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The veiled revelations Rosa Parks Museum

Challenging the narrative at the Rosa Parks Museum

Blooloop speaks to the museum’s adult education coordinator and curator

Madeline Burkhardt

Madeline Burkhardt’s work as adult education coordinator and curator at the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama, has garnered international attention. Named as one of the blooloop50 Museum Influencers of 2020, Burkhardt also gave the 2018 talk, “Challenging the Narrative Through Art” at the University of Leicester’s Museums (em)Power event.

Blooloop caught up with Burkhardt to discuss her achievements and aspirations, both for herself and the museum

Discovering a career in museums

Burkhardt majored in Art History and minored in Italian, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University in 2015. Despite initially wanting to work in the gallery world, she accepted a position with the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. “Jobs or internships in this field are hard to come by,” says Burkhardt, reasoning the job would offer good experience. And it did.

“It was there that I fell in love with working at museums and working with the public.” Before then, she says, she held the impression that museums were intimidating and stuffy places, devoid of fun. 

The following year Burkhardt took a position as an adult education coordinator with the Rosa Parks Museum. She also enrolled in and began an online Museum Studies program from Johns Hopkins University in fall 2016. 

The Rosa Parks Museum

The Rosa Parks Museum occupies a street-level space within a satellite campus of Troy University. While the technical campus is in downtown Montgomery, the University’s main campus is in Troy, Alabama, approximately fifty miles southeast. 

Built in 2000 and expanded in 2005, the Museum focuses largely on the 382 days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Set in motion by Rosa Parks, this pivotal protest within the American civil rights movement led to the Supreme Court ruling segregation on public transportation unconstitutional.

Furthermore, the permanent exhibition contextualizes the events and conditions that lead to the Bus Boycott, stretching from segregation to slavery.

Where art and activism meet

In addition to permanent exhibitions for children and adults, the Rosa Parks Museum houses a 1,448-square-foot admission-free art gallery. Slightly removed from the main museum, the gallery is the only space that changes, hosting 4 shows annually. 

Burkhardt finished her Master of Arts in Museum Studies within a year and a half. During that time, she began to help curate temporary exhibitions and grow in new ways professionally. “I started working with contemporary artists, which was something that I never realized I would do.” 

Veiled Revelations RP Museum

She worked with only local artists in the beginning, finding herself drawn to exhibitions that challenge the status quo—especially the kind that felt in your face. “The [exhibitions] seemed to be making a huge impact here, so I wrote a proposal [in response to] a call for papers on that topic at the University of Leicester in England and they asked me to speak at their conference.”

An ancestral unveiling

From January through early April 2021, the gallery space at the Rosa Parks Museum hosted a show entitled “The Veiled: Revelations” by Takeisha Jefferson

Jefferson, a multi-modal artist from Michigan, used photography and sculpture to explore her ancestry and visually recreate lost family histories. She also has some history with the museum, says Burkhardt:

“[Jefferson] is one of our former interns, whose work we were excited to show over Black History Month because that’s what her work deals with.” 

Rosa Parks Veiled Revelations

Jefferson uses black and white photography, merging images of her family members to create new images. Burkhardt explains this concept as especially relevant to African-American and black communities, which due to slavery and systemic racism, often lack records of generations past:

“I think her work is just phenomenal—she plays with the idea of the different veils that people wear and how each of us interprets an object.” 

Jefferson’s Artist’s Statement elaborates further: “The artist wants the viewer to decide where the veil is for them. Is it literal or is it figurative? Some of the veils in her work are overt, while others can only be interpreted by the subject or audience.”

In the corner of the show is a traditional bridal gown. Its long train spread across the floor, adorned with spent bullet shells atop delicate lace emblazoned with the names of black victims of police violence. She sends a clear message, Burkhardt says:

“People who look like her are unwillingly married to the reality of police brutality and violence.”

America’s original sin

Recently, the gallery hosted another deeply evocative show, “America’s Original Sin” by assemblage artist Willie Little. Raised in the south, Little now lives in Portland, Oregon. His work examines history, current events and politics using objects and organic materials that reference racist stereotypes and practices. 

Essayist Bill Gaskins describes Little and his work as, “the viewer, listener and participant of his environments, paintings and assemblages. The work has been presented in a wide range of experiences, observations, and sights from this skilled, spirit-driven artist storyteller, editorialist and native son of the American South.”

“I apply and then remove many layers of oil paint, wax medium and rust medium in my abstract paintings to create surfaces that appear scraped, gouged, beaten to look like they may have been found in a dig,” writes Little. “Assemblage and installation pieces are layered with humour, irony, complexity and contradiction. 

Found objects come alive in the work as they speak with an unabashed honesty. Compositions engulf environments with a surreal sense of reality as they critique portions of America’s social dilemmas.”  

Little invites his viewers to open their minds and hearts and seek unexpected truths.

The women of the bus boycott travel

Rosa Parks Museum-traveling-exhibits

The Rosa Parks Museum also developed two travelling exhibitions, funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant. IMLS serves as a primary source of federal funding for approximately 35,000 museums and 120,000 libraries in the United States. 

While the Parks initiative is takes funding from grants and is free to borrow, it does generate donations for the museum. To date, most of the reserved engagements are in-state. 

