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Thrift-store items become catalyst for changing ideas on race

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – “Agent of social change” might not be the first phrase patrons of Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum would use to describe it.

However, the museum’s most recent special exhibit, “Sorting Out Race,” which closed at the end of May and is being transformed into a traveling exhibit, put it squarely in that arena and, as it happens, on to the cutting edge of the place of museums in contemporary American culture and society.

In a public program on the exhibit’s closing day, Kauffman Museum director Annette LeZotte and former director Rachel Pannabecker led a group reflection on the kinds of exhibits the museum had presented in the past.

It became clear that they have followed one of two patterns, LeZotte said – “either drawing from the permanent collection to take a new or specialized look at a particular topic, or expanding on local or regional history.”

It isn’t that past exhibits haven’t touched on social issues, Pannabecker added, but “Sorting Out Race” was the first Kauffman Museum has done that set out to deliberately explore one.

About five years ago, Leia Lawrence, then manager of the Newton Etcetera Shop, a thrift store with a largely volunteer staff that donates its profits to Mennonite Central Committee for local and global relief and service programs, approached Pannabecker with a question.

What, she wondered, should she do with items she was getting in the Etcetera donation bin that “make me uncomfortable”? These were things that “communicated stereotypes about race” – for example, household and decorative items depicting “the lazy Mexican,” or school sports items with Native American mascots.

Lawrence clearly had a sense that neither selling the items – even when the proceeds were going to charity – nor destroying them was the answer.

Pannabecker, Bethel student Nicole Eitzen Delgado (who graduated in 2014) and Paloma Olais of Newton, along with Chuck Regier, curator of exhibits, and David Kreider, technician, consulting with Lawrence, began working on an exhibit. Later, LeZotte and Jake Harris, the museum’s new assistant curator, also became part of the team.

The Feb. 27 opening of “Sorting Out Race: Examining Racial Identity and Stereotypes in Thrift Store Donations” aligned closely with the annual meetings of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, held back-to-back, April 23-30, in Atlanta. The theme for both: “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change.”

“The reality of budgets, diminished funding and cuts to social services that make it harder to draw on private money – here and in Europe – is that you have to demonstrate you’re making a difference, an impact, in your community,” said LeZotte. “To get grant money, you have to prove an outcome. ‘This exhibit will get people to think about …’ or ‘This exhibit will encourage people to change their ideas about ….’”

A main goal for “Sorting Out Race” was “to get people to think about context.”

“We tried to advocate for the fact that there’d be nostalgia associated with objects,” she said. Pannabecker cited the example of “a pickaninny doll – intellectually, a person understands its racist connotations, but it’s connected with a happy childhood vacation memory. Or the Aunt Jemima cookie jar that was a wedding gift to a person’s parents.”

“The idea is to say ‘Take another look. Sort it out,’” LeZotte said. “Don’t denigrate the positive, the good family memories, but move to the next step. Look at the context of the changes taking place over the past decades. Think about how stereotypical depictions of people can perpetuate negative attitudes in the present day.”

“The real point is that a lot of these things are complicated,” Pannabecker said. “Different people bring different things to an exhibit like this. Not everything with racial imagery is racist. Two people will see the same thing differently. How do you get people to talk about that?

“We are trying to get people to see these objects through someone else’s eyes. If you don’t put it out there, there won’t be a conversation.”

“Sorting Out Race” as a traveling exhibit will be available starting sometime this fall. LeZotte plans to promote it through exhibit listings, websites and conferences of various state and national museum organizations. Anyone can visit sortingoutrace.com to schedule the exhibit for their community.

The hope is that whoever hosts the exhibit will collaborate with a local thrift store to make it more local, LeZotte said. “We could send the empty thrift store window [a piece of the exhibit] for you to put in your own objects. An exciting aspect of this is the opportunity for a community to ponder its own stereotypes.

“For example, we have a lot of Native American objects, but if this were to go to, say, Dearborn, Michigan, with the largest Arab-American population in the country, it could look different.”

Overall, LeZotte and Pannabecker say, they hope this exhibit will make people think and, in some way, act. “Maybe that means you walk into your local thrift store and you look at what’s in there differently,” said LeZotte. “You might ask the manager questions or speak out in some way, maybe organize a public forum.

“We had several comments in our visitor’s books that said the exhibit was ‘sensitizing.’ One person wrote, ‘It prompts us to do better.’”

“Sorting Out Race” raises many questions for which “there are no definitive answer,” Pannabecker said. “We’re committed to promoting change.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.

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