The Heart of the Matter
Ambitious exhibition includes many points of view — and a tank, too
Some call it a riot. Others consider it a rebellion, a revolution, or an uprising. Depending on your perspective, it just might be all of the above.
Explaining those multiple points of view is exactly what the Detroit Historical Museum staff set out to capture in the “Detroit 67 Perspectives” exhibition that opens in late June.
The project is the result of nearly three years of planning, says Tracy Irwin, the museum’s director of exhibitions and collections. “We started talking about what we wanted to do to commemorate 1967,” she says. “And it grew from there.”
The main goal was to be as inclusive as possible. “It’s a sensitive topic,” Irwin says. “And we wanted to hear many perspectives.”
“Right off the bat, we got some pushback,” adds Joel Stone, a senior curator for the Detroit Historical Society. Some people wondered: “Why do you want to pick that scab?”
But as Stone explains, the museum’s mission is to tell the city’s stories. And it’s not enough to merely provide timelines. There’s a need to explain why those stories matter.
Not many stories in Detroit’s history are as controversial — or have had as long-lasting impact — as the events of the summer of 1967. But the number of people who were on hand to remember those events is shrinking. To understand what happened, visitors need to know the back story.
The staff is transforming some 3,000 square feet of space near its comprehensive “Doorway to Freedom — Detroit and the Underground Railroad” exhibition. The result promises to be a thought-provoking, multimedia approach spanning the history of metro Detroit during the 50 years prior to 1967, followed by a deep dive into the events between July 23 and Aug. 1, 1967. Parts of the exhibit will give visitors a broad context of life in the 1960s, locally, nationally, and internationally, Irwin says. That could include information about The Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in Detroit, or the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles or the ones in Newark, New Jersey, in 1967.
The exhibition will also incorporate three large, interactive components: a living room, a storefront, and a tank.
In the living room, visitors will get a sense of how finding out the news of the day was vastly different from today’s instant cellphone and internet access. It will describe the hectic and chaotic “media blackout” of the first few days, including video footage.
A storefront scene will help tell the tale of looting, how things started to burn, and why. Another interactive and emotional scene involves a tank, showing how the summer’s events were like a war.
To put the exhibition together, museum staff consulted with historians, governmental agencies, and cultural institutions, including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Arab American National Museum, and the Holocaust Memorial Center. The idea was to learn how to deal with difficult topics.
But they also gathered stories of everyday individuals such as police officers, cab drivers, children, and even looters.
Those oral histories are the core of the exhibit. Many recollections culled from those interviews are interwoven into the exhibition.
But the exhibit is not just about looking back. It also explores what’s happened in the 50 years since 1967 — progress as well as setbacks — and ponders the lessons learned.
“Our job [as historians] isn’t to predict the future, but it is to take what we know and analyze it and suggest what it might lead,” Stone says. “Some things have gotten better. [But] some things are the same or dangerously close to where they were. And some things are actually worse. Transportation’s worse. Availability of food is worse. Schools are worse.”
Near the end of the exhibit will be a Moving Forward room, a space for visitors to reflect on what they’ve learned and to project where they want the city to be in the next 50 years.
There will also be information about other events to commemorate 1967 (read more) throughout the whole year.
Plans are to include a survey and a call to action, including a subtle pitch to promote volunteerism by providing information about what organizations such as Greening of Detroit, Equity Action Lab, or literacy programs are doing to change the city.
“We’re saying if you really want to make it better, you need to be involved,” Stone says. “Do something you enjoy doing. If you like teaching, or reading, or planting trees, gardens, or farms … get involved,” Stone says. There’s a “call to action to get people off their couch and realize if the city’s going to get better, they’ve got to do it.”
For information on the exhibition visit detroit1967.org.