Grad Research: JFK, Reality, and Mediation at the Sixth Floor Museum

I probably don’t have to tell you that Austin is a vibrant, exciting place to live and work: with a killer live music scene, ubiquitous tacos, and barbecue that’ll make you weak in the knees, it certainly ranks near the top of my favorite cities in America list.

That said, one of the benefits of living in Austin has also been having opportunities to explore other parts of Texas, from Marfa to Houston. This past weekend, I decided to venture out of the Austin city limits to Dallas, a city I had only ever experienced through way too many layovers at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Though Dallas has its share of tourist destinations, my motivation was research-related. At the moment, I’m knee-deep in my Master’s Report, which explores representations of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in two video games, and how their odd, perhaps ethically questionable gamification of the event – an incredibly traumatic moment in American history – reconfigures and negotiates our understanding of history and politics. What kind of residue is left in our historical memory if we play these games? What do they do to our imaginations of power, official state accounts of history, our ability to interact with history and meaning-making? How do we understand history if we only experience it virtually?

But to me, a 25-year old, Kennedy’s assassination always felt remote, a moment in a textbook rather than a lived, traumatic experience. So I embarked on a journey to the place where it happened, to make it feel as real as it probably could to someone who was never there: Dealey Plaza, and the Texas State Book Depository, now a museum dedicated to Kennedy and the assassination.

Placard on the museum's exterior (click to enlarge; photo by author)

The Sixth Floor Museum relies on an audio tour that guides you through various points of the exhibit, offering both pure narration of the museum’s holdings (mostly documents, photographs, and videos) and first-hand accounts from witnesses and public officials. After learning about Kennedy’s early life and initial moments of the presidency, I found myself standing in front of the window believed to have been Lee Harvey Oswald’s vantage point from where he fired three shots. But the museum does not permit visitors to approach or glance out that window at the street below: it is blockaded by glass, meaning I could not come within fifteen feet of the storied spot. Rats.

The second half of the museum explores the aftermath of the assassination through a relatively homogenous collection of artifacts – photographs, stills from the few films we have, newscasts – relayed largely through the media. And, based on those holdings, I really got a sense of how mediated the assassination was even for people living in 1963. This was partially out of necessity, as there was no quicker way to spread the word about the tragedy than over the wire and through news programs. But it’s also because several people in the crowd were snapping photographs to document the President’s presence in Dallas, a signifier of having been there when Kennedy was, too. They saw the president and the assassination through lenses; so do we.

The compulsion to document through photography and, in a few cases, through film, has invigorated debates about the true story of the assassination since 1963. The only reason folks have come up with detailed alternate theories and accounts of how Kennedy was killed – and why such theories remain contested, hashed over, pervasive – is because we can continually pore over photographs and film made by everyday citizens in Dallas.

Ironically, the museum does not permit photography or recording indoors, so a moment in history that remains salient in public consciousness due to those media halts further documentation through visual and aural media. After leaving the museum, I felt a sense of anxious incompleteness: I hadn’t documented my presence at this very fraught place except in scrawling a few notes in my notebook. I wanted to photograph, as a means of remembering the details of the exhibition and of signifying to myself and others that I had been to the actual place.

Of course, once I left the building, I spent some time photographing its exterior. I was struck by how moving being there was, but also how utterly familiar it was: I had seen all of it countless times before in the Zapruder film, in photographs, in the video games that I’m studying. And it was exactly as expected.

But in spite of that familiarity, there was also a pall cast over my experience of Dealey Plaza, the depository, the grassy knoll. At no point did I feel a stronger sense of sadness than I did when I first saw the white Xs painted on the street, signifying, “Kennedy was shot here and here.” Those Xs connected the assassination with actuality – it happened in this space, on this concrete, not in the virtuality of film and television and photography and video game. I did not expect to feel distressed, but the reality of the assassination was striking.

The Depository/Museum, in all its glory. The X is visible at the bottom left (click to enlarge; photo by author)

The significance wasn’t lost on the tourists who visited the area, too: several visitors asked to have their picture taken over or near the X, ostensibly to signify presence: “I was at this place. This is where it happened.” I was initially troubled by that impulse; who would want a memento of visiting the spot of a deeply tragic moment? Isn’t such a practice crass at best and unethical at worst?

But considering my similar impulse within the museum, and my motivations for coming to Dallas in the first place, I can’t judge these people. Documenting their presence there could be a means of connecting, of making the assassination more real to them. And in a cultural moment where mediation and removal from history and politics is the norm rather than the exception, an impulse to make history more personal is laudable.

At dusk, only 5 hours after I arrived in Dallas, I returned to Austin. But Austin lacks the aura of weighty historical trauma that permeates Dallas for me. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking back to the museum and the plaza with a measurable degree of real sadness.

3 comments on “Grad Research: JFK, Reality, and Mediation at the Sixth Floor Museum

  1. What a beautifully written piece, Carrie! The book depository sounds as heavily mediated as Graceland, and just as eerie – maybe it’s just me, but there’s something weirdly out-of-body about physically being in a place but being forced to experience it through someone else’s eyes. Do the games look different to you now that you’ve been there?

    • Carrie Andersen says:

      Thanks Kirsten! Haven’t been to Graceland but I can imagine being weirded out by it for the reasons you lay out.

      I haven’t played the games since I’ve been there (thanks, homework), but I can’t wait to look at them again. While I was in Dallas, I did have a moment of thinking, “Wow, it’s just like the game!” upon seeing the tree that hangs between the depository and the road. It’s kind of a bummer to have that thought, though, because I’d rather feel like I know history for its own sake, not because I’ve seen it in a game.

  2. Susan says:

    It’s interesting that “Austin lacks the aura of weighty historical trauma that permeates Dallas for me,” given that you can’t ride mass transit in Austin or drive through the East Side without recognizing the still present spatial ramifications of the history of racial segregation in the city. I think we need to ask ourselves as scholars what constitutes “historical trauma” and why we operate from one definition instead of another. When I try to figure out how to get from S. Lamar to Pleasant Valley without taking 71, what confronts me is the historical trauma of the American South, the seemingly irreparable racial division of lived space that grows out of a violent history that will not or cannot be undone.

    Which isn’t to say I don’t know what you mean–there is a drama to assassinations and other similar singular EVENTS that exists around a site like Dealey Plaza, but I wonder what the relationship is between that drama, that produced narrative of meaning and importance, and the historical trauma you sense there but don’t sense in other space where historical trauma is absolutely still present. Why can we (as scholars, as “Americans” whatever that means, as people educated/indoctrinated according to particular social/cultural systems) only sense these things where a national narrative has made meaning out of an event?

    I dunno, these are just thoughts. This is a great post, but you know I have to weigh on the everydayness of most “historical” trauma because that’s what I do. 🙂 Maybe the everydayness of that trauma makes it ahistorical, but I’d like to work against that notion maybe too.

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