The Missouri History Museum has spent two years collecting artifacts from the Ferguson unrest, but there’s a conspicuous absence of items provided by Ferguson City Hall.
The museum has artwork from boarded up windows, protesters’ gas masks, empty tear gas grenades and even clothing worn by protesters in the weeks following Michael Brown’s shooting death by a police officer. But Ferguson officials are yet to contribute anything to the collection.
City Hall spokesman Jeff Small said the city isn’t involved because it hasn’t been formally asked to participate, and moreover, it has nothing to offer.
“At no point did the city ever maintain any collection of items,” Small said.
Mayor James Knowles III said he would help, but he hasn’t personally been contacted by the museum about the collection since the end of 2014.
But activists and museum researchers say they’d be surprised if the city doesn’t possess anything of historical significance.
“We would need to have conversations with them to determine exactly what they have,” museum director of library and collections Chris Gordon said. “They might not understand some of this material may be of interest to us.”
The museum is also recording oral histories of the events in Ferguson from people who lived through them. Gordon said about 10 such interviews have been recorded to date. Emily Davis, a Ferguson activist who contributed artwork to the collecting initiative, said it’s difficult to believe City Hall isn’t in possession of items that might be considered artifacts.
Davis said she thinks the city simply doesn’t want to remember the events between Aug. 9, 2014 — when Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot — to November 2014 — when a grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing.
“They want to pretend this didn’t happen and we were given a bad rap,” Davis said. “I don’t think they’re particularly willing to acknowledge it as a historical moment.”
Small said it’s not city officials’ role to act as historians, but that they are supportive of efforts to preserve the history for research and education. He added that there are concerns about how the events might be portrayed and said some groups might want to exploit events for their own agenda.
“We understand those who would have a purpose of doing something that is meaningful that acknowledges the controversial nature of the events, but that presents any materials in a respectful way that hopefully educates,” Small said. “No one wants to see anything exploited in some manner or used for some type of ill will.”
Small said the city would consider a “formal request” to participate, but didn’t elaborate. Knowles said he would only need to be personally contacted.
At one point the Missouri History Museum and the city of Ferguson were progressing on a formal collecting agreement, Gordon said. But those talks were tabled in the spring of 2015 following a Department of Justice report excoriating city management, and an exodus of the city’s top brass, including resignations by the police chief and city manager.
“At that point a whole new group of people came on and it’s been our goal to reach out and re-establish a new relationship with the new people,” Gordon said.
Knowles said City Hall has been short-staffed in multiple departments in addition to the administrative turnover. Preoccupation with implementing a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and providing basic services take precedent over collecting artifacts for the history museum, he said. Knowles said the city has helped the Ferguson Historical Society collect artwork from boarded up windows.
“We’d be happy to provide what we can, but some requests we just can’t fulfill because we don’t have those items,” Knowles said. Specifically, the Missouri History Museum had requested Wilson’s uniform, badge and firearm. Knowles said the uniform and badge are Wilson’s personal property, and the firearm was handed over to St. Louis County as evidence when the case was being investigated.
Some of the artifacts from the Ferguson collecting initiative will be displayed in an upcoming Missouri History Museum exhibition on local civil rights history. The yearlong exhibit opening in March will specifically focus on “the African-American freedom struggle in St. Louis,” according to promotional materials.
Gordon said the museum has received a small number of items from counterdemonstrators who supported law enforcement during the Ferguson unrest, but would like more from both sides. A Ferguson-specific exhibition would be years away, either way, he said.
“We want to show this in a big picture perspective and not just showcase one side,” Gordon said. “Anything we can gather to get a well-rounded picture of the events that occurred.”