New Museum Exhibit on Detroit’s Painful Summer of 1967 Is Illuminating, Immersive

New exhibit at Detroit Historical museum includes multiple points of view about Detroit’s troubled summer of 1967. Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press

Which word would you choose to describe what happened in Detroit in July 1967? Insurrection? Rebellion? Riot? Revolution? Uprising?

“Detroit 67: Perspectives,” the new exhibit opening Saturday at the Detroit Historical Museum, certainly lives up to its name. Not only does it seek your opinion on questions like the one above (which visitors are asked through interactive screens), but it is shaped by the points of view and memories from nearly 500 oral histories, past and present, gathered by the Detroit Historical Society.

The summer of ’67 is remembered through a prism of thoughts, experiences and beliefs that are not one size fits all. “It’s media perspectives. It’s individual perspectives. It’s how we all see things through our own eyes. You can’t just have one blanket statement for everybody,” says Tracy Irwin, director of exhibitions and collections for the Detroit Historical Society.

More: Cultural institutions reflecting on Detroit’s fractious summer of 1967

One of the most ambitious exhibits ever offered by the Detroit Historical Museum in terms of size, technology and creativity, the exhibit — set to run for three years — helps you better understand the times. Even more, it makes you feel 1967 in ways that will reach you emotionally.

Among the highlights is a prototypical 1967 living room where a portrait of slain president John F. Kennedy hangs on the wall, black-and-white footage flickers on vintage TV screens and an old rotary phone rings with calls from people scrambling to figure out what exactly is going on.

“I can’t get Mom and Dad on the phone. I’m going to head over there and make sure they’re OK. Call me later, bye,” says the voice of a young woman in one of the audio portions.

But this isn’t nostalgia. There’s no attempt here to filter out past perceptions because they proved to be wrong or were sugar-coated, like the Wall Street Journal’s dubbing of Detroit as “a model city” in 1964 for efforts to promote racial equality. “Detroit 67: Perspectives” embraces the complexity of the narrative, the good and the bad, and uses it as an opportunity to encourage getting involved and building a better future.

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The approaching 50th anniversary of the summer in July that shook the Motor City could have been addressed in a more limited way. But as Bob Bury says, “We knew this had to go beyond that. It had to be a much more inclusive and comprehensive approach.”

Bury is the CEO and executive director of the Detroit Historical Society, which operates the Detroit Historical Museum and has been working on a sweeping community engagement initiative, “Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward,” since 2015.

A collaboration involving more than 100 civic, business, cultural and community partners, the epic commemoration of that summer covers a vast array of exhibits, events, discussions and performances now under way. It has resulted in a book, “Detroit 1967: Origins, Impact, Legacies,” that’s now available, and the oral history collection, which is contained in a digital archive that’s considered the largest in the world on the subject matter.

The centerpiece of it all is the Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibit, which is bound to dazzle visitors with the logic of its approach. Since events like those in ’67 don’t occur in a vacuum, it examines 100 years of history before then and the five decades that followed. And since context is crucial to interpreting the past, it explores the legacy of racial, economic and political injustice that still resonates in America.

For younger and older visitors, it’s a chance to look honestly at what you think you know, clear up misinformation and think deeply about what caused the violent, painful events that happened 50 years ago — and how we’re still dealing with the struggle for equality today.

You’ll learn about a mini riot in 1966 that pointed to simmering tensions in Detroit. There also are crucial accounts of Detroit’s 1943 riot, where large mobs of white people attacked black residents. Federal troops put an end to the chaos after three days. Of the 1,800 people arrested, 75% were black.

While there is plenty of illuminating information to read, the overall approach is interactive. The exhibit space is dotted with tablets, monitors, videos and dramatic presentations that make you feel and think.

“We wanted it to be very immersive,” says Irwin, who worked with senior curator Joel Stone on the project. She handled the visual and logistical aspects while he was tasked with the content.

The care devoted to the planning is easy to sense. For instance, Irwin says the 1967 living room was designed to reflect how many people experienced the events through the communication devices of the day. “This is how they would have understood it. There was a media blackout for 24 hours, initially, and then they heard it on the radio and they saw it on the news, one of the three (TV) channels they probably got.”

Another area deals with the destruction of shops and businesses by juxtaposing a wall-sized photograph of 12th Street — where the raid of a blind pig, or illegal bar, sparked the unrest — next to a wall-sized installation that reveals itself to be a video simulation of the exact same location.

Silhouettes of people walking by and the sound of glass breaking evoke, as the explanatory text puts it, how “rebellion quickly turned to retaliation and revenge, initially targeting merchants who sold poor-quality goods at exorbitant prices.”

Included in the text is the recollection of Ivory Williams, who is quoted describing how he was sitting on a porch with his grandmother when two men came by offering looted food. His grandmother told them, ” ‘Get away from here … get out.’… I’m stunned. ‘Grandma, you know … we’re hungry … we haven’t eaten.’ And that’s when she said, ‘It’s never right … to do wrong.’ ”

One of the most common threads in the oral histories was seeing tanks roll through the streets of Detroit. To address the National Guard’s presence, the exhibit constructed what looks like the facade of an armored military vehicle. It’s actually home to a multiscreen display that plays a short animated film called “In the Streets,” complete with sound effects of a tank’s rumble.

Such innovations echo the sort of high-tech presentations seen at Detroit’s annual auto show. Irwin says the museum’s staff worked with several companies, including Mindfield in Detroit, Bluewater in Southfield and 3DExcite (of Dassault Systèmes) in Royal Oak on the interactive and video aspects and physical fabrications.

“Detroit 67: Perspectives” is a must-see for anyone who cares about the city and is invested in its future. It’s a moment for coming together, according to Kalisha Davis, director of community engagement for the Detroit Historical Society.

“My hope is that all of the participating organizations (of the ‘Detroit 67’ initiative), all the community groups, all of the visitors, young and old, will have the opportunity to understand all of the nuances that led up to these events,” says Davis.

And as Bury notes, the exhibit looks to the future. It concludes with the importance of moving forward and helping Detroit realize its full potential.

“It’s all about maintaining the momentum. We’ve got great momentum in the city right now. It doesn’t reach everyone, that’s for sure. But this is an opportunity for dialogue, for conversation” about the core values of the city that Detroit wants to be.

Detroit author and journalist Desiree Cooper says she’s looking forward to seeing the exhibit and is already hearing those conversations.

“So many people do want to talk about it — where we’ve been and where we’re going,” says Cooper, whose acclaimed story collection, “Know the Mother,” came out in 2016. “And what a time of possibility to do it.”

Cooper hasn’t yet seen the quote from her that’s stenciled on the wall of a space aimed at helping visitors find information on how to get more involved. With it, she gets to the heart of the matter.

“The question is not whether Detroit is rising from the ashes,” it reads. “The question is … for whom is it rising?”

Contact Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or [email protected]

Original article from the Detroit Free Press