The history museum has all the wigged mannequins and dioramas of a classic old museum, as well as the collection of artifacts meant to preserve the Lost Cause narrative. But there is a fresh honesty in the words that describe the state’s history and a sense that the story is still unfolding. The museum goes beyond black and white, weaving in the stories of Southeast Asian, Latinx, Choctaw, and Chickasaw people and people of various faiths who call Mississippi home.
Rachel Meyers, the director of the history museum and a member of Mississippi’s small Jewish community, has embraced the challenge. “All the ills are on the walls,” says Meyers, “very publicly in ways that no other state history museum has done.” A bone-chilling 1903 quote from Governor James K. Vardaman leaves no room for interpretation: If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy. Meyers says she knows the museum is “doing something new and important” because at least twice a month, a visitor will come to her angry that they are aren’t getting a romanticized narrative of a good old Mississippi.
Yet the history museum does not directly engage current controversies like mass incarceration, police violence, or racist symbolism. For example, Mississippi is the only state that still has the Confederate battle flag embedded in its flag design. In 2016, Mississippi rejected a lawsuit by Judge Carlos Moore, who demonstrated the psychological effects of living in a state with a flag that upholds “state sanctioned hate speech.” In a room full of Mississippi flags and emblems that uphold the Confederate cause, a panel defines the word vexillology, the study of flags and their meanings. An interactive section invites visitors to use felt pieces to design their own flags. Yet the exhibit does not mention Moore’s lawsuit, other objections to the flag, or the fact that a new flag design is already being used by many state institutions that are tired of waiting for change. I wished the history museum did more to expose the current challenges that African Americans face in the state.
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