TRAVERSE CITY — It's hard to look at, harder still to ignore.
That's the idea behind "THEM: Images of Separation," a traveling exhibition of artifacts from popular culture — from postcards and license plates to games, souvenirs and costumes — that promote hate, stereotyping and discrimination.
"There's a kind of reflective sadness that people have when they visit," said David Pilgrim, curator of the exhibition and founder and curator of its parent, the 5,000-piece Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. "The purpose is to use the objects to stimulate discussion. They're not a shrine to bad things."
The exhibition opens Sunday at the Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College and runs through March 3. It kicks off "Embrace the Dream," a new series of local events that celebrates Black History Month in February, Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 21 and the ideals of tolerance and diversity.
The six-week series, which runs concurrently with the exhibition, represents a collaboration of local organizations and venues, from the Dennos and the State Theatre to the Traverse Area District Library, Pangea's Pizza and the Great Lakes Children's Museum. It includes live music and stage performances, interactive exhibits, film screenings and more — all aimed at the slain civil rights leader's vision of rights and respect for all.
"Martin Luther King was against prejudice, period," said Dennos executive director Gene Jenneman, who helped organize the project. "Of course, it was about blacks, but it was a bigger issue for him."
The art exhibition focuses on prejudices against such groups as African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, women, poor whites and those considered "other" because of body type or sexual orientation. It also touches on hot-button issues like anti-Arab sentiment, Holocaust denial, "Don't ask, don't tell" and immigration. Together, the 35 artifacts, which have traveled to places like the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Conn. and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, paint a powerful picture of American culture.
"I think you see a lot of things (one at a time) and you just kind of keep walking," said Pilgrim, Ferris State's vice president for diversity and inclusion and a leading expert on issues relating to multiculturalism, diversity and race relations. "But if you place several objects together, it forces people to stop. You start recognizing that these objects were pervasive in our society. They weren't episodic. We can learn from that and use it (as a springboard for discussion).
"It sounds like a cliche, but the whole thing is about dialoguing."
Pilgrim will speak at a community reception and lecture for the exhibition beginning at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Dennos. Both events are free, as is weekend admission during the show's run.
The Dennos also will present "The Spirit of Harriet Tubman," a one-woman production written by and starring Leslie McCurdy, at 7 p.m. Feb. 28. The show, now in its 10th year, portrays the life of the African-American abolitionist, humanitarian and Union spy.
"Embrace a Dream" is sponsored by DTE Energy Foundation and organized by the Traverse City Human Rights Commission and the Dennos, with several local partners. Besides the Dennos activities, "centerpiece events" include a full day of free programming at the State Theatre Jan. 21, culminating in a live performance by the Detroit-based Brazeal Dennard Chorale, one of the country's oldest African-American choirs.
Most events are free, but advance ticket reservations are recommended for many. For more information, visit www.embracethedream.org.