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April 15, 2019

Museum exhibit chronicles campus sexual abuse crisis; promotes healing, transformation

A special exhibit developed in collaboration with sexual assault survivors, “Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak,” opens April 16 at the Michigan State University Museum.

Inspired by teal ribbons tied around campus trees last spring, each one a tribute to a survivor, the exhibit chronicles survivors’ continuing struggle to call public attention to sexual violence and to promote dignity, healing and positive transformation.

“From the very beginning, it was agreed upon that this would truly be a community co-curated exhibit. All aspects, including overarching conceptual themes, display copy, signage, objects, artworks and design elements have been carefully considered,” said MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander. “This is an instance of “emergent design,” in which museum professionals, survivors and allies have continually learned from one another, creating a powerful experience.”

Reminded of the yellow ribbons that have welcomed soldiers home, Valerie von Frank, founder of Parents of Sister Survivors Engage (POSSE) and who conceived of the teal ribbon project, thought of the trees’ strength and resilience as similar to and an inspiration for the survivors.

“I wanted a visual reminder of every one of those girls so that others would see the names and realize how many were affected, so that the women would be seen as individuals and not just one big number in the news,” von Frank said of tying more than 200 teal ribbons around trees on campus with the help of several students.

In early July 2018, invasive gypsy moths began laying eggs in the ribbons. Museum curators, along with staff from the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum and MSU Landscape Services, devised a plan to remove and preserve the ribbons after consultation with survivors and family members.

“Working with the museum to preserve the ribbons and capture the emotions and events through the exhibit helps keep this issue at the forefront. We cannot forget the trauma of the survivors,” von Frank said. “It is significant that MSU is taking this step, through the museum, to educate visitors on the cultural and institutional power structures that have allowed for sexual abuse to be so widespread, as well as educating people about the trauma of assault.”

The exhibition includes:

  • A wall of 505 tiles honoring the 505 known survivors of Larry Nassar. The tiles, created by survivors and allies and painted with abstract designs, will be intermixed with tiles bearing photographic images of survivors at the ages their abuse began.
  • A detailed timeline extending through the exhibition. The timeline covers three decades of the abuse, highlighting moments of failed institutional accountability, public testimony, news stories, prosecution and institutional reform.
  • Fourteen re-created trees adorned with teal ribbons taken from campus trees.
  • Sculptural work “Ten Feet Tall” created by sister survivor Alexandra Bourque. The sculpture made of 300 tie-dyed silk butterflies forms a beautiful women’s dress, which flies toward the sky. The dress depicts how Judge Rosemarie Aquilina described her reaction to seeing survivors transform after delivering their victim impact statements in her courtroom.
  • “Together We Roar Pt. 2,” a triptych by sister survivor Jordyn Fishman. Set on a gymnastics competition floor, the painting’s three panels depict survivors’ transitions across time. The painting is accompanied by a recorded conversation between Fishman and MSU neuroscientist Apryl Pooley, exploring scientific perspectives on the role of art in aiding recovery from trauma.

“Museums have become agents of change as we mirror and chronicle events in society through our exhibits,” Auslander said. “By calling attention to these events, promoting the ideals of democracy and demanding transparency from our institutions, museums give voice to the community, create avenues for dialogue and form a convergence where events of today can be exhibited and discussed for the collective good.”

The exhibition, which runs through March of 2020, is underwritten by Grewal Law PLLC.

“This exhibit will help any victim, any survivor, feel seen and understood because finally there is a place in this world that gets them. Finally, there is a space that is safe, a space that knows the pain of abuse but also the beauty in coming together and rising above the hurt,” said Amanda Thomashow, a sister survivor, advocate and community co-curator. “This exhibit will help not only my sisters and me shed the years of silent suffering, but it will give hope to all survivors.”

Warning: The exhibition contains explicit material that may be challenging for younger visitors and may be disturbing for others. Please exercise judgment in deciding whether to enter the gallery or bring others into this space.