The persistence of memory

Arts / Article

You cannot describe a museum without the context of history. Go ahead, try… you can’t. When you get down to it, the duty of a museum is to make sure that the lessons of history are not only remembered, but also applied in the present and future tense. There is also another way in which history can be viewed, one that is much more personal than a term that invokes images of dusty, old tomes and dusty, old professors.

On Friday, September 9, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History was host to an extraordinary event as the “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts” Gala descended upon the museum. Well, technically, it should be that the gala came to us on that Wednesday, since that was the day that crews began setting up to expand the usable space of the famous rotunda, and employees had the minor inconvenience of making use of the freight elevator to traverse vertical space. But, it was all worth it ten times over, as one can read about (in articles like this one) or view in galleries (like these).

One part of the gala was off-limits to private attendee cameras. In a performance that embodied the spirit of both the Museum and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, as well as translating history into memory, the DTH Ensemble’s renditions of a collection of pieces, including “New Bach” and “Return,” brought standing ovations from the audience and even more prestige to an already prestigious event. And they performed twice that evening, in fact.

My personal history — or, rather, memories — with the Dance Theatre of Harlem actually begins eons ago in the 1990s, when the world was young and I was in elementary school. I cannot recall the exact date or venue they performed at, but I do know, as the performance on September 9 stirred up memories, that both “New Bach” and “Return” were a part of the works performed back then. As if a prelude, I had pangs of nostalgia while walking through the “40 years of Firsts” exhibit, as well. Though I couldn’t quite place it at the time, the music of one piece being rehearsed in a projected movie rang familiar with the melodic singing of “I love you (I love you)/ I love you, too (I love you).

The persistence of memory is a magical thing. Much like cultural history, memories stay with us forever, ready to be actively recalled at any prompt, and passively shaping our perspective on the world-at-large. “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts” runs through December 31, 2011 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the world’s largest institution dedicated to the African American experience. The Exhibition is a project of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dance Theatre of Harlem and the California African American Museum. For more information please visit