So my crash course on American State history continues apace. I arrived in Indianapolis a few days ago, knowing little more than where it was on the map, and that it has an amazing Museum of Art (more on that another time). It turns out that Indiana locals are known as Hoosiers, but no-one knows exactly where the name comes from. I suppose it’s a bit like Scousers in Liverpool and Geordies in Newcastle. Indiana is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year; its constitution was written in 1816, and it was the 19th State to join the Union. I spent most of my Saturday in the Indiana History Center, the Eiteljorg Museum and the Indiana State Museum, all only a stone’s throw from each other, and I’m now filled with Indiana-based facts (I know, I know, the dream dinner-party guest). A few museum highlights below…
At the entrance to the Indiana History Center is a large fob watch; its hands turn anticlockwise – a tidy way of priming visitors for the ‘step back in time’ that is about to happen. After watching a collection of short films on the founding and history of Indiana, and exploring interactives that present photos, documents and artworks linked to Indiana, there are a suite of live interpretation galleries. The Cole Porter room is like a swanky 1930s hotel bar; the walls are lined with photos of Porter and his famous friends, and there is a piano in one corner and a long (boozeless) bar along the back wall. In the place of a bartender is a large screen showing clips of old films playing Porter’s songs. On entering the room, I was met by a man in a suit who directed me to what looked like a drinks menu but was actually a menu of Porter songs. I chose I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and then he SANG it, accompanied by the piano (one of those nifty ones where the keys move but no-one is playing it). Now, this could have been a fist-chewingly awful experience if it had been done badly, but it was amazing. His voice was incredible and he totally brought the song to life. It felt like a treat.
After being serenaded, I moved on to the first of two ‘You Are There’ experiences. In each case, dry ice (or something like it) forms a white screen across a doorway and an image from the collection is projected onto it – a docent explains that you are about to step back in time and the people you are about to meet know nothing about the world beyond that year. My first destination was a community canning kitchen in 1947. As I stepped through the photo and into darkness, I half expected Matthew Kelly to greet me, but was spat out into a large kitchen and met two women ‘canning’ (preserving fruit and veg in glass bottles). Apparently the Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company was based in Indiana and to support their workers, they established large communal kitchens where women could cook and preserve food in Ball’s glass jars -a welcome resource in the war years and beyond. The kitchens were so popular that they were opened up to the whole community.
The second ‘You Are There’ experience whisked me back to 1816 and I met a couple of young men drafting the Indiana Constitution. When it was written, the Southern third of the State was divided into counties but the Northern two-thirds, Knox County, was uncharted by settlers and predominantly still the domain of Native American tribes, including Miami, Potawatomi and Delaware peoples. It was written into the 1816 Constitution that all people, irrespective of race, are to be treated equally. However, this statement was not supported in practice, to say the least. The tribes were pushed off the land by increasingly restrictive treaties, culminating in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to forced marches and massacres. The nearby Eiteljorg Museum is devoted to Native American art and culture and tells the stories of these tribes. Much of the focus of this museum is on contemporary Native American culture, including the continuation and reinterpretation of traditional arts, crafts and skills.
My next stop was the Indiana State Museum. The building has a large glass atrium, and hosts the museum as well as a restaurant, a conference centre and an IMAX cinema. When I entered, it felt more like going into a shopping mall, which was a bit disconcerting. Normal service resumed when I got into the museum. The lower floor includes geology and paleontology; above that is social history. The gallery of famous Hoosiers includes the unlikely combination of Axl Rose, Shelley Long, Kurt Vonnegut, Larry Bird, the Jacksons, James Dean, Jim Davis, and David Letterman!
When I was in Dallas, I was shocked to seeing a KKK hood – little did I know that this would be a recurring theme to the museum visits on my trip. I have now encountered KKK objects in four different collections. I assumed it was a scourge of the Southern States; I had no idea it spread so far North. It turns out that Indiana was a hotbed for the KKK and at one point in the 1920s it is estimated that one third of ALL white men in the State were members. While slavery was illegal in Indiana in the 19th century, the authorities had turned a blind eye to the practice. Many slaves were fleeing North in the 1840s, sometimes setting up rural communities to escape persecution and discrimination in the cities. The Indiana powers that be decided to ‘clamp down’ on the shifting demographic of the State, and when the Constitution was revised in 1851, a ban was placed on African Americans entering the State. Yup. Segregation of public services, schools, and restaurants were commonplace through to the 1960s and the civil rights movement was vital in tackling overt racism and discrimination.
The top floor of the museum is devoted to temporary exhibitions and has two shows celebrating the bicentennial; ‘200 Years of Indiana Art’ and ‘Indiana in 200 Objects’. The paintings show is arranged chronologically and includes their star exports, T.C. Steele, David Smith and Robert Indiana. The objects show is a mix of design, natural history, and social history. It was fun to see Amelia Earhart’s jacket and James Dean’s jacket and a gold jacket from one of Michael Jackson’s tours (it wasn’t all jackets, those were just my favourites). But the loudest object in the room was an electric chair, used to execute prisoners in Indiana as recently as 1994.
American museums keep doing this to me – I’m having a lovely time looking at the jackets of famous people and then – THWAPP – some horrible, violent thing appears and then overshadows the rest of my visit. I can’t remember a UK museum doing this to me – perhaps it’s because UK history is more familiar to me? Or do UK museums focus on other aspects of the past? I suppose I only know the worst sides of US history from books and films; it’s a whole other experience to meet the objects that witnessed those events. While those objects shock me, they are also the ones I spend most time thinking about after my visit, and they have the biggest impact on my understanding of the places I’m visiting. I love that museums are able to tell such important social history so powerfully.
Header image: Old Woman Singing Traditional Song, 1998, serpentine with caribou antler, by Mattiusie Iyaituk, in the Eiteljorg Museum