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New Delaware Art Museum exhibit ties history to current unrest

A exhibit of 13 images from the 1968 Wilmington riots overlaid with pages from a handbook from thenreflect issues of today.

Before shining a light on the panels, visitors will see what looks like a document with faint images in the background (left). When a light is shown on the same document (right) historical images will appear.

To many observers of today’s social unrest, there are parallels that can be drawn with the demonstrations and rioting that took place in cities across the country following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

In the spring of 1968, the National Guard set up camp in Delaware to quell the violence, leading to a nine-and-a-half-month occupation – the longest peacetime occupation of any US city in history.

As the events of the night of May 30, 2020, unfolded on Market Street in Wilmington, and ensuing weeks of statewide demonstrations and protests, Delaware Art Museum (DAM) curators (working from home under quarantine) saw an opportunity to engage citizens, bringing them together around the concepts of race and law enforcement.

Their mechanism: the reinstallation of a popular, interactive exhibit they launched two years ago marking 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination. (This is one where you want to bring and use your iPhone – more on that later in this article.)

As good fortune would have it, the museum had made a significant investment in one particular work from the 2018 exhibit – 13 retro-reflective prints featuring the 1968 riot and occupation made with imagess taken by photographers from The News Journal overlaid with pages from a historical document that doubles as the name of this year’s show: “Black Survival Guide ~ or How to Live Through a Police Riot.”

The work, by New York artist Hank Willis Thomas, is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Heather Coyle, curator of American Art at the DAM, says the exhibit – with 13 panels, was one of the Museum’s most significant purchases. “When the work came together (in 2018), it was just so extraordinary. And it was so relevant to our community that we then felt moved to buy it. It was a major purchase for us,” she said.

What Will Happen – What To Do

For more than a decade, but particularly over the past five years, Coyle says the Art Museum has tried to become more relevant to the broader community of Wilmington. In fact, on a few occasions, three of the panels from Thomas’ work have been on view in the Museum’s contemporary exhibition space. 

But Coyle says showing the entire “Black Survival Guide” work now was the right project for the moment.

The Black Survival Guide suggested that blacks “Engage in constructive community efforts,” “Avoid spontaneous demonstrations,” and “Let someone know where you are supposed to be at all times.”

“When the demonstrations were happening in Wilmington, some of the public was actually reaching out to us while we were closed, and they were remembering the piece and what a powerful show [the 2018 exhibit] was… We actually hadn’t planned to have it on view this summer. But we put it on view because it just seems so relevant to what’s happening now and to our community, who was actually talking about it,” said Coyle.

After staff at the News Journal unearthed many of the decades-old photographs related to the occupation of Wilmington in 1968, curator Margaret Winslow had the idea to activate them in 2018 for the commemoration of 1968 events.

Then on a visit to the Delaware Historical Society, the museum curator found the original “Black Survival Guide ~ or How to Live Through a Police Riot,” a photocopied pamphlet that was handed out to African Americans in Wilmington in 1968. The cover says the document was distributed by the Northeast Conversation Association. 

Visitors see images by shining phone flashlights on panels

When you first enter the exhibit space, the 13 panels within the exhibit will look like mimeograph pages of the “Black Survival Guide.”  Then when you either shine a flashlight or take a photograph with your cell phone using the flash feature, are photographs that were taken during the occupation of Wilmington by the National Guard by News Journal photographers.

“What you see, and what is latent in the background the whole time are the photographs. So, it’s a combination of these two things – the guide pages and the photographs activated by light. It’s actually what they use on the highway – like road signs. So that when your lights hit it, they light up,” says Coyle.

Thomas works in photography with a focus on archival material. “He mines archives as one of the ways that he works. So he likes to look at old material and find holes in history — things that people have forgotten about and bring them to the fore by making really powerful contemporary connections,” says Coyle.

The Black Survival Guide suggested that blacks “Engage in constructive community efforts,” “Avoid spontaneous demonstrations,” and “Let someone know where you are supposed to be at all times.”

Margaret Winslow, curator of “Black Survival Guide” worked on the original 2018 show and the reinstallation of the Thomas work this year.

In a film produced for the exhibit two years ago, she said, “In some ways, the events in Wilmington, the following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have been victim to historical amnesia. There are many living in Wilmington, who never experienced the events of 1968, and some that have learned nothing about this project developed as a means to expand the narrative around this historical moment and preserve, capture the stories so that generations following have access to this impactful event.”

But two years later, the DAM says it is eager to share this poignant work of art as the community continues its civil discourse while grappling with the fallout from the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd at the hands of police. 

“Black Survival Guide” will be on exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum through September 27, 2020.

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