary message of hatred with the rope when it was discovered inside the museum Wednesday. Like terrorism, asymmetrical symbolism can’t be fought with conventional means. It presents us with a paradox and few good options for response. To ignore it is to accept a world in which this kind of ugliness becomes normal and more frequent. But there is also the risk of unintentionally dignifying it. The good work, the message, the historical wisdom embodied in the galleries where the noose was left can’t be undone by such a small-minded and grotesque gesture.

One has to acknowledge the historical power of the object — a reference to lynching and, by extension, the use of racial terror to dehumanize and control African Americans — while also affirming the far larger and redemptive power of the institution that was vandalized. In a sense, it requires ordinary people to think like museum curators: to search out the meaning and history of an object while placing it in its proper context.

And so, perhaps there is an appropriate asymmetrical response to this asymmetrical act of hate: accession into the museum’s collection.

This isn’t likely to happen. Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, points out that the noose (one of two found in or near a Smithsonian museum this week) is in the possession of the Park Police and instrumental to a criminal investigation. Incorporating it into the museum would also set unwanted precedents and give hatemongers unwanted power over determining the content of the museum’s collection.

And some would no doubt see incorporating it in the Smithsonian holdings as a kind of honor paid to the object itself. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Smithsonian does, a misunderstanding worth pondering for a moment.

The power of the galleries at the African American Museum focusing on racism and segregation is inseparable from the ugliness of the objects they contain. To their great credit, museum curators were fearless about incorporating repellent and even explosive reminders of racism into the collection, from racist figurines to a Ku Klux Klan robe. The presence of these objects is determined by their importance to the larger narrative of African American history, not by any wish to honor them through affiliation with the museum as an institution.

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Chris Alexakisart