Detroit Historical Society

Marlowe Stoudamire

Project Director / Spokesperson, Detroit67, Detroit Historical Society

Tracy Smith Irwin

Chief Exhibitions & Enrichment Officer, Detroit Historical Society

Detroit Historical Society

5401 Woodward Avenue Detroit, Michigan 48202 United States

Detroit, United States

National Medal for Museum and Library Service 2018


Crisis as Catalyst for Conversation and Change




What are the consequences of engaging a major American city in the search for a collective truth, even as the individual truths that make up that community are as disparate as the citizens? And what if an institution dedicated to truth were to use that process to help define the community for the next generation? The Detroit Historical Society decided to find out.

The year 2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of devastating, racially-charged violence in Detroit. The week-long riot/rebellion left deep scars on the region's population and radically changed the demographic landscape. In order to properly commemorate the event, the Detroit Historical Society (DHS) formed a regional civic engagement project titled, "Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward", with the goal of convening the community around this difficult historic conflict.
Initially seen solely as an exhibition opportunity, the effort took on a life of its own, and grew to include six key deliverables: the Detroit67: Perspectives exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum; the publication Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies; an oral history project dedicated to collecting the varied stories of this event; an ongoing series of partnerships and programming; a community placemaking component; and a replicable model of the process to share.

It was understood early on that our staff could not tell this story alone. Beginning in 2014 over 120 individual, organizational and institutional partners were brought into the project. Advisory panels, which helped inform all facets of the process, consisted of scholars, community activists, and business and government leaders. The DHS also served as an informational convener for numerous other cultural organizations commemorating the events of 1967 in various manners, from symphonic interpretations to art installations.


Image courtesy of Dr. Carol Chadwick Burleson, Detroit Historical Society Collection

Simultaneously, the DHS embarked upon an aggressive Oral History Project which offered several avenues for public interaction. Over 500 submissions—processed, transcribed and available online—served to inform the DHS book and exhibition, and numerous partner-generated articles, plays, poems and a documentary.

The 3,000 square foot exhibition is both comprehensive and highly experiential. Visual and oral resources solicited through the project were heavily leveraged to make the product both immersive and original. Spontaneous and facilitated visitor conversations within the galleries have validated the need for this initiative.

The DHS staff worked closely with partner organizations on over 180 events, from symphony performances to dialog sessions, which helped inform the project and advance conversations about race and class diversity and inclusion. Partnership activity revitalizing seven neighborhood parks, including one at the epicenter of the 1967 rebellion which—until this action—bore no indication of its importance in the city's history. The Engage/Reflect/Act (ERA) model and it's four critical imperatives—race relations, youth engagement, neighborhood advancement and economic opportunity—have been shared with organizations around the world.

The exhibition's July 2017 opening received broad media coverage. In the first six months, over 60,000 people visited the exhibition, 10,000 people participated in co-produced partner programs, and 26,000 visited the oral history web portals. The Detroit 67: Perspectives exhibit, along with Society staff, appeared in print and electronic media across the United States, and in Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Russia. The potential reach of the media coverage over the summer alone was 344.24 million people.

Over the two years since the anniversary, the Detroit67 Project has continued to have a significant impact.

In the most basic sense, the overarching social message of the project—embraced by DHS management, employees, trustees, stakeholders—caused a significant cultural shift within the organization to accommodate the breadth of the endeavor. Indeed, it changed our perception of ourselves, but also the perception of the Society within the community. The "moving forward" aspect, which has its own gallery, forced the organization to look beyond traditional, historically-based experiences, toward engaging visitors about their future—and about engaging future visitors.


Image courtesy of Detroit Historical Society

The topics—inclusion, equity and diversity—currently represent a high priority for educators and thought leaders seeking to get younger citizens involved in their communities. The museum has had high school groups from across the United States as well as numerous regional institutions, visit specifically to have facilitated conversations in the Detroit 67: Perspectives space. Our Education and Outreach teams created special programs focused on bringing younger people to have uncomfortable conversations in a safe environment.

A week-long immersive program, "Detroit Design 2067" proved to be a successful program that brought together a dozen diverse eleventh- and twelfth-graders to learn Design Theory from professionals in various fields and apply its concepts to specific problems facing the Detroit area. Also successful were programs held in local libraries that addressed economic equity and personal financial strategies.

Community and cultural leaders from around the world—including this august organization—have also taken notice. The DHS has received calls from various cities recently wracked by racially-stoked violence—Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; Paris, France—wanting to know more about our process and our ERA model. In March of this year, a group representing border communities in the Republic of Ireland and British Northern Ireland came to Detroit to examine issues including policing, housing and employment inequity. They began their visit at the Detroit Historical Museum, to gain perspective and interview our staff specifically about our youth engagement strategies.

The project affected the physical element of our traditional mission; a public call for photos and film has significantly enhanced our archival holdings from this period. Success of the Oral History Project has resulted in partnerships with other researchers and allowed the project to pivot from "Detroit67" to a broader collection strategy called "The Neighborhoods: Where Detroit Lives."

The Detroit Historical Society has been fortunate that organizations within our professional discipline have also taken notice. The overall project has received four prestigious awards, including the National Medal from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the History in Progress Award from the Association for State and Local History. The edited volume, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies, has garnered five publishing awards to date.

The civil unrest that shook Detroit in 1967 represents the most destructive and divisive such event in 20th century American history. Its impacts affect the city today and tinges its future. As the 2017 anniversary approached, the Detroit Historical Society understood that we could either let this historic moment pass as an unpleasant memory, or use it as a catalyst to engage, reflect and stimulate action to move Detroit forward. We chose the latter. Feedback from all quarters suggests that seeking truth by engaging your entire community has very positive consequences.


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