Collecting Trayvon Martin’s Hoodie: A Conversation We Need to Have

Now that the 24/7 discussion of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case has died down, it’s time to look at the implications of a discussion that flared briefly in the aftermath of the not-guilty verdict for Zimmerman.

On July 31, 2013, Lonnie Bunch, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was quoted in a Washington Post story about museums collecting iconic objects from controversial legal cases:

Martin’s hoodie, Bunch said, represents a unique opportunity to further the discussion about race in America. (And, by the way, he’d love to have it for his collection once the legal case plays out. He also has his eye on the hoodie that Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wore in solidarity with protesters.)

“It became the symbolic way to talk the Trayvon Martin case. It’s rare that you get one artifact that really becomes the symbol,” Bunch said. “Because it’s such a symbol, it would allow you to talk about race in the age of Obama.” Curators, he mused, could “ask the bigger questions” prompted by the case.

Two days later the following statement appeared in shorter versions on Twitter and in full on NMAAHC’s Facebook  page:

Despite reports, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is not currently seeking to add Trayvon Martin’s hoodie to its collection. We recognize that certain items related to the Trayvon Martin trial could one day have historical value and provide a way to study and discuss race in America. Acquiring any object for our museum involves rigorous consultation with a team of museum historians and curators. Any items connected to the Trayvon Martin case – should they even become available – would have to go through that lengthy process.

What happened between July 31 and August 2 to make such a statement necessary? Having no inside track to thinking at the museum, this is what I surmise:

The viral discussion and inevitable distortion of the story by social media demanded some kind of clarifying statement: 

Almost immediately the Twitterverse had an exhibition about racism and its impact, featuring the hoodie, under development (if not actually installed) in the not-yet completed museum.  Director Bunch’s (perfectly appropriate, in my view) expression of interest and reflection on the value of iconic and symbolic objects to stimulate visitor engagement and dialogue on important issues was misinterpreted and translated into an actual collecting initiative by the Smithsonian.

There were over 1200 comments posted in response to the Washington Post article, of which the first was: What an educational experience! You can go to the Smithsonian to see Trayvon’s hoodie, then (for the rest of the experience) walk downtown and get robbed and beaten by a DC resident wearing one!

This comment, with many like it, and fewer disagreeing with it, provides a vivid demonstration of

  • Why a discussion about race and racial stereotyping might still be needed in our country;

  • The power of an “iconic object” to provoke discussion and debate about contemporaneous events;

  • Why a history museum might want to place such an object in the context of an exhibition about broader cultural issues.

The discussion, especially the vitriolic comments on the Post article, overwhelmingly reflected the popular notion that when a museum collects and/or displays a controversial object, the museum is tacitly endorsing the events the object represents. For many, collecting the hoodie meant the Smithsonian was endorsing Trayvon Martin’s innocence, taking a side, and granting an object a status it did not deserve.

There is no question that even the most mundane object gains a certain value and status when it becomes part of a museum’s collection or a museum exhibition.  So it’s true that a Klan robe, a tee shirt with a controversial slogan, a campaign button, or any other item of material culture is in some sense “elevated” when collected or displayed.  But we in museums need to do a better job of explaining  collecting/display as an act of documentation rather than a decision to promote or endorse.

I hope that NMAAHC does eventually acquire the hoodie and other material related to the Zimmerman/Martin case.  And I hope it will continue to explain, as it did briefly on its Facebook page, why the collection of items related to this case is important both to the museum’s mission and for the broader education of its visitors. A number of the comments on Facebook expressed thanks to the museum for explaining how and why it would collect material from the case.  This will no doubt be an ongoing process, and controversy will flare again if and when any efforts to collect begin.

In its Facebook statement, NMAAHC said: We recognize that certain items related to the Trayvon Martin trial could one day (emphasis mine) have historical value and provide a way to study and discuss race in America.   

It may be too soon to launch a collecting initiative for the hoodie itself, given its personal nature and the fact that there may possibly be more litigation.  However, it is not too early to begin documenting the incident itself, the trial, and all of the attendant reaction and discussion.  The day after 9/11, museums began collecting material in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC related to the attacks and attendant plane crashes.  Curators and photographers from the Smithsonian and from other museums were on the scene – not for reasons of sensationalism but for the purposes of documenting and preserving fragile evidence of an event of significance to American history.  This is not to compare the Martin case to 9/11 in its scope or significance, but to say that for any important happening, especially in a time when events and news move so quickly, it is professional best practice for museums to begin documenting immediately. 

With this case, it is not so much the event itself (about which no one will ever know the full story) but the national and international reaction – not the pebble thrown into the pond but the ever- widening ripples – that will most probably be the focus of collection and documentation efforts.  

How this case will play out in future months and years is not known, but I would place my money on its continuing iconic nature, and therefore on the need to begin preserving evidence of the controversy right now, especially its discussion in the news and on social media.  

To critics, the policy[police able to stop and search anyone looking suspicious] amounts to officially sanctioned profiling of the city’s black and brown residents—and, on Monday, Judge Shira Scheindlin, in a major ruling in a federal lawsuit challenging the program, agreed. Yet the most compelling element in Judge Scheindlin’s decision that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional—as currently practiced, at least—may have nothing to do with New York City at all.

At several points in the two opinions released today, Judge Scheindlin referred to the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida and its implications for policing nationwide.[Scheindlin prescribed] for the N.Y.P.D. a pilot program in which police will be equipped with personal cameras that record their interactions with civilians… Scheindlin wrote:  “…The recordings may either confirm or refute the belief of some minorities that they have been stopped simply as a result of their race, or based on the clothes they wore, such as baggy pants or a hoodie.”

In case the mention of the apparel that came to symbolize the Martin case was too oblique to convey her point, she brought out the Fourth Amendment implications of racial profiling with a more specific note about how the justifications for the policy, troublingly, echoed “the stereotype that black men are more likely to engage in criminal conduct than others.”  (emphases mine in the quotation above)

This quotation illustrates NMAAHC Director Bunch’s reference to the symbolic nature of Trayvon Martin’s hoodie. It is but the tip of a much larger iceberg of social tension and contention.  Placed in the proper cultural and historical context, it could be the center of a very powerful exhibition encouraging civil debate and dialogue around the question of race and racism in America.

Telling the story of Trayvon is not divisive. Ignoring it is denying the reality of millions of Americans-black, Hispanic, Muslim, et al.-who are unfairly profiled. 

 Comment on NMAAHC Facebook page

What are your thoughts?  Do you think museums of American and African American history and related topics should be collecting around the Trayvon Martin case?  And how can we as museums educate audiences about our role and responsibility to document all aspects of our culture, including those that are difficult to face?

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