FAIRFAX, Virginia — If you visit any museum in the United States, chances are you will interact with a gun in some way. There are the obvious displays, like military museums with case after case of Civil War-era rifles, or historic sites such as Ford’s Theatre that are preserved due to their connections to assassinations. There are the art museums with collections ranging from the subtle violence of paintings depicting the American West, to postwar and contemporary art responding to violence. And local historical societies, as innocuous as they may seem, often interpret guns, sometimes behind glass, sometimes in public programs where class after class of school children learn to drill like soldiers or how to fire a cannon under the dutiful tutelage of a reenactor. As someone who has devoted my life to studying and working in museums, I cannot think of a single institution that I’ve visited or worked at that did not have at least some tenuous connection to guns, the military, or violence. Just as gun ownership is endemic in the US, our cultural institutions — no matter the region or the topic — remind us that gun violence is a pervasive risk and reality, a major current in American culture.
Given the prominent place that guns, violence, and depictions of domineering masculinity play in our collections, museums’ responses to gun violence have been at best sporadic. At a time when museums and cultural institutions are increasingly willing to foster dialogue on current events, speaking to political issues in ways ranging from participating in climate change action to offering the President a golden toilet, there have been remarkably few institutional voices speaking out against gun violence.
While no major museum has made a pointed response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month, such an event wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented. The Portland Art Museum’s long-term institutional partners Don’t Shoot Portland, a gun-violence accountability group founded by Black Lives Matter activists, organized a vigil outside the Museum last year the night after the Las Vegas shooting. As Director of Education and Public Programs Mike Murawski told me, the event was a “small moment in our broader commitment to being responsive to our community.” The famous front steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art have hosted rallies for the National Day of Remembrance of Murder Victims, in conjunction with the National Homicide Justice League. Exhibitions here and there have reflected themes of gun violence and mass shootings, such as installations at the Reginald Lewis Museum of African-American History in Baltimore and the Metal Museum in Memphis.
Despite these one-off programs and exhibitions here and there, there is no online movement for museums to address mass shootings, no books written for museum professionals on the topic. I have never seen this discussed at a museum conference as its own section. As with other mass shootings, there were sporadic instances after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting — for example, the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale temporarily offered free admission for families with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School IDs. In a highly-publicized visit to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum as part of a pre-scheduled trip to New York City, Parkland students were welcomed by museum board members and 9/11 survivors. But as a whole, while there are responses here and there, art and history museums seem to be happy to live with the contradictions of our gun-embracing collections. It is an issue that we do not discuss. Five days after the shooting, Parkland students were back to paying full price to visit the Museum of Discovery and Science.
And yet, there is one museum just outside Washington, DC that does not shy away from presenting its views on the intersections of guns and American life very prominently and assertively. I happen to live less than a mile away from this museum, but had never visited. In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, I finally went to the National Firearms Museum, located at the National Rifle Association’s Headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia.
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The political implications of this Museum are clear, coded from before I enter the glassy, ultramodern building just off Interstate 66. While museum journals still go back and forth about whether museums are neutral spaces, the National Firearms Museum (one of three operated by the NRA) seems to have a clear point of view on this subject. Approaching the main entrance from the parking lot, I expect to see “Hands Off My Second Amendment” bumper stickers, Confederate flags, big trucks, and other clichés associated with NRA members. I’m surprised there’s nothing out of the ordinary or even overtly political about the other visitors’ cars. It could almost be the parking lot of any big box store. But before I enter the Museum, I walk past not one but two “Blue Lives Matter” flags.
There’s no metal detector or other security screening at the entrance, and admission to the Museum is free, so I simply collect my map at the entrance desk. The Museum has existed since 1935, but has only been at its current location just outside the Beltway since 1998. I walk through glass doors into a gallery devoted to the personal collection of Robert Petersen (1926–2007), a publishing magnate and car collector whose 400 firearms are the crown jewel of the National Firearms Museum’s collection. At first, beyond a brief description of who Petersen was, it isn’t clear how the Museum is organized. In front of me are row after row, glass case after glass case filled with every type of firearm imaginable. The display is devoid of context and overwhelming, so I turn to my left and approach a nearby wall filled with plaques and framed photographs.
