The Best Exhibits Feel Like Home

I loved the opening reception of History Lessons: Everyday Objects from Chicago Public Housing at the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM) because it made me feel at home.

Let me illustrate this feeling with a story. The first object in the exhibit that caught my eye was this adorable metal airplane mounted on the wall:

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History Lessons: Everyday Objects from Chicago Public Housing, National Public Housing Museum, on loan from Raymond “Shaq” McDonald

The airplane belongs to Raymond “Shaq” McDonald, who grew up in the Cabrini Green projects with his grandmother. As a child, Raymond saw the plane in a store window and desperately wanted it. “I remember when my mother first originally gave me this plane,” Raymond explained on the object label. “Her eyes glistened as she presented the airplane to me. She said, ‘here you go, baby. I always knew you wanted a plane.’ I said, ‘you heard me,’ with the most energetic and vibrant tone imaginable.” Raymond immediately hung the plane on his wall.

The airplane is the only object Raymond still owns from his late mother.

At the bottom of the object label I saw:

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Object label, History Lessons: Everyday Objects from Chicago Public Housing, National Public Housing Museum

I was born in 1993. Raymond and I are the same age. “In another universe, we could have been friends,” I thought.

I grew up on the Upper East Side of New York. If you know anything about New York geography, you know that I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth. Both of my parents raised me and my mother is still alive, thank God.

Even though Raymond and I grew up worlds apart, I identified with Raymond’s story. I too have an object that reminds me of my mom and helps me to feel at home. When I moved to Chicago in August of 2017, my mom gave me a New Yorker poster that details a New Yorker’s view of the world. “You can look up at it and remember where you come from,” she told me. I immediately hung the poster above my bed. I look at it every day and think of her.

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The New Yorker poster that my mother gave me. Steinberg, Saul, “View of the World From 9th Avenue,” The New Yorker, 1976

As I perused the rest of the exhibit, I overheard a young man talking about the airplane to another visitor. After shamelessly eavesdropping for a minute, I turned around and asked him, “is that your plane?” Raymond smiled and said, “yes.” We proceeded to have a long conversation about the relationship between identity, objects, and home. He told me that he loved the exhibit because all of the objects reminded of his background growing up in public housing. I told him that I related to the exhibit even though my background was vastly different. “All people want the same things from home,” he emphasized, “things like safety, love, food, and shelter.” Raymond saw I had my phone out and told me to friend him on Facebook. I am excited to keep in touch with him!

My connection with Raymond does not minimize the extreme and unfair differences between my level of privilege and Raymond’s. Yet, I hope we can become friends. I hope we can continue to teach each other about the human experience through our differences. Maybe, one day, we will feel at home together.

As I continued to walk around the exhibit, I noticed that the most powerful part of the exhibit was that both the regular visitors, like me, and the public housing residents, who lent their objects to the exhibit, felt at home there. I watched as Milton Reed, widely considered “The Artist” of the Chicago projects, leafed through his account book. I observed Mary Baldwin, a member of the NPHM board, push a rocking chair and lovingly watch it move back and forth. “My best friend, she loved this rocking chair,” Mary told me. Her late best friend was Deverra Beverly, the former president of the ABLA housing project. Desiree Davidson, who grew up in ABLA Homes, proudly pointed to the top of an object label and told her friend, “I’m at the top. I’m there. That’s me!” Then, Desiree did the moonwalk and waved her hands. Her friend laughed. “Desiree was always making trouble,” the friend informed me. “When there was bullets, she’d walk right into them.” The residents’ interactions with the objects transformed the museum from a sterile depository into a warm home.

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Milton Reed and me in front of his painting. Milton informed me that he chose this piece for the NPHM exhibit because “the constant thing I was drawing in people’s homes were panthers and palm trees.”

The NPHM has made an excellent effort to turn the exhibit into a home. Public housing residents wrote every object label. As the Executive Director of the museum, Lisa Yun Lee, stated, “[The labels] really foreground the voices of public housing residents.” However, there is nothing like watching the owner of an object play with it and hearing her talk about her relationship to it.

The opening reception of History Lessons: Everyday Objects from Chicago Public Housing left me wondering: how can museums recreate intimacy with objects whose owners are not present and that visitors cannot touch? How can museums help visitors feel at home? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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