Helping sister survivors heal: MSU Museum showcases survivors' art
A wall composed of 505 tiles — each representing a known survivor of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse — is the first thing you will see if you walk into the Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak exhibit located in the main gallery of the MSU Museum. Some tiles are black and white photos of survivors at the age they were abused, while most are teal designs.
Outlining the exhibit is a timeline covering decades of abuse, institutional failings and forms of advocacy among MSU students, staff, faculty and others. The timeline, several pieces of artwork, signs of protest, teal ribbons and more urge to encourage conversations surrounding sexual assault and to “consider together strategies to promote institutional change and nurture cultures of safety, compassion, and healing.”
The exhibit officially opened April 16 after a committee composed of survivors of Nassar’s abuse, their parents, allies and members of the MSU Museum staff spent months curating it. It will remain open until early 2020.
From teal ribbons to a collaborative exhibit
The idea for the exhibit was inspired by the teal, tulle ribbons that were tied around trees on MSU’s campus in the spring of 2018. The ribbons were taken down in the summer of 2018 after they became infested by gypsy moths.
However, they were preserved and are now tied around 14 synthetic tree stumps in the Sister Survivors Speak exhibit.
“When (MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander) saw how sentimental we were with (the teal ribbons), I think he had this little spark in his mind that we could somehow put the teal ribbons in the museum,” said Amanda Smith, survivor and community co-curator of the exhibit. “It just kind of grew from there. As survivors, we were telling everybody we didn’t feel MSU was hearing us and listening to us, I think he wanted to be part of the solution.”
Since the ribbons were removed, the committee has pieced together an exhibit with the goal of telling the survivors’ stories and educating the community. The exhibit is also a place to “reflect on what’s happened and think about change that’s needed,” museum curator of textiles and social justice Mary Worrall said.
She said she thinks it’s important for students and others in the community to come see the exhibit, as the issue of sexual assault is very prevalent.
“We need to be thinking about how we prevent it, how we help people,” Worrall said. “I think that coming to the exhibit can guide people toward resources and can maybe be a space where people can come and start to talk and think.”
Telling survivor stories through art
Through artwork and poetry created by survivors, the exhibit showcases narratives of struggling, fighting and healing.
Survivor Alexandra Bourque made a dress out of silk, tie-dyed butterflies to be displayed in the window of Brightly Twisted, a tie-dye store in Detroit.
Bourque said an inspiration for making the dress out of butterflies was a quote by Maya Angelou: “We admire the beauty of the butterfly, but we rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
“I had to cut out so many (butterflies) to make it a full dress that it just mirrored what my life was like at that period: How many women — how many of us — it took to get someone to acknowledge what was going on,” Bourque said.
She decided to have her dress in the exhibit after meeting Auslander and others on the museum staff. She said she thought they were approaching the survivors’ stories in a way that made her feel comfortable.
Once the exhibit closes in about a year, Bourque said her dress will be kept on campus for learning purposes.
She said she didn’t intend for the dress to turn into “anything bigger than just my store opening window.” But she said it’s incredible to see that there will be a life for the dress beyond the window and beyond the exhibit.
“With creating the dress, it allowed me to work through a lot of what I had been internalizing and didn’t necessarily know how to get out,” Bourque said. “The dress didn’t really start as something to be for the sisters or for myself, but it turned into that and I’m just very grateful that it did. It allowed me a place to heal and start working toward becoming more of a whole person.”
Jordyn Fishman — survivor and artist — created a 21-by-5 foot painting telling the narrative of the “cycles of an internal struggle the survivors have endured” and the process of healing.
Fishman said she would describe her work as a way to “always remember our pain, but never forget our power.”
“Making the painting has always been about the survivors – not just me, but the Army of Survivors as a group,” Fishman said. “These women have given me so much strength and hope throughout this process and I just hope that it can be some sort of a thank-you for them; returning that favor in giving them strength and hope while looking at it.”
Bourque said she thinks it’s unique that the MSU Museum chose to request artwork from survivors themselves.
