Monday, June 24, 2024

The handcuffs used to arrest Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. were accepted Monday for the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, its senior curator for history, Dr. William S. Pretzer, said Wednesday.

Gates announced the donation Feb. 14, but not every item is accepted. Each must go through a three-stage assessment, including discussion by a 10-member committee that may judge a dozen items each meeting, Pretzer said.

“At any stage, an object can be filtered out,” he said.

Gates, who is black, was arrested July 16 after white Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley arrived to investigate a report of a break-in at Gates’ home on Ware Street. After determining Gates lived there, Crowley arrested him anyway for disorderly conduct, setting off a firestorm that gained in intensity when President Barack Obama said police had “acted stupidly.” Crowley and Gates made peace at a July 30 White House “beer summit,” and met again Oct. 28 at the Central Square bar and restaurant River Gods, where Crowley gave Gates the handcuffs as a gift.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture had possession of the handcuffs while they were considered for acquiring. Now Gates has a copy of the signed deed of acceptance, Pretzer said. The museum, one of 19 in the Smithsonian, is not due to open until 2015.

Here’s how Pretzer described the decisions that go into accepting an artifact such as Gates’ handcuffs:

“The standard is a set of judgments in which we ask questions like ‘What is the artistic, historical or cultural significance?’ and a group of curators assesses that. … The incident on the front porch of that house in Cambridge provoked a series of national conversations, or some people might say media-driven controversies, about the nature of race relations in the United States. Those conversations, that dialogue, those controversies, were heightened in a way by the fact this particular event happened in the early months of the first administration of the first African-American president in U.S. history. But it’s the kind of incident that is an altercation between an African-American male and a police officer that happens daily across this country. It’s the type of incident that we most often don’t hear about, and without ascribing to either side or making any judgments about its implication, it’s a conversation we’re most interested in. Those handcuffs are a great symbol — I suppose another symbol might be if we had a beer bottle or four beer bottles that had been used on the lawn of the White House — but they become a symbol for then a larger conversation or explication we can do in the museum at some future point.”