‘The We of Me’ exhibit at Columbus Museum shines spotlight on Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers and playwright Edward Albee on Fire Island, 1962
Carson McCullers and playwright Edward Albee on Fire Island, 1962 Courtesy of Columbus State University Archives

The Columbus Museum’s new exhibit celebrates the life and work of author Carson McCullers.

McCullers, a Columbus native, was an author whose unique literary style made her famous in the Southern Gothic tradition. The exhibit is part of a citywide celebration honoring the centennial anniversary of her birth.

Rebecca Bush, curator of history/exhibitions manager for the Columbus Museum, isn’t a stranger to McCullers’ work.

“When I moved here, a couple of people recommended that I read Carson McCullers’ novels and short stories to get a fuller sense of Columbus,” she said, “and it was one of the best suggestions I received.”

Columbus destinations are featured in the exhibit as McCullers pulled settings from her hometown into her fictional stories. Bush indicated that the exhibit will show how McCullers drew inspiration from Columbus and the people she knew.

“Carson’s writing creates such a vivid portrait of the physical and social geography of early 20th century Columbus, I could easily picture both the real-life city streets and the fictional stories taking place on them,” she said. “Public appreciation of McCullers’ work has ebbed and flowed in recent years, and it’s a pleasure to shine a well-deserved spotlight on this fascinating local character.”

Bush said she is most excited to see some new artifacts in the exhibit and to introduce a few items that will remain as a part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“It’s a special treat to see rare photographs from Carson’s childhood, including faces and places that I think Columbus residents will enjoy,” she said. “As part of the museum’s renewed commitment to spotlighting this extraordinary local literary figure, we have acquired four photographs of McCullers for our permanent collection, allowing us to continue sharing her story with visitors after the close of ‘The We of Me.’

The museum has a partnership with the Carson McCullers Center for this exhibit as well as some of the programming surrounding it. Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, will be the featured speaker at a Lunch & Lecture on Feb. 7 where he will speak of McCullers’ complicated relationship with Columbus.

“The relationship between Carson McCullers and her hometown is ‘complicated’ because, even though she made the town famous to readers, theatre and movie-goers worldwide, many people in her hometown didn’t feel it was for the right reasons,” he said. “McCullers’s book depicts many admirable qualities of the south-southerners’ hospitality, for instance-but she also addresses issues like racism, poverty and loneliness.”

Although he recognizes how these opinions could have been construed, Norwood sees through these supposedly negative themes within McCullers’ work.

“I think a lot of people in Columbus may have felt McCullers’ books represented an airing of her grievances with her hometown, but readers who admire her work more likely see her drawing on her experiences growing up in Columbus to develop universal themes about love, compassion, the human need to belong and to connect with other people,” he said.

Overall, “The We of Me” exhibit promises to bring McCullers’ work back into the limelight in her hometown through a vast array of collaboration between numerous organizations. Bush is thrilled to have been a part of such a wonderful joint effort to present the exhibit.

“The Carson McCullers Center has generously loaned artifacts and also assisted in research,” she said. “As coordinator of the citywide Carson at 100 events, Nick Norwood has been instrumental in connecting and supporting these events, including those at the museum. I also co-curated this exhibit with two interns, Valerie Parker and Robin Price, and it’s a joy to see our collaborative work reflected in this exhibition.”

If you go

What: “The We of Me: The Chosen Families of Carson McCullers”

When: Through May 21

Where: Yarbrough Gallery, Columbus Museum, 1251 Wynnton Road.

Cost: Free.