Grace French, survivor and founder of the Army of Survivors, said she thinks it’s been amazing to see a community come together to create an educational experience, a reflection of an important story and a space to move forward and heal.
“It’s really powerful that it comes from a bunch of different voices and a bunch of different people within the community because you’re empowering the survivors who have their stories involved and were able to lend their voices through this exhibit,” French said. “They have control over their stories.”
Also included in the exhibit are the heights of some of the survivors at the age they were abused carefully drawn on a portion of the exhibit’s walls; objects like Olympic pins and t-shirts Nassar gave to some of the girls to “groom” them and earn their trust; words and phrases like “panic attacks,” “suicidal thoughts,” “depression” and "extraordinary fear of medical treatment” hung up on wires; copies of MSU’s 2014 Title IX investigation into Amanda Thomashow’s complaints against Nassar; signs of protest from groups like Reclaim MSU; three different versions of the summer 2018 MSU Alumni Magazine and a glass case where survivors and their parents can leave their Spartan clothing until they’re ready to wear it again.
An incomplete timeline and continuing story
In the exhibit, there is an in-depth timeline that starts with Nassar’s career and progresses until the present, including points for victim impact statements and issues with the Healing Assistance Fund. The timeline surrounds the entire gallery and doesn’t have a distinct ending because the story isn’t over yet, several survivors involved with the exhibit said.
“A lot of people have put this away and it’s not ready to be put away,” French said. “When people see this, they’ll understand the magnitude of the situation and also the fact that it extends so far beyond the 505 girls. There’s a huge cultural problem in East Lansing and at MSU, but also across the country and the world that needs to be addressed. That only happens when we’re having these conversations and we’re educating ourselves. That’s a huge first step.”
There is a digital screen near the end of the timeline, where information will eventually be added as developments continue.
“It’s not at all over,” Fishman said. “We’re continuously struggling. It still must be talked about. It still must be acknowledged that this is not over.”
Helping the healing process
Working on the Sister Survivors Speak exhibit has helped speed up her healing process, Smith said.
“The people who are in the media from MSU – they have big voices and at first they fought with us and fought with us. There are people who are standing behind us who are willing to put their names on the line just to make sure that we’re supported and that’s huge,” Smith said. “And that’s the first step in getting people to feel more comfortable on campus and making sure that this doesn’t continue to happen.”
Survivor and co-curator of the exhibit Melissa Hudecz said the MSU Museum has been one of the only places on campus that has listened and been supportive of survivors.
“(MSU) put the staff in a position of having to go out on a limb and fight for us and take a risk,” Hudecz said. “That was part of what made it feel like this is the first place where people are really listening and doing the right thing around campus.”
Smith said there were certain items in the exhibit that the committee did have to fight for, including the 2014 Title IX report.
“We have really pushed on what we thought was absolutely necessary — like, there’s a crouching figure on a wall,” she said. “We also wanted to make sure that people understood that, even though we’ve come through this and have kind of had this metamorphosis of whowe are, we still have really crappy days. There are some days when you just feel like sitting down and crying and it might change minute to minute.”
The exhibit is survivor-focused and doesn’t include any photographs of Nassar. There are some newspaper headlines in the exhibit, but Nassar’s name is replaced with “the perpetrator.”
Bourque said it’s important that the exhibit is a place that is actually on campus, “where people can’t ignore what’s been going on.”
“Classes will go through it. Schools from the area visit that museum a lot and they’ll be going on tours through that exhibition,” she said. “I think that’s important for the community to acknowledge the wrongdoings, but also acknowledge the good that came out of it – all of the good that allowed these women to heal and have allowed them to become advocates and voices for others.”
To continue the conversation surrounding sexual abuse, the museum will also host “teal talks” at the exhibit. These talks will be led by scholars, advocates and survivors and will be “facilitated conversations about the exhibit and the important issues it raises."
“I think for everybody this is one of the most amazing things we’ve ever done. We really feel honored to be working with the sister survivors and their families,” Auslander said. “The sister survivors have no reason to trust any of us at MSU. We’re just trying every day to earn the trust that they’re placing in us.”