The wall display attests to the many honors Petersen received throughout his life, photographs of him with various Republicans and celebrities, and, most contradictory of it all, a certificate honoring “County of Los Angeles Children’s Awareness Month.” In addition to announcing that June 2000 is to be “Children’s Awareness Month” in the county, the proclamation established a “Day of Remembrance” for children who had died before turning 18. Petersen lost two young sons in a plane crash, so I suppose that was his connection to the issue of young lives cut short too soon — unsurprisingly, the Museum is not great at providing context for its objects. As I look at the quaint drawings of happy children on the certificate and see a wave of guns reflected back at me in its glass frame, I wonder which Los Angeles County children I’m being asked to remember, exactly. I remember Latasha Harlins, who was 15 when she was shot by a storekeeper in one of the incidents that precipitated the Watts riots. I remember the four children injured in a shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999.
Once I get beyond the salon-style array of certificates honoring Petersen, I become disoriented again. I am not a gun person. For all my years working at historic sites, I have managed to avoid ever firing a historic weapon; in fact, I’ve never touched a real gun. In the National Firearms Museum’s first room, I gravitate immediately toward a wood-paneled fireplace at the back of the room, which is flanked by two carved ivory tusks that rise like giant parentheses, taller than me. I get over the spectacle of the ivory tusks — which are displayed without any indication of their provenance, without acknowledging the artists responsible for their carving, and without discussion of their simplistic images of bare-breasted figures hunting game — and I realize that this décor is meant to instill a sense of domestic warmth, or at least the warmth of a 1960s big game hunter’s Hollywood home. This vision of home is integral to understanding how the NRA views the Second Amendment. In order to defend your home, there needs to be something to defend, and this is the NRA’s definition of a home and an America worth fighting for. It’s extravagant, gaudy, and middle-class aspirational — and yet there is something achingly familiar about it. The dimpled brown leather couches and dark wood remind me of my grandfather’s basement, an episode of Mad Men, or a Life magazine spread from the 1960s. It is not a vision of the America that I personally aspire to, but it feels safe and secure, like a dream that I’m supposed to have.
Leaving the warmth of the hearth, I enter the historical exhibits. The Museum’s curators evidently see the past of the United States through rose-colored rifle sights, and have given different sections titles like “Road to American Liberty,” “Seeds of Greatness,” and “The New Prosperity.” Was the Civil War — or, as one panel euphemistically calls it, “The War Between the States” — a great tragedy? No, it “fostered an entrepreneurial spirit that spilled forth a flood of ideas, innovations, and inventions”! Was slavery one of the main causes of the Civil War? No, in case you didn’t learn it quite like this from your history textbook, the legislature of the state of South Carolina was simply “exercising the powers granted to it by the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution.”
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The National Firearms Museum seems woefully unaware of the contradictions in its exhibits. A child’s teddy bear in a display case is apparently intended to humanize Rough Rider and vocal NRA supporter Theodore Roosevelt. JFK’s portrait is displayed near a small revolver that was given to him as a present and engraved with images relevant to his life and presidency. Did it never occur to the curators that a visitor might gasp at this sight, as I do when I come across this image of JFK next to a gun and immediately think it is in some way connected to his assassination? Or that when I see a teddy bear surrounded by firearms, I think of the tens of thousands of bears sent to Sandy Hook after the 2012 mass shooting there? I think nothing else can surprise me on this visit, and then I come to the section devoted to the AR-15, “America’s Rifle.”
It is easy to criticize this Museum as a propagandist mouthpiece, but it does show fleeting signs of self-awareness. There is one case in the center of the gallery devoted to the role of guns in the American West that I think of as “the diversity case.” Annie Oakley, Tucson’s first Jewish sheriff (his gun and his picture!), and Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love — the legendary African-American marksman — are all packed in here. In the gallery’s text on Western expansion, there’s even a sentence or two insinuating that American hunters who only saw buffalo as a source of wealth had harmed the Plains Indians.
