“Less” has never been “more” at the History Museum of Mobile (111 S. Royal St.) than it is right now. When “A History of Mobile in 22 Objects” runs Oct. 30 through Dec. 31, 2021, it will showcase not just the duration of one of America’s oldest towns, but the reserves of talent it boasts.
Atop that list is History Museum Director Meg McCrummen Fowler, whose background and enthusiasm for her field is obvious. Inspired by a 2010 collaboration between the British Museum and BBC — “A History of the World in 100 Objects” — she transposed that vision to Mobile and adapted it for centuries rather than millions of years.
“I was so fascinated by this idea of telling an enormous story in the fewest number of objects that you possibly can,” Fowler said. “Also, how do you take one object that is perhaps unassuming or seemed simple and kind of let it open up all these different stories?”
Museum staff started discussion and planning in July 2019. It was ready to go 10 months later, but the pandemic got in the way.
“It was a little insane,” Fowler said, laughing. “It kind of grew a lot in scope during the project.”
The museum set course through its 117,000-object collection, looking for encapsulations of eras and topics.
“When I describe this exhibit to people, they often think this is going to be the museum’s 22 most valuable objects,” Fowler said. “I have to explain it better.”
The exhibit’s journey begins with a pottery fragment from the native cultures that also built mounds in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, then strides into the colonial era with a portrait of Henry de Tonti.
The assortment betrays expectations. There’s Native leader William “Red Eagle” Weatherford’s violin, an airtight coffin from an era plagued by yellow fever, a handcart for offloading ship cargo, a slave’s permit for traveling privileges, a chair from the old Battle House, an oil containment boom and more.
Their overseas inspiration continued. A 100-part radio series wasn’t necessary — or even possible since Mobile lost local production of its public radio just about a decade ago — but they could produce a book, and the printed version includes far more than photos and illustrations. Museum personnel assembled a list of local academics, writers and others, matched expertise to objects and asked for compositions.
For the airtight coffin, Mobile Medical Museum Director Daryn Glassbrook was enlisted to pen an essay. Historian Tom McGhee wrote about azaleas and Bellingrath Gardens. John Sledge covered the Civil War.
When it came to civil rights petitioner John LeFlore’s typewriter, Frye Gaillard’s name quickly topped the list. He cut his journalistic teeth covering the Civil Rights Movement and it’s been central to his career.
“Frye said he had a personal connection with the typewriter because he was there right after LeFlore’s house was bombed and it was such a kind of moment for him,” Fowler relayed.
One clever inclusion is a bookshelf joined to an essay by Haunted Book Shop proprietor Angela Trigg. She noted some standard authors — Eugene Walter and Winston Groom — with a couple of others who don’t roll off local tongues as readily: Albert Murray and contemporary science fiction/fantasy author N.K. Jemisin.
The book’s initial chapter features the museum’s structure, an antebellum market/city hall designated a national historic landmark in 1973.
There’s even an unintentional artifact found on the book’s front credits page. It lists the exhibit dates as April 24 – Oct. 1, 2020, hidden testimony to the pandemic’s sudden impact.
For the book’s design, Fowler wanted someone to “do it justice” and recalled a catalog she contributed to for the Newcomb Art Gallery while living in New Orleans. She turned to its designer, Tana Coman, who delivered in splendid fashion.
All told, the book is a spectacular accompaniment to an entirely homegrown exhibit and a must-have for most Mobilians. As the exhibit reveals why history remains a constant interest in the Azalea City, the book preserves and expounds its insights. It’s also evidence of the community effort behind the exhibit, something that stirs Fowler’s pride and gratitude.
Copies will be available in the museum gift shop.
Then, there’s the exhibit’s aptness. In a year that feels like a notable punctuation on global timelines, Fowler sees its value.
“At this moment in time it is such an important thing to understand how history is made and how history is done, thinking about how these sweeping, overarching narratives look so clean and polished are always based on decisions,” Fowler said.
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