When Christina Shutt was an undergrad at Central Methodist University in Missouri, she leveraged a boundless energy and extensive campus involvement into a run for student government president. She lost, and afterward, talked about her disappointment with her grandmother, Freda Wright.
"She was like, 'Well, that's a bummer, and I'm sorry. But know that we've encountered lots of disappointments in life. That hasn't stopped us from achieving what we wanted to achieve so don't let this stop you.'"
Wright's advice to her granddaughter was more than just a hollow pep talk. Three generations of women in Shutt's family tree had encountered and overcome much in their lives, so much so that the outcome of one small-college election seemed paltry by comparison. The message, distilled into simple family credo, rang loud and clear: If you can't move up, keep moving forward.
"You think about those family traits that get carried forward, you know?" says Shutt, who since 2016 has served as director of Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock. "I'm very much an out-of-the-box thinker. All of my experiences have led to lots of other places and led to thinking about different ways to solve problems.
"There's always a way to solve the problem. Sometimes it's just the way you're looking at it."
Shutt's life and livelihood are very much in the same business, shining a light on race relations and the Black experience in Arkansas, illuminating problems in context and providing a platform for dialogue and thought. Most of all, she underscores Black history -- the sour and the sweet -- as a narrative inextricable from the American experience.
"Part of what any museum is communicating is a story," Shutt says. "Ultimately, our end goal is always to communicate the African American story as woven into the fabric of past, present and future Arkansas. That's the crux of the messaging we want people to walk away with in any exhibit we do.
"Part of a good democracy is informed citizenry. Museums have not just a duty, but an obligation to communicate information and content in relevant ways to help people make informed choices."
Shutt was born an only child in Kansas City, Mo. For as long as she can remember, education was stressed as a priority, a sacred legacy to be upheld particularly among the women of her family.
Her great-grandmother, Maggie Wilson, only finished sixth-grade, but so valued education for her children, she moved her large family to Springfield, Mo., solely so they could attend one of the only high schools in the state open to Black students. Shutt's grandmother and great-aunt were the first to integrate Missouri State University in Springfield. And her mother, Candy Thompson, a product of busing, became the first Black woman to serve as a draftsperson for the city of Kansas City.
While not facing many of the hurdles of her forebears, Shutt's early educational experience underscored just how deep de facto segregation still runs in America.
"Kansas City is very racially divided; the south part is predominantly Black, north is predominately white," she says. "My mother, being a product of busing, recognized the schools where white kids went tended to be well-resourced. So, she moved us north of the river so I could go to a school district where I could take things like orchestra and band that they don't necessarily offer at schools that don't get as many resources."
Whatever her affluent school offered in amenities, it lacked sorely in multiculturalism. Attending public school from the early 1990s through high school graduation in 2004, Shutt never had a Black classmate and wouldn't study under a Black instructor until grad school.
Growing up, internal questions of identity and acceptance were the norm, something she'd compensate for with multiple extracurricular activities, especially in the arts. In the classroom, however, it was often a different story.
"I had an English teacher who, despite being in her late 60s, had never had a Black student," she says. "She was so terrified to talk to me, she ignored me. It's often how teachers would treat me; they would ignore me as the only Black kid in class.
"My high school guidance counselor didn't think I would go to college or she figured I would flunk out the first semester. In her mind, that's what poor Black kids did."
Shutt loved history, and even though her classes were largely told from a white male perspective, she did find rays of light to inspire her.
"I had one teacher who, on the first day of class, came in with an American Revolutionary hatchet, chopped it in the book and said, 'This is what you can do to your textbook. Now, get out a piece of paper and pen, we're going to write our own books.' And we wrote our own textbooks. I think that really inspired me to think history can be something totally different.
"I also was really active in Girl Scouts and as part of that, I attended the National Conference for Community and Justice while in high school. It was so incredible; I'd never been in a place where I had seen diverse people who genuinely cared and valued the humanity in other people. Living that experience was something totally transformational in my life. I came back with a new commitment that there's more to life than petty high school drama."
Shutt landed at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo., a small school that afforded her opportunities to indulge her academic and extracurricular interests, including theater, various service groups, a local hand-bell choir. She also participated in campus ministry where she was so adept at preaching, faculty members began encouraging her to change her career goals.
But she never wavered from wanting a career among archives and exhibits with a focus on her goals others noticed.
