“Why are we talking about this still?” “Who’s going to come to a #metoo exhibit?”
Those were some of the questions that Paige Mitchell fielded during the months she worked on the Minnesota History Center’s newest exhibit.
But the question Mitchell thinks we should be asking is this: “How do we not keep talking about #metoo and everything that encompasses?”
That’s part of the reason Mitchell, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, ended up curating “#MeToo in Minnesota History.” The exhibit is a modest one. There are no video screens, sound recordings or even photos. Still it aims to tackle a powerful, controversial and outsized topic.
The #metoo movement has led millions to share their experiences of sexual harassment or assault. As a result, many men — including a couple of famous Minnesotans — lost their jobs or faced reckonings of another kind.
The exhibit, which runs through April 5, doesn’t mention those men or the Hollywood actresses who helped fuel the viral hashtag on so many Twitter or Facebook accounts.
Instead, it uses simple red silhouettes, cardboard cutouts and the stories of six Minnesota women to foster a broader conversation about sexual assault and violence. It also aims to focus on perspectives that weren’t amplified when #metoo first started trending two years ago.
History Center staffers first started talking about putting together an exhibit about #metoo last year, but the project didn’t take shape easily.
“I’ll be honest, we didn’t always agree on, ‘Who is this exhibit for, exactly?’ ” said B. Erin Cole, an exhibit developer at the Minnesota Historical Society. “When we do exhibits, we always try to think about who the specific audience is for it. It helps us frame the conversation, especially with a topic that’s very large.”
Also, the Irvine Community Gallery, where it was to be displayed, presented challenges.
“As you’ve noticed the room is not very big,” said Cole. “So you have to be really specific about what you’re going to focus on.”
Mitchell — who is in the U of M’s Heritage Studies and Public History program — began an internship at the center in June. Shortly afterward, supervisors at the History Center suggested she take on the project. She was a little surprised by the offer, but happy to take it on.
“I understood a little bit more about what was going on on the ground,” said Mitchell, who has worked with the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “And so they brought me in to kind of help with this. I really didn’t expect to have this responsibility, but I’m honored that I got to do it. It’s been a large undertaking.”
Mitchell and her supervisors agreed that simply diving into the History Center’s archives for women’s stories wouldn’t offer all of the diverse perspectives they wanted to include. And because the Irvine Gallery is just off the main floor rotunda, exhibits held there can’t include many items — including photos — from the center’s collections because of insurance reasons, Cole said.
So Mitchell ended up relying on interviews with assault and harassment survivors and advocates, such as Patina Park from the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and Ivette Izea-Martinez from nonprofit Casa de Esperanza, which works with Latinx survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking.
“This exhibit grew to be what it is from organic conversations with community members working on the ground,” said Mitchell.
“Really, the idea of the exhibit is to talk about collective trauma, but also how #metoo is ingrained in systems that have been around and existed for a long time,” she said.
The exhibit features placards that describe the lives and experiences of six Minnesotans, including “Rachel,” an enslaved woman who spent time at Fort Snelling before she successfully sued for her freedom in the 1830s.
There also are present-day figures like transgender activist CeCe McDonald, Sia Her, who works with Hmong sexual assault survivors, and trailblazing St. Paul police officer Carolen Bailey, who joined the force in 1961, founded its Sexual Offense Services department and worked to educate fellow cops about rape and sexual assault survivors.
Each woman is represented by a red silhouette with her name and story. And each one is flanked by a crowd of other people, shown as simple cardboard cutout figures.
Park said she met with Mitchell “and the next thing I knew, I was one of the people represented” in the exhibit. She agreed to be featured because she feels that #metoo’s initial conversation left out Native American women, who are disproportionately more likely than white women to be victims of sexual violence.
“Two years ago, it was so white women-driven, it just left out a lot of the people who aren’t white women,” she said. “Movements like this can be almost like salt in the wound. It’s coming from a good place, but in representing themselves as the model, [white women] erase so many experiences.”
Izea-Martinez, who was born in Venezuela, took part because she wanted the History Center to share the stories of immigrant survivors.
“At first I didn’t think my name deserved to be there,” she said. “But after I got to see the silhouette and my name, I said to myself, ‘You know what, I’m an immigrant. A lot of my dreams were broken to come here, and I had to create my own dreams. But from now on, every time my kids google my name or somebody searches for my name, it is connected to the Minnesota History Center.’ It is very humbling. But to me, it is a powerful message.”