MSU Museum exhibit to tell Nassar victims' teal story
East Lansing — As Mark Auslander walked to his job at the Michigan State University Museum earlier this year, he noticed a tree with a teal-colored mesh bow wrapped around it.
Ribbons dangled from the bow, with a name of three sisters: Morgan Margraves. Lauren Margraves. Madison Margraves.
Auslander had just heard the nine days of testimony from more than 200 young women who had accused Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. As an anthropologist who has studied the meaning of trees around the world, Auslander was struck by the significance.
"We had been hearing all the witnesses,” he said. “Here are trees, the (other) witnesses. I remember thinking here are the trees that have been here long before the campus was built, they have seen everything.
"And now they are witnessing two things: the terrible crime that was done on the campus and the strength and resilience of these many women across the years who found within themselves the ability to denounce and ... to demand justice," Auslander said.
That moment planted the seed for what will become a nine-month exhibit at the Michigan State University Museum, featuring some of the 224 ribbons that were tied around trees at MSU to honor Nassar's victims and continue the conversation about sexual assault.
The exhibition, "Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak," will open April 16, 2019, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and continue through Martin Luther King Day, 2020.
Other displays could include poetry, signs, T-shirts and other teal items that Nassar victims and their supporters adopted as the university community struggled with the scandal and its aftermath.
"Museums exist as temples of memory, reminding us of the best and worst of what humanity is capable of," said Auslander, the museum's director. "This just seemed to be part of our mission."
Many victims, who have lobbied to be heard at MSU, are excited to be a part of the exhibit.
Amanda Cormier, a Nassar victim who works at a museum in Tennessee, said she thinks the exhibition will be powerful for survivors, their families and the community.
"We have really become aware that there are a lot of other survivors in the community that weren't able to have the same outward voice that we were able to have," she said. "This is a a reminder that there is support for others in the community, and allows others to speak out and share their pain and tell their stories."
"Working at a museum, I'm very aware of what we choose to remember and preserve and continue to share can have a really lasting impact on people," Cormier added.
The show, co-curated by Auslander and other museum officials with parents and allies of Nassar victims, aims to involve the community in contemporary social justice issues.
In the past, Auslander has curated similar exhibits at other museums that explored the stories of a looming mass eviction of a Latino community in Washington state, migrants working near Brandeis University in Massachusetts and the role of slaves in building Emory University in Atlanta.
Allen F. Roberts, a professor in the world arts and cultures/dance department at the University of California, Los Angeles, said museums can be "contact" zones where people, ideas and opinions meet.
"Rather than passive places, they should foster active learning through negotiations between what one brings as conventional wisdom and what one takes home as reflection upon who anyone is, and all of us are, in the world we share," said Roberts.
"Larry Nassar’s many victims deserve respect, and ... through such an initiative, they may help others who may not have come forward but who have suffered similarly destructive acts. As contact zones, then, museums like that at MSU can weave solidarity across apparent social differences."
The teal ribbons went up around MSU last February after Valerie von Frank, mother of Grace French, one of Nassar's victims, felt compelled to honor her daughter and all the other women and girls who had been hurt by Nassar.
She put up the mesh bows over several weekends after the victims testified during two sentencing hearings for Nassar, a former MSU sports doctor who is serving a de facto life prison term.
Some of the victims heard about the ribbons, and came to campus to see the tree where a teal bow had been tied in their honor.
Among them was Emma Ann Miller, who testified during Nassar's sentencing in Ingham County that she may have been the last child he was able to assault, since she saw him in August 2016, shortly before MSU fired him.
Accompanied by her mother, Miller visited last summer, stopping at the tree with her name on its ribbon.
"I prayed for some of the other survivors," said Miller, 16, of Haslett. "I prayed that they can get through everything, that we can all get through it all and we can just heal."
Miller's mother, Leslie Miller, said that her daughter's visit to her ribbon was part of her journey to heal from Nassar's abuse. The teen still has nightmares.
"It wasn’t just a ribbon," Leslie Miller said. "It meant something."
Von Frank said she had hoped to see the ribbons stay up through the beginning of the new school year so that incoming students could see them.
But gypsy moths began to infest the ribbons over the summer, so the teal bows had to come down.
Auslander, along with von Frank and a few victims and their families, worked with MSU grounds staff to take the ribbons off the trees, including Emma Ann Miller, who took down her own ribbon.
Now some victims and parents are co-curating the exhibit as part of an 18-member community advisory group, said Mary Worrall, curator of textiles and social justice at MSU Museum.
They're exploring the possibility of creating an interactive walking exhibit that would highlight the trees and victims via a mobile app. Each tree on campus has an identification number and can be associated with the ribbon that encircled it.
For now, the advisory group is exploring the themes of the upcoming museum exhibit, which is being underwritten by Grewal Law PLLC, the Okemos-based firm that represented many of Nassar's victims in civil lawsuits against MSU.
"Some of the messages the exhibit will address are that for survivors, you are not alone," said Worrall. "For general visitors, to say that sexual assault has no boundaries and that the impact of sexual assault lasts forever and words can hurt or heal."
For von Frank, the show is an important step in keeping the memory of victims alive, as well as the work survivors are doing to help others who have been sexually assaulted.
"The sisters survivors really want to work on change and addressing the whole issue of sexual assault for everybody," von Frank said. "They have become the voice in the wilderness. The have really stepped our and are speaking up for all women, and young men, but it's mostly young women who are assaulted."