Walking into the Blacklist exhibit at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, visitors may wonder what the red scare of the 1950s and 60s has to do with Jewish-American culture in the upper Midwest. Rather than answering that question directly, however, the temporary exhibit offers the tools of historical inquiry: original sources and probing questions. Blacklist reminds its audience (ages 12 and up) that wrestling with issues such as free speech, censorship and national belonging were — and are — central to the American experience.
There’s no doubt that communism spread after World War II. The United States’ uneasy alliance with the Soviet Union crumbled as Eastern Europe fell under Stalinist control. Outside the Soviet sphere, both the British and French Communist parties won parliamentary seats, while Mao Tse Tung’s victory brought over 500 million Chinese under communist rule. In the United States, Communist Party membership had grown steadily through the 1930s. It peaked — at 75,000 members — in 1947. By that time, the Truman administration had already pivoted; former Nazis seemed less threatening than potential left-wingers. Likewise, the House Un-American Activities Committee had abandoned its wartime mission of tracking Nazi sympathizers to focus on identifying suspected communists.
Blacklist explains this historical context through a short film, shown on-demand to museum visitors. The film also introduces key terms and the exhibit’s aims: to spark conversations about patriotism, privacy and civil rights. By blending historical film footage and cartoonesque animations, this overview engages a multi-generational audience; for visitors of a certain age, it evokes memories of civil defense pamphlets and public service announcements.
The lobby’s east wall features a series of panels explaining political contexts and issues of the early Cold War era. Each panel includes guiding questions that help visitors interrogate both the archival documents and their own ideas about censorship, patriotism and the First Amendment. In a second room, visitors can view film footage from HUAC hearings, reproductions of Congressional guidelines and publicity materials distributed by the Hollywood Ten. In the hallway, a series of posters identifies some of the films impacted by HUAC investigations; titles include “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “On the Waterfront” and, most surprisingly, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Behind hinged panels, visitors learn the legal fates of targeted producers, directors and actors. Here too, explanatory captions leave visitors to gauge for themselves what constitutes fair treatment or coercion.
With “Blacklist,” the Jewish Museum Milwaukee exemplifies accessible, research-based public history. More than three years in the making, the exhibit refuses to tell visitors what to think about the Hollywood Ten, the House Un-American Activity Committee, or post-war anti-Semitism. Instead, “Blacklist” poses questions that help visitors interrogate historical evidence — drawn largely from the Library of Congress, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. These sources show that long before the 1954 Communist Control Act (68 Stat. 775, 50 U.S.C. 841-844.), politicians and business leaders actively persecuted American citizens engaged in legal activities. Ethnic minorities and immigrants — some of whom had fled Nazi persecution — were disproportionately targeted.
In short, Blacklist provides an uncomfortable reminder that censorship sacrifices truth and discrimination threatens justice. Is this exhibit a call to action? That’s another question visitors will have to answer for themselves.
Associate Professor of History Kimberly A. Redding of Carroll University in Waukesha specializes in modern Germany, 20th century Europe, the Cold War world and collective memory.
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Point/Counter-point: Read also, “Blacklist delivers, but American communism needs more probing.“
What do you think of the Blacklist exhibit? Visit and decide for yourself!
What: Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare.
When: Open through March 10.
Where: Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is at 1360 N. Prospect Ave.
More info: 414-390-5730. JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.