Jill Waycie 2017-11-13 12:56:14
Current events can foil the best laid exhibit plans—or the plans can be adapted to leverage the moment. At Northwestern University Libraries, exhibit planning often starts a year in advance. In 2015, we hadn’t an inkling who the Republican and Democratic parties would nominate as candidates for the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Among the exhibits planned for 2016 was one on Karen DeCrow, 1959 alumna of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. DeCrow was a major figure in the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, during the second wave of the feminist movement in the United States. She led the National Organization for Women (NOW) as president for two terms (1974–1977) and moved the organization forward through her “Majority Caucus” platform, which emphasized a radical push to promote a pro-choice agenda, pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and actively move beyond the majority white, heterosexual membership. Northwestern University Archives received DeCrow’s papers after her death in 2014. Exhibit planners at Northwestern Libraries decided to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of NOW by exhibiting materials on her life and work. The exhibit would open in September 2016 and run through the end of that year. While processing DeCrow’s papers, I learned that she had a strong sense of humor and weathered quite a bit of opposition with resilience and aplomb, focused on her goal of enacting change for women and achieving gender equality. The title of the exhibit, “You’re No One ‘Til Somebody Hates You,” came from a sampler that DeCrow’s sister embroidered for her. My colleagues and I felt that this wry saying encapsulated so much about DeCrow’s life, outlook, and personality. We tried to illustrate this by presenting both positive and negative responses to her work and highlighting her ability to see humor in it all. We wanted to accurately portray the political and social climate of her time and showcase the importance of her work and how strongly people felt about these issues. Synchronicity with Current Events By the time we solidified the layout for items in the exhibit cases in July 2016, Hillary Clinton had been named the Democratic candidate for president. Clinton was facing similar praise and strong opposition that DeCrow had faced decades before. As I planned the items to be displayed, certain themes presented themselves. I wanted to focus on DeCrow’s early life (including her time at Northwestern), her work with NOW, the ERA, and her political work. The items selected to highlight DeCrow’s involvement in politics had become even more pertinent given developments in the 2016 presidential campaign. For example, after DeCrow got a taste of political life when running for mayor of Syracuse, New York, in 1969, she began promoting female candidates in elected offices. She held a “School for Candidates” in 1971, a day-long workshop teaching women various skills needed in running for and holding political offices. Along with her journal documenting her mayoral run, newspaper clippings, original advertisements for the School for Candidates, and political buttons, I included a photograph of DeCrow and Hillary Clinton taken during her 2008 Senate campaign, a reproduction of an advertisement for a DeCrow lecture entitled, “The Woman’s Place is in the House—the White House,” and a NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund promotional item portraying a young girl and the caption, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a judge, or a senator, or maybe President.” When the exhibit opened in September 2016, I gave tours and made sure to point out the relevance of these items to current events. I compared the hate mail we exhibited to social media harassment that exists today, pointing out that previously people took the time to handwrite a letter, put it in an envelope, and mail it. Unlike the seconds it takes to send a hateful tweet, these letter writers had many opportunities to have a change of heart, even though they did not take them. In addition, the Library had invited the current president of NOW, Terry O’Neill, to speak at an event for the exhibit after the election. It seemed like a coup at the time as I imagined a speech that would amplify the historic importance of electing the first female president of the United States and how the work that people like DeCrow did to help make it possible. Then reality intervened. Adapting the Exhibit The morning after the 2016 presidential election, I walked into the library and looked at the giant vinyl photo depicting DeCrow at a NOW rally, fist raised high in the air, yelling, eyes squeezed shut with feeling. The picture now took on a different, less celebratory tone. One interactive aspect incorporated into the exhibit was the “Idea Wall,” where on a whiteboard-painted wall attendees could respond to weekly prompts such as “What does feminism look like to you?” After the election, the prompt was changed to “Where do we go from here?” The wall quickly filled with comments from students. O’Neill still came and gave a fiery speech. She was infuriated by the results of the election and did not hold back. Classmates and old friends of DeCrow’s from as far back as elementary school attended the lecture and reception. We celebrated the work DeCrow did and the advances made for women, even while there was clearly more work to do. As certain communities around the country galvanized in protest for the first time and other groups continued the fight they had been fighting all along, the exhibit started to feel like a supportive, guiding presence, reminding us that our voices as citizens matter and that our voices make a difference. Seizing Opportunities Whenever the possibility exists for outside events to change the tone of an existing exhibit, one can let viewers make the comparison for themselves or address it. I found it important to address the ways that Karen DeCrow’s life and work are still relevant. Through adapting interactive portions to address the recent presidential election, being flexible with scheduled events and speakers, and using tour commentary to highlight pieces relevant to current events, exhibit curators and archivists can help bring collections to life and give them deeper meanings for our users.
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