I am currently teaching a course on the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 1970s at Santa Clara University. Unsurprisingly, we have spent a significant amount of our time discussing the Civil Rights Movement in its many iterations during that period. This has included some analysis and discovery about the Black Panthers, who of course originated just about 45 minutes north of our campus. This prompted me to take advantage of Black Panthers at 50 exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. Unfortunately Sunday was the last day – I say unfortunately because it was such a wonderful experience.*
The Museum sold out of tickets for the show and this makes sense. It was rich and inviting. All of one’s senses were engaged by photographs, videos, sounds, etc. The curators invited patrons to touch some of the items on display. Part of the experience was also the crowds of people milling through the space. Each person came to this history with his/her own perspective and cultural knowledge of the Panthers. There was a KKK robe on
display, the air hung tense and heavy around it as people gazed at the tainted cloth.
Students from SCU organizations sat in the chair reminiscent of that which Bobby Seale sat in and gazed at the powerful photograph of the child arrested during the Watts Riot. I heard one grandmother patiently tell the small child she accompanied that no, not all
policemen are kind and that we must work against racism and oppression. I found that to be incredibly powerful.
The show included artifacts, FBI document replicas, and art. The walls were covered with art inspired by the Panthers both in the 1960s and 1970s as well as today. I took nearly 80 photographs of what I saw there, partially to remember and partially to use when I teach about the Panthers in the future.
The exhibit was successful in telling a difficult history – one marred with misinterpretations that often ignores the group’s community service. But the exhibit did not gloss over the criminal acts taken by some members nor its militant dedication to black power.
I find museums to be a wonderful way to explore history and they can compliment the college experience as well. Unlike in a book or lecture, the experience is all encompassing in the space. Like a class, there is something about sharing it with others – although it is more temporary and anonymous often in the museum setting. Combining the museum with the class has a great deal of potential, as each as their own strengths and arguments to make.
*While the show is now over, OMC has posted the videos from it on YouTube.