An interactive exhibit at Tulane University's Small Center has challenged the narrative of New Orleans' history that obscures its history in the streets - framing the city's history of dissent as an essential part of the fabric of the American experience and the constant struggle for change.
"A lot of it came out of a conversation or series of conversations about New Orleans not being a place where people protested," says Sue Mobley, lead curator of Sites of Resistance: An Exhibit Exploring the Geographies + Histories of Social Change in New Orleans. "That’s a shocking assumption that ties to this larger ‘New Orleans-as-exceptional’ narrative, that New Orleans is incomparable and somehow removed from larger patterns about how people live and make change."
Sites of Resistance is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday at the Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design (1725 Baronne St.). It closes with a reception from 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6 with a lecture from Adolph Reed Jr. on "Black Politics in New Orleans and Beyond."
[jump] Exhibit maps chart an elusive history of labor organizing and civil rights activism over the last two centuries - from the Mechanics Institute massacre in 1866 to streetcar protests in 1867 and Nazi confrontations in 1961 - and ends at 1990, leaving it up to visitors to interact with a map to add their experiences over the last few decades.
"I always want to have an interactive part of our exhibits," Mobley says. "We’re such a hands-on space. It’s also just fun - people think of exhibis as happening in museums, in these reserved spaces and very elite spaces. I want to create things that allow people to not only engage with history but to see themselves as being a part of the stories."
Over the last several months after its 2017 opening, Mobley has seen some recurring themes come into focus, from the erasure of once-important protest spaces to the reliability of media coverage and the routes on which people protest - points echoing the modern era's "fake news" and recent citywide demonstrations through familiar locations. The maps highlight how people respond to power, and how power and place intersect.
"What we’re starting to see is the routes people are using are overlapping really heavily, and they concentrate where power concentrates," Mobley says. "That’s happening in the historical maps, and we totally see that in the present ones. ... Where power concentrates is a really broad concept - I expect we’re going to start and end a lot of things at City Hall, because there’s actual power there. There’s substantive ability to affect change embedded in that building and the people in it. But we also have a lot of stops and starts at Jackson Square, at Lee Circle, places that don’t have functional power but have symbolic power, and they’re still very much in play as situated power. That’s amazing, and counter to the concept that ‘these places are just part of the landscape.’"
Mobley hopes to see Sites of Resistance evolve into a virtual or digital exhibit, allowing users to click and explore and compare maps through history.
"These maps are really dense," she says, "but they’re in no way complete."