In recent months the Worcester Art Museum has mounted labels that re-contextualize the paintings of wealthy Americans from the past. Throughout history, prominent and stately portraits have consisted of subjects who can afford to have such works painted. Oftentimes these paintings depict individuals who owned salves or who contributed to the exploitation of humans through colonialism or the slave trade.
Museums across the Unites States, such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Princeton Art Museum, are well aware that their collections do not consist of stately portraits of minority groups such as African Americans, and that many of the portraits they do have in their possession depict former slave owners and colonizers. These museums are starting to take action.
The Worcester Art Museum is setting an example that paves the way for museums to re-contextualize their paintings and the interpretation surrounding the art of wealthy slave owners. The museum decided to keep the traditional labels that relay information regarding the artist and subject, but the institution has added a second label to these portraits in a different color that delves deeper into the history of the painting through the lens of slavery. For example, John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Lucretia Chandler (1763), which hangs in the Worcester Art Museum, has a new, additional label that describes the context of difficult history associated with the Chandler family. Lucretia’s father was a wealthy merchant who owned two slaves that he passed on to family members after his death, as if they were objects. There are no portraits of these slaves, because they did not have the means or the freedoms to have such work commissioned, but there is a portrait of Lucretia, and it is through this portrait that the museum can bring to light the bleak history of her family.
These types of labels establish a new lens through which to view American art, which has been dominated through centuries by the wealthy elite. This lens asserts a non-neutral stance by museums toward the horrors of slavery and racism, and tells visitors that there is more to the story than the white-upper class narrative. This is an important trend in museums and should be the trajectory of U.S. museums moving forward.