Both sets of 6 front-and-back interpretive panels stand 7-feet-tall. One focuses solely on the life of Rosa Parks, the other on the women of the Montgomery bus boycott. 

The Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott panels focus on individuals and grassroots organizations such as the Women’s Political Council. “These women—Aurelia Browder, Virginia Durr, Georgia Gilmore, Jean Graetz, and others—have been left out of history books and a lot of narratives,” says Burkhardt.

The 2 pieces, available to lend to schools, libraries, and other public spaces nationwide, currently have bookings through summer 2022. They ship individually, or together, and stay for 2 to 4 weeks at a destination, schedule permitting. The museum recently ordered a second set to accommodate demand. 

Student-led learning

Troy University funds and operates the Rosa Parks Museum and its students often volunteer or intern there. The shared space also means the museum staff have access to additional storage, libraries, researchers, and faculty of the University. 

The museum did not open for a mere nine weeks due to COVID-19. It welcomed the public again in June 2020. “We were one of the last museums to close down in the state of Alabama,” Burkhardt says. The staff of six, with the help of volunteers and interns, ensured the historic site could still offer guided tours. To provide adequate social distancing, the live docent-led tours took place virtually, and visitor capacity had a maximum of eight.

Rosa_Parks Museum veiled revelations

The museum lost a significant percentage of revenue in 2020 compared to the previous year. While the organization does receive grant money for specific projects, they do not have a fundraising arm. 

“Thankfully, Troy supported us through the pandemic,” she says. “However, our attendance did go down [by] 72,000 in 2020 due to COVID.” 

A large part of that drop in visitorship is easily explainable. Normally, during the Spring the museum sees between 600 and 800 students on field trips per day. Burkhardt says the students are mostly in the fourth grade when Alabama students study state history. “It’s a huge, huge difference.” Thankfully, the staff were able to host virtual tours for the students during that time. 

Continuing challenging conversations at the Rosa Parks Museum

Five years in, Burkhardt still finds her work at the Rosa Parks Museum engaging. “We put a lot of thought into what we show and when,” she says. “For example, on the anniversary of [the invasion of] Pearl Harbor, we’re going to have a whole exhibition on Japanese internment camps.” 

The institution, however, isn’t known as an art museum; its content areas are primarily history and civil rights. As the Parks Museum’s Adult Education Coordinator, Burkhardt continues to champion challenging conversations. 

We do panels and community forums we call ‘Real Talks’ which address hot-button issues like women’s reproductive rights, the school to prison pipeline, and religious tolerance

“With adult education, we do panels and community forums we call ‘Real Talks’ which address hot-button issues like women’s reproductive rights, the school to prison pipeline, and religious tolerance.”

Working with interns and volunteers, Burkhardt estimates she’s personally programmed about twenty Real Talks over the past few years. 

Some addressed local concerns, like police & our community, the future of Montgomery Public Schools, and economic development in Montgomery. While other Real Talks were broader in scope, covering gun rights & gun violence, women & HIV/AIDS, mental health, bullying & discrimination, domestic violence & sexual assault, female activism, and human trafficking. 

Civility and discourse

Veiled Revelations exhibit Rosa Parks Museum

Often, the panels have been hyper-relevant to current events. “We try to be as relevant with it as possible. But we had no idea when we planned the religious tolerance one, for example, that there would be an attack on a mosque right before the panel took place.” 

Burkhardt says despite the strong and varied opinions surrounding these issues, all proceedings have remained respectful. “We’ve never had an issue with that. However, I think those are the same people who I wish would come in to see what we’re doing.”

The Rosa Parks Museum actively welcomes diversity of thought. They invited the NRA to participate in a panel about gun rights, and pro-life organizations to one on reproductive rights. “We tried to get in touch with them and they didn’t answer any of my emails or calls,” she says.

Someone might view a panel on women’s reproductive rights as something liberal or far left. But Burkhardt points out, it’s also something that Rosa Parks had involvement in because she was on the board of Planned Parenthood. “We do stay in keeping with the civil rights movement.”

Knowledge and power dynamics

Veiled Revelations_Rosa Parks

Burkhardt didn’t anticipate all of the challenges that have come with being a young outspoken female leader in the museums‘ field. When she found her input wasn’t taken seriously, she began working on her master’s degree—as just one part of a bigger learning process.

“When I first started working at the Rosa Parks Museum, I hardly knew anything about the civil rights movement. They didn’t teach much about it in school. But by giving these tours, I was learning so much,” she says.

“If I’m personally giving a tour, I will, at some point acknowledge that I am speaking from a white privileged female perspective, so, if you want to correct me, please do, because I would rather be called out on that than not.” 

Burkhardt says it’s emotionally complex to be teaching American and Alabama history, which at the same time is not necessarily her own. 

“I try to be as empathetic as humanly possible when I go through [the exhibits],” she says. “Because that’s all I can do.” Sometimes, that means providing an alternate tour guide. 

Because some groups simply don’t want someone who looks like her to lead their tour. “And I understand that.” 

The museum is currently hosting Ten Japanese-American Concentration Camps by Renee Billingslea. This exhibition will run through December 2021.

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Kate Heller

Kate Heller

Kate Heller is a creative professional in San José, California who is passionate about art, design, fitness and ocean conservation—and not afraid to write about any of it!

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