Desegregating the Past

The Public Life of Memory in the United States and South Africa

Robyn Autry

Columbia University Press

Desegregating the Past

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Pub Date: February 2017

ISBN: 9780231177580

272 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $60.00

Pub Date: February 2017

ISBN: 9780231542517

272 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $59.99

Desegregating the Past

The Public Life of Memory in the United States and South Africa

Robyn Autry

Columbia University Press

At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, visitors confront the past upon arrival. They must decide whether to enter the museum through a door marked "whites" or another marked "non-whites." Inside, along with text, they encounter hanging nooses and other reminders of apartheid-era atrocities. In the United States, museum exhibitions about racial violence and segregation are mostly confined to black history museums, with national history museums sidelining such difficult material. Even the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture is dedicated not to violent histories of racial domination but to a more generalized narrative about black identity and culture. The scale at which violent racial pasts have been incorporated into South African national historical narratives is lacking in the U.S. Desegregating the Past considers why this is the case, tracking the production and display of historical representations of racial pasts at museums in both countries and what it reveals about underlying social anxieties, unsettled emotions, and aspirations surrounding contemporary social fault lines around race.

Robyn Autry consults museum archives, conducts interviews with staff, and recounts the public and private battles fought over the creation and content of history museums. Despite vast differences in the development of South African and U.S. society, Autry finds a common set of ideological, political, economic, and institutional dilemmas arising out of the selective reconstruction of the past. Museums have played a major role in shaping public memory, at times recognizing and at other times blurring the ongoing influence of historical crimes. The narratives museums produce to engage with difficult, violent histories expose present anxieties concerning identity, (mis)recognition, and ongoing conflict.
Although comparisons of the anti-apartheid and civil rights movements abound, until now no scholar has attended to the comparative place of these struggles in the collective memory of the allegedly 'post-racial' U.S. and in South Africa's 'Rainbow Nation.' Desegregating the Past brilliantly reveals the power and limits of museums to reckon with a troubled racial past, casting new light on how we publicly remember the struggles against apartheid and segregation—and by doing so, how we forget. Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University
As South Africa and America wrestle with simmering legacies of cruel, racist histories, Robyn Autry's bold and layered text investigates how representations of a divided past are reconstructed into an imagined, 'desegregated' present. Invoking the museum as her mode of exploration, Autry powerfully reveals the compound and competing imperatives – ideological, political, economic, institutional - that have informed the maintenance and creation of public sites of memory as two nations transcend and transform their collective narratives. Andrea Durbach, author of A Common Purpose: The Story of the Upington 25 and director of the Australian Human Rights Center at the University of Sydney
Desegregating the Past is a remarkable study of how collective perceptions of the past are shaped and displayed through contestation between public and private memory agents. Set in a comparative context, Autry examines the formation of racial and national identities in the USA and South Africa, and the balance between discourses of victimhood, solidarity and resistance in deeply divided histories. It is an important contribution to our understanding of how conflict and resolution are presented and re-presented in different historical contexts. Ran Greenstein, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
As both a historian and museum curator, I believe that Autry's sociological analysis of museums as institutions and as producers of collective memories is groundbreaking. Her extensive research in the United States and South Africa illuminates the difficulties of producing contemporary national narratives from the messy, contentious, and violent elements of both nation's pasts. Fath Davis Ruffins, Curator, National Museum of American History
Acknowledgments
List of Museums Visited
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Desegregating the Past
1. Memory Entrepreneurs: History in the Making
2. The Curated Past: Remembering the Collective
3. Managing Collective Representations
4. Memory Deviants: Breaking the Collective
Conclusion: Museumification of Memory
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Index

About the Author

Robyn Autry is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Wesleyan University. Her work has been published in Theory, Culture, and Society, Theory & Society, Contexts, and Museum & Society.