History needs to be dealt with in context, or else it loses all meaning.
This, however, is not according to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). MOSI was planning a historical display of artifacts from a slave ship christened the Whydah. The ship, which sank in 1717 shortly after being hijacked by pirates, transported African slaves to the Americas for over 2 years. On Sunday, a press release from MOSI’s President Wit Ostrenko stated the planned exhibit had been canceled.
The Tampa-Hillsborough NAACP and other black advocacy groups protested the exhibit idea. They said it was insensitive because it focused too much on the pirate hijacking instead of the ship’s participation in slave trade. The release of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and the opening of the exhibit were dangerously close together.
Whether MOSI was actually planning to equate a real life slavery exhibit to a Disney film, however, is questionable. MOSI entrusted the preparation of the Whydah artifacts to a company called Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI). AEI’s president John Norman told the St. Petersburg Times, “We (AEI) had no association with Disney and weren’t planning on having any association with Disney or their movie.”
If MOSI planned to open an exhibit about pirate ships and use the Whydah in that light, thereby ignoring its sensitive history, it’s clear a mistake was made. Not only did MOSI ruin a perfectly good opportunity to have an exhibit about the Whydah as a slave ship – which would have attracted far more people in the first place – but it also showed startling historical insensitivity by allegedly attempting to portray the ship as a pirate ship. Even worse are the implications of MOSI’s responses to the criticism.
Norman told the Times “I’m surprised that we have criticism,” – as though the black community were jumping to conclusions and censoring history. But no one protesting the Whydah exhibit has said anything about censoring history. The black community quite rightly resents the fact that a slave ship was being passed off as a pirate ship.
What’s especially astounding is the alternative that MOSI declined. It could have created a very successful slavery exhibit with the Whydah as the centerpiece. It could have opened such an exhibit during Black History Month. It could have been a big hit and educational as well.
Unfortunately, this is not to be. And because of MOSI’s shortsightedness, Florida has most likely lost the opportunity to see a very important historical artifact in its correct context.