Important Artifacts

Our latest Review of the Week pertains to a collection of essays related to an exhibit that appeared at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Many voices, one nation : material culture reflections on race and migration in the United States

ed. by Margaret Salazar-Porzio and Joan Fragaszy Troyano; with Lauren Safranek Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2017
300p index, 9781944466091 $42.95, 9781944466114

many voices book cover

This collection of incisive, tightly focused essays appears at a crucial moment in US history. Created in concert with an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the 19 essays share the common “principles” of inclusivity, polyvocality, and immediacy. Each meditation wraps around the armature of objects gleaned from the museum’s collections. Some artifacts—for example, an antebellum storage jar fashioned by enslaved poet-potter David Drake of South Carolina—are canonical; others, a shirt emblazoned front and back with altered images of the Statue of Liberty and abandoned by an unknown immigrant in the death trap of the Sonoran Desert, are unexpected and painful. The book compellingly embraces the very difficult task of summoning forth the humanity in US history in ways that invite reflection without condescension or apology. The success of this enterprise hinges on the exceptional work of the editors, who guide their essayists to open-ended denouements through objects that eschew the silences of closure, creating instead critical spaces for the questions all Americans need to ask themselves. Powerful, timely, important.

Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries.
Reviewer: B. L. Herman, University of North Carolina
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America
Choice Issue: Dec 2017