Today I was just shuffling through large object boxes in the NLEM storage facility where I am currently working (aka the “police treasure trove”!). I’ve handled some really cool stuff since I’ve been here: a piece of the World Trade Center, delicate and beautiful arrest warrants from the early 19th century, rows of police badges from seemingly every precinct in America… but nothing really prepared me for what I saw as I took the lid off of Box #7 this afternoon: a crimson red Ku Klux Klan mask, made of a stiff linen fabric and obviously sewn on a home sewing machine. The small, neat hemlines told me it had been made with care, probably even with pride. The mask was just lying there, benignly, on top of a layer of special Japanese unbuffered tissue paper. Beneath it were two sets of KKK robes: one crimson, one white, both similarly swaddled for preservation purposes.(I really didn't feel like putting up illustrations of this object, so here's a link to the Google image results for KKK mask if you really need visuals.)
Now, normally I’m not an object-based girl. I don’t get the thrills my coworkers get from handling and inspecting museum treasures gingerly with their gloved hands. I get distracted with wishing that I had a real reason to don that sheriff’s Stetson hat, or swing that wooden noise-maker-looking thing around (my boss explains it’s a “police rattle,” which they used before sirens to get the attention of crowds, mid 19th century. I guess they are VERY LOUD, but ours is brittle, and therefore no one will ever use it to make a sound again…. boo). I’m glad I guess that I work mostly with archival materials, because with documents, I have the chance to use my objects to their fullest extent! I get information out of them, exactly like their original users did! And I get info not only from the written words; as an archivist, I learn things from the handwriting, the date, the paper, the seal, the stamp, the enclosures, etc.
Back to today. I finally experienced a real, visceral reaction to an object, one that was surprisingly strong, and unpleasant. The white of the paper showed eerily through the gaping holes where the eyes—the morally blinded eyes of its owner— would have peeked out. I did not not want to touch it, or even continue to look at it for very long (and I DEFINITELY had no desire to put it on). I just wanted to put it away. It was a very vivid experience, different from all other times I’ve seen KKK masks, in movies or plays (like Genna’s The Foreigner at BYU! That was good times.) No doubt it was my prior knowledge of the lawlessness, the horror, and yes, even the conspiratorial drama that the men who wore this kind of thing effected that was affecting me (Nice English there, no? :).
I couldn’t put it away quickly like I wanted, I had to fill out a condition report first. But I breezed through that pretty quickly, picking the object up by the corners of the tissue paper, seriously almost holding my breath the whole time. It’s still weird to me that something so simple, so obviously homemade, could affect me like that. I told me boss it made me a little sick. She explained that it was donated by an FBI field agent who had been on the case of the KKK during the Civil Rights Era. Fairly good backstory, right?
We had a whole debate at lunch about whether or not we as museum professionals would treat this object differently (aka refuse it) if it had been offered to us by, say, its original owner. Technically, we shouldn’t (treat it much differently). We have to look at things from a broader perspective. The object is most assuredly an interesting addition to our collection, which has the stated aim of creating “a greater understanding of the law enforcement profession and the critical role it plays in American society” through all of its accessions (all the new objects it collects).
The last few weeks, though… well, this whole first year of graduate school, actually, have taught me that I am really bad at this kind of thing- suspending my personal beliefs and reactions in order to adhere to a higher set of standards or beliefs that all fall under the category "objectivity." I have an intellectual temper like no other. You start telling me an opinion or belief that I can’t agree with, I tune you out, or worse, get angry. Obviously, this is a major flaw I get to work on! (Must learn to be more encyclopedic in scope, more benevolent in judgment, and/or more able to patiently listen to opposing viewpoints and then craft and deliver a succinct defense of whatever I think is the real truth! Someday… I'll be good.)
How would the meaning of that mask change if it had been given to us by a Klansman who wanted it to be “immortalized” in the collection? By taking it from an agent, haven't we accomplished that already, in a certain way? Eventually, my colleagues and I came to a tenuous and sticky conclusion that where it came from doesn’t change the object’s value to the museum itself. This sticky consensus is very emblematic of the type of ethics-laden questions curators and museum directors have to deal with all the time. It’s part of the job. As museum professionals, we’ll take this historical object, iron it, pack it in tissue paper, store it in a long line of textiles,and use it to tell the story, to tell the truth, about an important and horrific vigilante movement in the American South. (Ironically, Box #7 sits in between boxes containing bullet-proof vests and the uniforms of Lucius Amerson, the first black sheriff in the South since the Reconstruction). In my final analysis, the ideas that this mask and robe may evoke, the story of American law enforcement that it helps tell, gives us is its final value. We do NOT value it for its original function.
That is my favorite part of being a museum professional. Finding things that open up my and others’ eyes a little more and ask us to push back. All this in order to make us realize that we are a part of the history that came before us, even (or rather, especially) the history that makes us sick and challenges us to leave a better legacy than others have done. Such is the glory of objects.
I still hate that mask though.
Back to the secret files of J. Edgar Hoover… I love my job.