With the city torn by anguish, the question came up again and again – what exactly was the Levine going to do?
Less than a month after Kathryn Hill took over as president of the Levine Museum of the New South, she faced board members and community leaders asking how the institution intended to interpret the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the protests that followed.
Provocative programming is in the Levine’s DNA. It has long examined uncomfortable topics through the lens of history with the goal of creating awareness and encouraging dialogue to shape the future.
But “K(NO)W Justice, K(NO)W Peace,” which opens Feb. 17, is unprecedented for the speed of its development. Major exhibits at the Levine and other museums typically take three years of research, development and construction. Incubation of this exhibition is about five months.
“It’s breathtakingly fast,” says Hill. “It will be a work in progress from start to finish.”
Our motto is to use history to build community. This will test it. We have to think about how do we make Charlotte a better place.
Levine historian Brenda Tindal
Hill had spent three decades in museum work – including jobs at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and History Colorado – before leaving Denver for Charlotte. Hill had been at the Levine less than a month when the demonstrations erupted. This is the first exhibition under her leadership.
“Museums in general and the Levine in particular need to be more responsive,” Hill says. “We need to find ways to respond more quickly to events. This is an extraordinary response to an extraordinary moment.”
(Above: A photo of Keith Lamont Scott is part of an area where JCSU students created memorials. /John Simmons)
Hill says the Levine felt it imperative to address the issues of the September protests while the city was still processing the trauma and to do so in the historical context of social change in Charlotte and nationally that led to the moment, and to provide a forum for dialogue on the subject.
“As a newcomer, it is interesting to me that Charlotte has not let this go, not let this evaporate in the next news cycle,” she says. “This is a moment when Charlotte is thinking about who we are, what we want to be and how we get there.”
Though she’d never developed an exhibition at quite the speed of this one, the Levine had been planning a show for 2018 on the aftermath of police shootings and resulting social unrest, so it had material under consideration that provided a base for accelerated development.
Context of history
Visitors to the exhibition will first come to a timeline, “Swann to Scott,” that provides context of social change from the 1971 landmark Supreme Court decision ordering busing in Mecklenburg to achieve racial balance in schools to the shooting of Scott in University City on Sept. 20, 2016.
It examines the matrix of social policy and developments over time including housing, criminal justice and education in Charlotte and nationally and poses the question of how these moments contribute to community distrust.
Overall, Hill says, the exhibit poses the question: How did we get here and where do we go? “It’s not our job to answer the question, but to provide some context so people can draw their own conclusions.”
Then comes a section of oral histories collected by the museum staff from the September protests drawn from a constellation of perspectives – demonstrators, police Chief Kerr Putney, activists, clergy, a street medic, business people, uptown residents, civic leaders and a journalist.
Next is a section, “Lives Beyond the Hashtag,” assembled over the last four years by Johnson C. Smith University students led by assistant professor of history Tiffany Packer. They have been developing background material to explore the life stories of people from diverse backgrounds who died in police killings in recent years.
Instant artwork appeared during the week of demonstrations on plywood erected to protect the windows of the Hyatt House Charlotte on East Trade Street. Matt Allen, the hotel’s general manager, invited artists to use the plywood as a canvas to express their feelings.
Recognizing historical value in the works, Bank of America underwrote preservation of the panels and some are on display at the exhibition.
Finally there’s an exhibition of images by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr., a Charlotte-based photographer who roams the nation documenting those who rise up in social protest.
Drawn to drama
“K(NO)W Justice, K(NO)W Peace” will be the first exhibition of Jacobs’ work. A self-taught photographer, he began documenting contemporary social movements beginning with protests following the Trayvon Martin killing in 2012 in Florida.
Jacobs, who grew up in Illinois, does not consider himself a journalist, but rather an activist with a camera. His experience recording the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., was a turning point in his development.
I’m not media. I’m an insurgent. I’m a part of what’s going on. I’m in it.
Charlotte-based photographer Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.
“I had never seen a militarized police, not even in Chicago,” he says. He felt a new degree of danger and it brought him to realize his place in the movement.
“That’s when I knew I had what it took,” he says. “I was willing to make the sacrifices to make history. Recording it is one aspect. I asked, ‘How do I remain neutral?’
“It dawned on me that I don’t have the ability to remain neutral,” he says. “I’m not media. I’m an insurgent. I’m a part of what’s going on. I’m in it.”
Jacobs found himself increasingly driven to capture the emotion of the demonstrators though his lens.
He was visiting Washington, D.C., when he heard of protests in Charlotte and drove straight home to photograph the activity.
“I wanted to have have a clear narrative of how the people were feeling and what they were saying,” he says. “I wanted the people of my city to have their voices heard.”
Jacobs left the violence and rioting aspects to the mainstream media. His focus, he says, was on the peaceful demonstration and what it represented.
Brenda Tindal, the Levine’s historian, says Jacobs’ work has resonance with that of Gordon Parks, the prominent civil rights photographer who famously said that his weapon against hate was his camera.
“Alvin is able to articulate emotion and energy,” she says, “through the faces of the people in his photos.”
Tindal, who took over as staff historian at the Levine in September 2015 and like Hill represents a new generation of leadership at the museum, acknowledges that the exhibition is likely to stir strong emotions.
“We’re fully aware of how sensitive this issue is,” Tindal says. “A sensitive issue at a sensitive time.”
But it is the Levine’s mission to help the community confront issues, she says, which helps lead to progress.
Provocative exhibitions are common at the Levine. In 2004, it created the long-running and nationally recognized “Courage” exhibit detailing the struggle for school desegregation in the South. In 2012, the Levine unveiled a photographic exhibition that confronted the phenomenon of lynchings that peaked around the dawn of the 20th century.
“Our motto is to use history to build community. This will test it,” says Tindal, who grew up in Charlotte. “We have to think about how do we make Charlotte a better place.”
Amid the protests, Hill says, the Levine began taking action. It did not join the uptown businesses shuttering doors during the unrest, instead remaining open.
Within a week, the museum hosted a town hall meeting led by Tindal to discuss the issues. It was a standing-room-only affair that attracted a diverse audience.
“Everyone left that forum glad to have been there but thinking, ‘This is not over,’ ” Hill says.
Hill, Tindal and Kate Baillon, the vice president for exhibitions, began pulling together “K(NO)W Justice, K(NO)W Peace” with the Levine’s staff. Bank of America agreed to underwrite it and the exhibition and related programming are sponsored by WFAE-FM (90.7), Carolinas HealthCare System, Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
(Above: Brenda Tindal and Kathryn Hill, with one of the panels used to board up Hyatt House windows. /David T. Foster III)
Visitors to the exhibition will be asked to record their impressions and suggest topics that should be addressed.
One theme the exhibition does not explore: the gulf between peaceful demonstrating and rioting in the wake of the Scott killing. Hill says she expects visitors to react to that theme, as well as many others.
Overall, she says, the exhibit poses the question: How did we get here and where do we go?
“It’s not our job to answer the question, but to provide some context so people can draw their own conclusions,” Hill says.
“It’s complicated. It’s rooted in history. We use that history to tell the stories of people who have different perspectives. Only then, we can engage in a conversation that can lead somewhere.”
K(NO)W Justice, K(NO)W Peace
An exhibition about police shootings of civilians in Charlotte and nationwide. Runs Feb. 17 through Oct. 22 at Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh Street, Charlotte.
Hours: Monday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday: noon-5 p.m.
More info: www.museumofthenewsouth.org. 704-333-1887.