Bringing Newberry Photos to Kentucky

One of the things I didn’t fully understand about museum work before I got to the Kentucky Historical Society was the exhibit design process and the work that goes into creating compelling, powerful exhibitions. To my mind, designing and building exhibits was like writing a term paper—ask a good question, do some research, put artifacts and archival material in cases and on walls, and boom—exhibit. Yeah, not so much.

Now, after working with the exhibit designers at KHS and a group of central Kentucky collaborators, I know better. Putting together an exhibit requires planning, construction, writing, editing, printing, promotion and so much more.

On Jan. 15, KHS will debut its 2018 exhibit: “Photographing Freetowns: African American Kentucky through the Lens of Helen Balfour Morrison, 1935-1946.” This exhibit, adapted from the Newberry Library’s 2017 instillation, is a collection of Morrison’s photographs of central Kentucky African-American hamlets taken in 1935, 1936 and 1946. It will be on display through Oct. 20.

I first learned about this exhibit last summer from Dr. Luther Adams, a historian at the University of Washington, Tacoma, when he came to our Civil War Governors of Kentucky Symposium. Dr. Adams said he believed the exhibit should be on display in Kentucky and helped put KHS in touch with the folks at the Newberry Library. At about the same time, two members of the Zion Hill community, who had travelled to Chicago to see the exhibition at the Newberry, approached our curator, Julie Kemper.

Obviously, the exhibit was meant to be, and we worked with the Newberry, the Lexington Public Library and others to bring the photos to Kentucky.

Freetowns, settled before and immediately after the Civil War by formerly enslaved men and women, were not unique to central Kentucky. Morrison encountered those in Kentucky through her connection to the horse industry and a friendship with a Kentucky artist that brought her to Woodford, Fayette and Jefferson counties. On her visits, she photographed men and women working, living and enjoying life in their communities. She identified some of the people she photographed; many remain unknown.

Morrison’s images depict life in 20-century, rural Kentucky in striking and profound ways. Yet, they are images made by a white woman at the time of Jim Crow segregation in America and must be considered within that context. Morrison even used racist language and played on Jim Crow stereotypes when naming a few of the images.

Bringing these images to central Kentucky and making them available to the public for an extended period is one way KHS hopes to extend the Newberry’s exhibit. We, and our partner organizations, including the Lexington Public Library Northside Branch and the African American Genealogical Group of Kentucky, will host panel discussions, identification events, digitization opportunities and other programming to help add more information to photographs that are unidentified or have little information attached to them.

What excites me most about the exhibit is making the images available to folks who lived in or near the photographed freetowns. The chance for community members to engage with them and imbue new meaning in them is especially powerful. I hope that as many Kentuckians as possible have a chance to visit, engage with the images and think about what Morrison’s lens captured, what the subjects wanted the world to see and what these images tell us about their lives.

(Editor’s Note: The Kentucky Historical Society is open Tuesday­-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission includes this exhibit. More information about visiting KHS.

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