"Christina was born very mature," says Robert Wiegers, CMU history professor. "She knew what she wanted to do. If you asked her to do something, she would do it. She would be on time. It would be well-crafted, if it was something written. You could trust her to be someplace; we had many 4 a.m. departures to get to conferences in St. Louis or Kansas City. She was always ready.
"I would rank her up with the best and, if I had to quantify it, probably the best student I ever had."
Wiegers remembers the magnetism Shutt had at Missouri Historical Association annual conferences, a combination of engaging storyteller personality backed up by excellent academic chops.
"Having been to a number of these conferences, I can tell you if you pull in 20 people for presentations, you're doing pretty good. She had, at least, 40 people in the crowd, this sophomore answering questions for Ph.D.s, college professors to John Q. Public. She handled it very, very well."
Graduate school took her to Simmons College in Boston where navigating the geographic and racial dynamics of another large U.S. metropolis served as a lens through which she viewed her classwork.
"While living in Boston, I learned a little bit about the city's dynamics and the ways in which places were separated, not only racially but ethnically, even the way the trains were used to separate people," she says. "I lived in what's called Upham's Corner which is primarily a Haitian and Puerto Rican neighborhood. I first lived near Fenway Park and then moved to Upham's which is in Dorchester. Two totally different experiences; in Fenway, anytime you want a train, the train almost always seems to be there. Dorchester, you have to catch a bus or two buses to get to a train.
"[Boston] comes across as being this very liberal, everybody-gets-along place and you find out, maybe that's not actually as true as people think it is."
COMING TO ARKANSAS
Shutt landed a job in 2011 at Conway's Hendrix College, advancing to assistant librarian before accepting the job at Mosaic Templars. She arrived the fifth director in eight years and just 29 years old to boot, thus her tenure started with a period of warming up by the staff.
"To say they were skeptical of me, wondering how long this person was going to be here, is putting it mildly. The culture wasn't, necessarily, the most positive," she says. "The museum wasn't super-mission-focused, again, partly due to the constant turnover.
"I would also say there wasn't tons of respect within the community. I mean, the museum was respected as a place, but it wasn't the kind of dynamic, engaging, relevant place that people expected. Everything we did, we did out of our own resources, instead of bringing in partners who may know more or could add to it. So, we started to bring in more partners."
Four years later, Shutt and her team have curated a dignified permanent exhibit of the Black experience from slavery to civil rights, education to commerce, arts to culture. It's a relatively modest representation of a rich and diverse story, one she hopes to expand dramatically as part of an ongoing $3 million capital campaign.
The permanent display surrounds a central gallery space that houses traveling and temporary exhibits and it is here that Shutt's skill at storytelling has shone most brightly. Exhibits on art, social protest, racial exploitation in advertising and media and even Black women's hair have all co-mingled to provide different glimpses into a complex and layered story and the myriad voices trying to tell it.
"I think a lot of the work that we do is filling in the blanks with missing information," she says. "It's not that people necessarily get the information wrong all of the time. It's that people don't get the information at all. We're able to fill in the gaps for people into what happened next.
"Especially nowadays, I don't find that it's always malicious. It's never that people intend to give the wrong information or say the wrong thing. They just forget who's at the table or when they look around, they don't ask the question of who's not at the table and who needs to be at the table, who do we need to include in this conversation. That's a lot of what we do."
What is decidedly muted in the exhibit, although not missing, are stories of atrocity. John Carter is the last known lynching victim in Little Rock, hanged by an angry mob in 1927. No photos of Carter's death are displayed in the museum, which is particularly noteworthy given the sad episode ended with Carter's body left burning in the street at Ninth and Broadway, the very corner on which the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center sits. How to portray such incidents with subtlety was one of the first major decisions Shutt faced as director.
"I made the call early on that we will have absolutely no lynching photograph here," she says. "Our original theme about the African American story, ultimately, must honor Black people. We do it in a way that nuances history. We do it in a way where we respect a body that wasn't respected in life. We discussed it a lot as a staff and we decided [a photograph] wasn't necessary to communicate the ultimate story.
"We also knew we didn't want to end our story with Black death because, ultimately, that's not the end of the story. The end of the story is that there's also Black joy. In the midst of chaos, in the midst of oppression, people still found joy.
