This spring, a new exhibit is opening in Miller-Nichols library and at locations around Kansas City. Titled “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights,” the exhibit explores Kansas City’s surprising role in the US gay rights movement of the 1960s. The exhibit opened April 19 at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library (800 E. 51st Street) and will be on view through September 30. If you want to learn more, you’ll need to see the exhibit. However, for a special post this week I thought I would share my perspective as one of the contributing curators. I can’t speak for everyone who worked on the project, but I hope my experience gives readers a taste of what its like to work with the “stuff” of history and turn it into an exhibit panel.
Most of the time, the history that you see in an exhibit or read in a book is just the tip of a very big iceberg. Historians deal in a particular type of story – we call them “narratives.” A narrative is a vehicle for explaining how and why certain events in the human past happened the way they did. We use narratives the way Physicists use models – to explain how and why systems work. In our case, our system is the whole of past human affairs and the narrative is a model for why some of the atoms (humans) behaved the way they did. Coming up with one of these models means balancing between staying true to the historical evidence and inferring something more from the evidence that makes it part of an interpretation. Having just the facts, with no interpretation or narrative, results in the dry “history” you hated in high school. Just a narrative with no supporting evidence? That’s called fiction. Good histories mix fact and interpretation, and also answer what we call the “so what” question. This asks why is what we have to say important? What lesson can be drawn from it, or how does understanding this part of the past allow us to understand a different part better? Sometimes, particularly challenging source material makes the entire process harder.
The most salient aspect of this project for me was the challenge my source material presented. My panel is about the Gay Bar scene in Kansas City in the 50s and 60s. The most amazing source material I had was a huge set of pictures taken at a few different bars.The problem I faced was a difficulty to do either one at all. In some cases these were just pictures of people. The subject, date, and location were unknown. Pictures of people at a bar is not history. I was going to have to make some judgements about what I was looking at and why it was important. On the other hand, these were like people’s Facebook photos. Who am I to draw any sort of conclusion about what they “mean” or what the “significance” is? I wasn’t there. I don’t know them.
Picture from the GLAMA collection, similar to the ones I worked with. The people, place, and date are unknown.
I’ve never been at such a loss about how to interpret a source, in part because I felt as if any interpretation violated someones privacy. Then I realized the answer lay in the problem: the intimacy of the photos was the lesson. These photos show how important gay bars were at that time because they were a place where people could be intimate, or could take pictures together without fear of repercussions. My panel presents the photos without telling you a great deal about who those people were. But it does tell a story about why gay bars were so important. If you ask me what these photos “mean” in an historical sense, I’d say they’re evidence that bars were special places for gays and lesbians in the 1950s and 60s. You can see it in the pictures they took.
Dancer, choreographer, educator, and anthropologist Pearl Primus is featured in a new Ground Floor exhibit at MNL. “’The Returned Spirit’: Pearl Primus in Africa” features photographs of this amazing mid-20th century dance dynamo during her second trip to the West African nation of Liberia. Her visits to Africa were transformative for her professionally and personally, and the images really capture both her energetic dance style as well as her anthropological curiosity. The pictures in the exhibit are from a 1952 scrapbook in the Leon Jordan Collection; both Jordan and Primus were in Liberia at the same time for the second inauguration of the country’s president. To get a sense of Primus’ phenomenal athletic stage presence, check out this video.
This exhibit is timed to coincide with some upcoming Library programs:
Feeling peckish? Too early for lunch? You can now at least feed your imagination by taking a gander at the newest exhibit on the Ground floor of MNL, “Bookbinder Soup, Steak Diane, and the Daily Madness: Menus from Bygone Kansas City Restaurants”!
Featuring a variety of menus from an array of eateries that were around in the mid-70s through early 80s, the exhibit serves an additional purpose than merely whetting viewers’ culinary recollections – it also helps promote the Libraries-sponsored Book Discussion Group that is reading Fast Food Nation in conjunction with the Office of Diversity, Access, and Equity’s annual Social Justice Lecture. Eric Schlosser, author of FFN, will be on campus Tuesday, Nov 1, and our Book Discussion Group, led by the inimitable Scott Curtis, will be held in advance of that lecture – Wed, Oct 26, from 3-4:30 in Room 303, to be precise! The perfect opportunity to highlight some gastronomic blasts from the past from LaBudde Special Collections. Bon appétit!
Stuart Hinds, Director of Special Collections, UMKC Libraries
You’ve probably never considered it but someone had to invent the album cover. Early 78 rpm sets were sold as literal albums, 3-4 sleeves holding discs and bound together, wrapped by boring brown kraft paper. At Columbia Records in the late 1930s, a young man by the name of Alex Steinweiss had the brilliant idea to add designs to these covers in order to boost album sales, and his plan was wildly successful. Fortunately for posterity’s sake Mr. Steinweiss was an extremely witty and adroit designer, and you can now partake of examples of his remarkable skill in the display cases on the Ground Floor of MNL!
But hurry, the display will only be up through this Friday, September 9. “Alex Steinweiss: Inventor of the Album Cover” features an array of albums from the Marr Sound Archive that highlight the impact this remarkable designer had on an entire industry.
Stuart Hinds, Director of Special Collections, UMKC Libraries