Eastern Michigan University professor Matt Cook and collaborators earn major National Science Foundation grant to research how American museums document today’s expanding understanding of racism and racial violence

Outdoor display at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit.
A display at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit in 2018.

YPSILANTI – An Eastern Michigan University professor is part of a five-person team that has won a half million-dollar grant to research the extent to which museums serve the public through documenting, preserving, and interpreting difficult contemporary events alongside and in cooperation with their communities.

Matt Cook
Matt Cook

Matthew Cook, an assistant professor of Historic Preservation and Cultural Geography, and other investigators will contribute to the conversation about how local museums respond to expanding geographies of racism and racial violence. He and his collaborators will seek to contribute important information about the roles local museums play in addressing difficult events and issues.

The National Science Foundation grant, totaling $508,350, will focus specifically on African American historical and cultural narratives, building upon earlier pilot research that asked “What is the role of the museum in the 21st century?” and, “How do American museums change and adapt their narrative emphases in response to contemporary events?”

Addressing controversial current events

“In an era of increased public awareness of interracial police violence, the school-to-prisons pipeline, cycles of racially infused violence and protest seen, for example, from the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 to the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and the Black Lives Matter movement, this research seeks to analyze how museums situated in varied geographic locations address controversial current events as part of their missions to support communities at the local, regional, and national levels,” a description of the grant reads.

“The project is among the first to examine the processes, politics, scope, and breadth of how controversial events from the relatively recent past are presented at museums that vary in ownership types and management philosophies, and that are located throughout the United States,” Cook says of the research.

Professor Cook gathers pilot data

Using funding in the summer of 2019 from the EMU James H. Brickley Endowment for Faculty Professional Development and Innovation, Cook first gathered pilot data at museums in the Midwest and Southeast, which helped in the successful application for the NSF grant.

“Our research team will expand the scope of this project to conduct extensive qualitative fieldwork at African American museums and other historical and cultural museums to document and analyze temporary and permanent exhibits, examine collection policies, and interview directors, managers, curators, educators, archivists, registrars, and other museum staff,” Cook said.

“This is another example of how our internal faculty professional development programs

are useful for giving faculty the preliminary data they need to successfully compete for external grants,” said Wade Tornquist, Interim Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Graduate Studies and Research at EMU.

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves nearly 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

September 09, 2020

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Geoff Larcom