Museum exhibit offers perspective on Detroit '67 trauma
The events of July 1967 rank among the most traumatic and divisive in modern Detroit history, which presented a daunting challenge to the Detroit Historical Museum.
How do you tell a story when people don’t even agree on what it’s called? A riot? Rebellion?
With “Detroit ’67: Perspectives,” which opens Saturday, the museum has struck an admirable balance, pulling in the voices of over 500 Detroiters for an exhibition that is both instructive and, in the case of several interactive displays, downright dazzling.
Recognizing that the violence in which 43 people died didn’t just happen, the exhibit reaches into the past to start its tale.
“We looked back 50 years to 1917 to ask what factors might have contributed to 1967,” said Robert Bury, Detroit Historical Society executive director and CEO.
This provided the show’s framework, which divides into four sections: Before, During, After and Moving Forward.
Key to the endeavor’s success were oral histories museum personnel collected over the past two years, (Those are on its website, detroithistorical.org.)
These include interviews with individuals who were actually at 12th and Clairmount in the “blind pig” — an unlicensed bar — that police raided in the early hours of July 23, the catalyst to five days of mayhem and strife.
“Without the oral histories,” said Tracy Irwin, director of exhibitions and collections, “’Detroit ’67’ wouldn’t really exist. They formed the foundation.”
The Before section provides interesting context, with short, easy-to-read panels on the early 20th-century, northward migration of blacks to Detroit, the nature of unofficial segregation, and the race riot of 1943, among many others.
But “Detroit ’67” really comes alive when you walk past a recreation of the doorway to the blind pig and enter a tidy living room, decorated in classic 1960s style, right down to the olive-green telephone and “starburst” wall clock.
Why is a living room doing in an exhibition about a riot?
“Because that’s how most people experienced the events,” said Bury, whether they were black or white, city dwellers or suburbanites.
The living room will likely delight kids, for whom both the old Bell telephone and the black-and-white TVs will be exotic blasts from the past.
The minute you enter, that telephone starts ringing. Feel free to answer for a glimpse into reactions of actual Detroiters trapped by deeply alarming circumstances.
“You hear various messages,” said Irwin of the one-sided conversations. (Recall that this was long before answering machines.)
“One is from a doctor who can’t get home because the National Guard won’t let him into the area,” Irwin said, “another from a girl who can’t find her parents, and a third from a mother telling her kids to stay in the house and call their aunt.”
Three black-and-white TVs play throughout, with a mix of ads, shows and news, as well as museum text giving a sense of chronology — including the fact that on the first day, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s office asked TV and radio stations to refrain from reporting on the developing troubles.
(A Windsor, Ontario, TV station would be the first to break that embargo at 2 p.m., 11 hours after the raid on the blind pig.)
Also in the living room on one wall, a very cool map projection created by 3DEXCITE in Royal Oak reacts to the news on the TV.
The constantly changing map shows where fires first erupted, how military tanks entered the city, and occasionally zooms in for computer-generated close-ups of entire blocks that burned down.
In the next gallery, other high-tech effects from 3DEXCITE include a recreation of the very first fire that erupted the morning of July 23 in a shoe store at 12th and Blaine.
And don’t miss the gritty, animated video nearby on the back of a life-sized replica of a tank. That stitches together voices of real Detroiters into an affecting essay on the disturbances and their impact on ordinary people.
One of the exhibition’s good choices is an electronic questionnaire people are invited to fill out both as they first enter and as they exit, inquiring about what word they would use to describe the disturbances, among other points.
It will be interesting to see how responses might change after viewing “Detroit ’67.”
There are also a range of activities during the first week of the exhibition, all listed on the museum’s website.
Interestingly, at the beginning, not everyone was down with the museum mounting a show on such a painful subject.
One Metro Detroiter told Marlowe Stoudamire, the project manager on the two-year undertaking, “Why would you pull a scab off an old wound?”
Stoudamire’s response: “What makes you think a scab ever formed?”
But museum officials recognized that if they didn’t present the story, outsiders likely would.
“There were two options for Detroit,” Stoudamire said.
“We could let this moment go and and let other people tell the story, like the New York Times. Or we could look on it as an opportunity to collectively tell our own stories, and put voices and faces to that narrative.”
The result is an impressive, thoroughly engaging show.
‘Detroit ’67: Perspectives’
Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward, Detroit
9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Sunday