The Museum does seem to be trying, in its own way, to react to a changing America. Its social media feeds go dormant after mass shootings, downplaying the role of gun violence in America life, while always remaining steadfastly on message when they become active again two weeks later. And the message, no matter the situation, is clear. Where so many institutions are muddled in their political stances and completely silent on the topic of guns, this Museum presents the seemingly indisputable thesis that America is great because America has guns.
As I walk between floor-to-ceiling cases containing a dozen more guns, I read the exit text: “Throughout these 14 galleries, the 85 exhibit cases and 2,000 guns that you have seen, one common thread is consistent. Firearms retain a unique place in American history and contemporary society because America is a unique democracy. It is unique because it is ultimately up to the people to decide who will govern.” The Museum is steadfast in presenting a narrative of American history rooted in American exceptionalism. Its ideology is not based on the idea that every American has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but rather on the conviction that every American has the right to own guns.
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If you know me through my writing and work on campaigns such as #DayofFacts and #MuseumWorkersSpeak, you know that I do this because I want to make museums better. But this is also personal for me. In future years, we will remember February 14 as the anniversary of the Parkland shooting. For me, February 14 is the anniversary of another school massacre. On the afternoon of February 14, 2008, my fiancé was at Northern Illinois University in a basement lecture hall. Just a few hundred feet away from him in Cole Hall, the building next door, an armed gunman killed five people and wounded 17 more. My fiancé was OK. Muffled from the sounds of the shooting and out of reach of the university’s text message alerts by virtue of being in a basement, he wasn’t even aware that he was in danger until after the danger had passed. He moved on and the trauma of that day has largely receded to the background of his life, and mine.
The world would forget too. It was the greater Chicago area after all; while the deaths of suburbanites maybe merited a few more hours of coverage than the black children who died all too frequently in daily gun violence, the story was not unique or unusual to any but those who had directly experienced it. Only a few months after the Virginia Tech shooting, we were starting to become numb to this kind of violence.
Gun violence affects millions of people each year. My own connection to mass shootings is a tenuous one, but it is one that affects my work as a museum professional and critic. Surely gun violence is part of the stories and baggage of many who come to our institutions every day; surely I am not the only museum professional with a personal connection to a mass shooting. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a museum educator who has never thought: What if it happens here? What would I do to protect the children? Can we protect them?
Today, Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University houses the Pick Museum of Anthropology, a small institution whose mission is to “promote cultural awareness and solidarity in support of global social justice.” For the 10-year anniversary of the shooting, it became one of the few museums in the country to address mass school shootings head-on, with a special exhibition devoted to telling the stories of the Northern Illinois University victims. And yet, that was a temporary installation. By the time this article is published, it will have come down.
We have all seen how quickly news cycles turn, but there are some signs that this time might be different. For one, some museums are actually responding. The Christian Petersen Art Museum in Iowa has announced a pop-up exhibition about school shootings; various peace museums across the country have voiced their support of the Parkland students who’ve been thrust into the spotlight as national gun control activists. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia held a discussion on March 1 with public health professionals on gun violence.
There have been meaningful and essential discussions in museum forums and on museum Twitter over the issue of race and how we respond to mass shootings. Why does it take white teens protesting for us to respond? Why does it take white lives being lost to acknowledge violence? What are museums’ roles with respect to mass protest movements related to gun violence like tomorrow’s March for Our Lives? Museums need to think through these issues in their programming, exhibitions, and discussions. We need to think through this, but we also need to reflect and act, and raise the power of our institutional voices.
Come hell or high water, even after this particular moment dies down, there will be at least one US museum speaking earnestly and assertively about the role that guns play in American life — the NRA’s National Firearms Museum. It’s up to us in the cultural field to decide if that is the only narrative on the role of guns in US history that museums can tell.