"If as a museum visitor, you experience all of this trauma, we don't want to just leave you with the trauma. What people will do is just leave the museum and, 'Oh God, that was a really depressing experience. I'm never going to go back.' But if you have this actionable thing, it becomes, 'I can make a difference. I can change the story so that things don't have to happen again.' In all of our exhibits, we think about it in that sort of way."
Steven Booth, archivist for the Obama Presidential Library near Chicago, attended graduate school with Shutt. He says the Mosaic exhibits show attention to detail that has been Shutt's hallmark for years.
"How we learn about history in elementary school and middle school and whatnot are these big moments in history in the textbook. But there are little things that occurred to get to that big moment," he says. "Christina is cognizant of that and she pulls out those little moments to really help people connect the dots and understand that Black history is also a part of American history.
"This grander, larger picture that we think of as American history is not this piece over here and Black people were over there just doing their own thing. No. There are larger contributions and involvement of the African American experience. Christina does a really good job with that."
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
To some observers, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center can never fully realize its mission by nature of its structure as a state museum under the aegis of the Department of Arkansas Heritage and as such, is subject to certain oversight a stand-alone entity would not have.
"It's always this really interesting balance between being the museum, but also having state requirements," Shutt says. "We're part of the executive branch of state government and because we represent the state, there's always a very fine line between what we're allowed to say and not say. It's very odd and it makes it very challenging that we can call out racism in the streets and call out racist history, but we're not allowed to talk about the racism within our own department."
On the other hand, the center's profile has arguably never been higher. In June, the museum was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, attesting to the quality of its work. Its Juneteenth celebration, reorganized as an online event due to covid concerns, attracted 20,000 viewers from 27 countries. And, current events have brought topics of race and equality to top of mind for many in the community.
Shutt embraces all of these opportunities -- the somber and the soulful -- as additional chapters in an increasingly unabridged story. Of casting Blackness not as a blanket categorical reference, but a cultural crazy quilt pattern of language, food, music, gender, customs, countries of origin, joy, sorrow, determination, pride, progress and yes, even hope, fractured and fleeting though it might be at times.
"There were a lot of people in Little Rock, particularly a lot of white people, who were surprised to see the recent protests and the marches in the streets," she says. "There's this assumption that 1957 happened, the integration crisis, and everything has moved on and gotten better.
"What protest has shown us and activists, here in Arkansas, remind us, is that the work never stopped. The work will continue and, just because it looks one way on the surface, doesn't mean that you can scratch the surface and it wouldn't be something different.
"History has only been kind because of the people who have written it. Now is an opportunity to write a different story and talk about history from a different perspective."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 25, 1986, Kansas City, Mo.
• FAMILY: Husband John Shutt and son Jonathan, 6
• MY FAVORITE WAY TO RELAX: Crafting and making handmade cards.
• A QUOTE THAT IS PARTICULARLY MEANINGFUL TO ME: "Your silence will not protect you." -- Audre Lorde. It is meaningful to me because it reminds me that in a world filled with systems of oppression and obstacles to my survival, that it is better to speak. It is a reminder that the things the world would say make me vulnerable -- my Blackness and my womanness -- are, in fact, my greatest strengths.
• MY FAVORITE MUSEUM: Picking a favorite museum is like picking a favorite cookie -- there are just too many good options! A few standouts would be the Boston Children's Museum, where I love the Japanese House exhibit; the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, one of the best art museums in the U.S.; and the Pine Street CommUnity Museum in Victoria, Texas, a newer museum that came together through the perseverance of community people documenting their own local history.
• MY HIDDEN POWER: Perseverance
• FAVORITE GUILTY PLEASURE: Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.
• THE THREE THINGS I AM NEVER WITHOUT: Headphones to listen to good music and podcasts; a phone to keep up with all of my reading and a pen because I love a good writing instrument.
• MY FAVORITE BOOK: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love the multi-generational story and how the author uses history as a cyclical narrative infused with magical fantasy.
• MY FAVORITE MOSAIC TEMPLARS EXHIBIT THUS FAR: "Don't Touch My Crown." The exhibit was about celebrating the culture of Black hair and acknowledging how Black women found agency through building their own hair care businesses and schools. While working on the exhibit, I got to know the phenomenal women at Velvatex College of Beauty Culture in Little Rock, who run one of the oldest Black women-owned businesses in the U.S. (90+ years).
• ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Innovator