“from memory to history”

Just read a fascinating article from the Dallas News about the The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. This is the place that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK in 1963. The website explains how it became a museum:

After the Texas School Book Depository Company moved out in 1970, some hoped the building would be torn down. It remained a painful reminder of what happened in 1963. Dallas County acquired the building in 1977 with plans to locate county offices on the first five floors. After a major renovation, the Dallas County Administration Building was dedicated on March 29, 1981. The top two floors of the building, including the infamous sixth floor, remained empty. On President’s Day 1989, The Sixth Floor Museum opened as a response to the many visitors who come to Dealey Plaza to learn more about the assassination. The historical exhibition on the sixth floor highlights the impact of Kennedy’s death on the nation and the world. Two key evidentiary areas on the sixth floor have been restored to their 1963 appearance.

In the article Nicola Longford, the museum’s executive director, explains that the museum is at the point of changing from ‘memory to history’. As those who come to the site to remember the events are outnumbered by those who come to learn about the events, the memorial is becoming a museum. The museum is finding that it is becoming necessary to explain the context around the event(s) and the time.

“Younger people who are used to greater security measures since 9/11 look at photographs of Kennedy riding in an open car and say, ‘That was crazy. Why would he do that?’ ” “Well, it wasn’t considered crazy at the time, and that’s something we have to explain.”

The city and the museum are obviously uneasy about their role in the assassination of JFK and in the past may have let the images and displays speak for themselves. Clearly this is no longer an approach that will continue to work.

It is interesting to consider how much our memorials and interpretations of big, well-known events are presented with the assumption that those visiting will understand the context. This is particularly the case for places that may be seen as not able to be altered due to the way they’ve been created to memorialise something – that they’ve become sacred. Kind of like this post (well, not the sacred part), where I realise I haven’t explained who Oswald was or what JFK stands for.

What a fascinating time to be part of that museum. There is more in the article and the website is excellent, so clicky-clicky!

Image by Thomas Mundt.


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