We all save sentimental objects; things to remind of us seminal moments in our past. That object becomes a physical representation of a memory, of a moment in time. But when we pull that shoebox out from underneath our bed, did we squirrel away anything that dredges up negative emotions? Something that reminds us of what we’d like to forget?
Culled from the Ohio Historical Society’s own collection of such objects are five installments making what is called “Controversy Two: Pieces We Don’t Talk About”. Immediately upon walking into the exhibit you are presented with a Nazi flag, followed by a poem written in dialect, and a child’s bowling set featuring cartoonish depictions of immigrants. It is followed by a room full of the Courier and Ives “Darktown” series, and lastly a Cleveland Indians Jacket from 1947.
The point of the exhibit is not to assume some guilt from our collective past, to let the blatant racism wash over like a bitter rain. Controversy Two is merely encouraging curiosity and conversation.
It’s natural in this exhibit to be affected by some objects more than others. It’s hard not to have some emotional reaction to the stark Nazi flag with the swastika emblazened on it in black. This particular flag has a story. Private Harold J. Gordon Jr. from the 175th infantry regiment took the flag from a Tiger Tank on May 7th, 1945 the day of Germany’s surrender. He gave it to his father in Cleveland, Ohio. The swastika used a symbol of good luck until it became associated with Nazi Germany. The symbol still holds its power today, proudly displayed by white power organizations and neo-Nazis. It reminds us that even in what some call a “post racist” world, we are far from it.
Also in a not too distant past is one of the best selling Currier and Ives lithography series, Darktown. The company is known for their idyllic prints of happy and well to do people enjoying life, these Dark Town prints, again, some of their best selling, are almost like a slap in the face that still stings after 130 years. At the time of production, Currier and Ives described the series as “pleasant and humourous designs, free from coarseness or vulgarity.” That last bit is a little hard to swallow. Images like these were common at the time, with actors in minstrel shows often appearing in black face. It brings to mind truly how much what is considered “acceptable” has changed in our media and our society.
Go see Controversy II at the Ohio Historical Society for yourself to see what impacts you. It is a bold move to display such challenging objects allowing general public to make their own assumptions about. It reminds us that though our history is written by those that lived it, it is up to us to filter that information for ourselves.
Controversy II is on display through December 30th, 2012 at the Ohio Historical Society. Visit the website for hours and information.