WSW: Smithsonian's 'Changing America' Exhibit Opens in Grand Rapids

Jul 11, 2019

Credit WMUK

A new exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum allows visitors to revisit two major freedom movements in U.S. history. It's called "Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963," and will be on view through Oct. 13. 


The museum recently acquired the traveling Smithsonian exhibition, permanently, which has artifacts touching on slavery and the civil rights movement.

Is it an emotional experience? It can be, for some people.

"I was with somebody the other day that I know in town and we're walking through (the exhibit) and, she was looking at one of the artifacts and began to cry and said, 'You didn't prepare me for this,' " said Dale Robertson, president and chief executive officer at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, today on WMUK's WestSouthwest news and public affairs show.

"And, you know, others just taking in and left. Others have lingered for a long time. So, I think it all depends on how you process."

Robertson said he likes how rich the exhibit is with facts and artifacts, such as abolitionist newspapers from the 1800s and a price list for slaves.

"Ideally, people will think about it and try to put all the pieces together to make sense of it for themselves," Robertson.

"I think museums used to fancy themselves as being the final word and that's not where we are anymore, at least not here. We've done our job if we can lead you to asking the next best question, your next best question for you. And, I'm sensing that we're doing that with this exhibit." 

He said he first learned of the exhibit from a newspaper article and was intrigued how an Alabama town had used it as part of a racial reconciliation process.

Robertson said the exhibition, which opened in May, is made up of three double-sided panels of information with photos and text. The artifacts are on loan from the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, including abolitionist newspapers from the 1800s.

Visitors can also hear taped oral histories of community leaders reflecting on how the civil rights movement played out locally.

Admission to the exhibit is free with the museum's general entrance fee.

Hear the shorter, aired interview here

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