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.
This post comes to us from Danielle Bennett, a first-year student in the History and Museum Studies Master’s program.
Historic Houses often suffer from two issues that make them less relevant to visitors. One, they
tend to present a history that focuses on great (or semi-great) men from history, ignoring the women,
people of color, working people, and queer people that enabled the actions of these great men (and
ignores the accomplishments of those people in their own right). Two, to combat a lack of interest in the
stories presented, some sites resort to gimmicky semi-relevant events and activities that divorce sites
from their specific historic interest and flatten history into storybooks. It is possible, however, to combat
these problems and capture new audiences for historic sites.
In “Ending Nostalgia at the Heritage Museum,” we learn about the process the new curator at the Museums of Mississauga (Ontario) has undergone to dismantle the nostalgic trappings that used to be present at historic house museums in Mississauga, including horse drawn buggy rides and costumed interpreters. Instead, he has commissioned contemporary artists to stage “interventions” in the houses to strip away nostalgia and re-engage the public with new thoughts about the houses that more fully reflect the diverse communities living in Mississauga.
One of the artist interventions, by Erika DeFreitas, explored how the history presented in historic
houses is staged and highly curated to tell certain narratives. Part of the work, titled “like a conjuring
(bringing water back to Bradley)” was intended to disrupt the understanding of the setting of the house
itself, which was moved from the shoreline of Lake Ontario for the purpose of becoming part of the
historic site several miles inland. The piece included singing wine and water glasses filled with Lake
Ontario water, as well as posters of the waters of the Lake, free for the taking. Another section of the
installation used blown-up photographs of a small textile woven by the hand of an unknown immigrant
worker alongside video of hands (the artist’s) dip dying into indigo dye, meant to evoke unseen labor of
many kinds, including that of the indigo plantation the Bradley family held in the (US) American South.
The program is scheduled to continue, with new installations from different artists coming in. All
the work on display intends to ask questions about the narratives that are on display at historic houses
and what other narratives are suppressed in service to the dominant ones. There are other examples of
using media to recontextualize historic sites, for example the Haas-Lilienthal House in San Francisco, but
the work on display at the Bradley is noteworthy for its intentions to encourage dialogue about larger
questions about who gets to have a history, and what we celebrate when we enshrine certain narratives.
This article is by Taylor Fontes, a first-year student in the Masters of Museum Education program.
A trending issue in a vast number of museums today is keeping visitors engaged and creating conversation with the collection. Educators and professionals are always creating new studies to find out what the daily visitor wants, what they spend time looking at and for how long, etc. The list for conversation problems will always be an issue that museums will look to fix, the historical society has been working to create more engaging programs to benefit their community of visitors. Being placed in New York City the historical society has many people to serve but also an opportunity to expand outside of the “museum norm” and take chances to bring in the population that does not typically visit the museum. The Citizenship Project is a perfect example of how the historical society is bringing a new visitor into the museum and creating conversation.
The New York Historical Society Museum has created some discussion in regards to their free program for immigrants looking to take the naturalization exam to become United States citizens. The Citizenship Project is a class that immigrants can take with the New York Historical Society to learn more about the United States and questions that will be on the exam. The class is discussion based around pieces of art that pertain to important points in American history, including the darker parts of the Nation’s past. The museum pushes for participants to try and relate the images to themselves personally through conversation and to find a personal relationship to make the concepts that will be on the exam stick.
The museum is expanding their reach to visitors who are looking to become productive members of society and are also learning about the history of the country that they are about to become citizens in; another point is that many of these people taking the citizenship course may have not felt inclined to visit the museum prior to hearing about this opportunity so the museum is also reaching out to a new inclined visitor as well. The New York Historical Society is welcoming in new aspect of community involvement and engagement with their programs, whether free or otherwise.
The programs that the historical society has create conversation and allow for a broad audience to visit the museum and find a topic in which people could find interest and possibly a personal connection. The issue of creating conversation within the museum is one that the New York Historical Society has been trying to incorporate more into their programs. Creating programs for immigrants, family programs, children’s programs, as well as lectures and gallery tours are just a few ways that the historical society has been working to tackle their problems.
113 Dutch and Flemish painting masterpieces, have been gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, doubling the institutions Dutch collection. Couples, Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie, decided to contribute their two private collections to the museum, which include Rembrants and Rubens. This gift constitutes one of the most significant donations in the institution’s history, and the single largest gift of European Art ever bequeathed to the MFA. According to the Boston Globe, The MFA was one of a handful of New England Museums(who were not named) competing for the van Otterloo collection. Rose-Marie van Otterloo reported to the New York Times that she and her husband are happy their collection will be housed at the MFA where “it can be displayed, loaned and shared with the widest possible audiences.”
In addition to their generous art donation, the van Otterloos also intend to establish a Center for Netherlandish Art to house the Haverkamp-Begemann Library. This center will serve as a scholarly research area, and will consist of 20,000 books.
Rather than stuffing these collection pieces into storage, the MFA, Boston has graciously decided to host a special installation displaying pieces from these private collections. Visitors can view the art in galleries 243 and 244, and can expect to view 17th century masterpieces such as “Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh” by Rembrandt, “Coronation of the Virgin” by Peter Paul Rubens, and “Orpheus Charming the Animals” by Aelbert Cuyp. This will certainly be a gem to explore!
This past week, the American Alliance of Museums 2017 Annual Meeting was held in St. Louis, Missouri. This year’s theme was “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums,” a topic that continues to become more crucial to discuss than ever in recent years. Dr. Francis Levine, president of the Missouri Historical Society and the local host committee chair for the Annual Meeting, stated that “museums are very hungry” for this opportunity to discuss diversity and inclusion in the field, and that St. Louis was a particularly relevant location to host that discussion given the region’s responses to issues like these in the past. For the first time, this discussion was opened up to the public as well, in the form of a national survey of museum leadership and demographics. Dr. Donald Suggs, publisher of the St. Louis American and a co-chair of the host committee, noted that the goal of this meeting was to encourage some real changes in the way museums operate with regards to diversity and inclusion rather than further empty talk with no action.
With that, AAM delivered a new award at the Annual Meeting this year, the Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) award. AAM launched the award last year as a way to “honor and celebrate institutions of any type or size who advance the museum field, either internally through workplace programs and policies or externally with museum audiences and communities.” The Missouri History Museum was the first recipient of this award, a museum that has shown time and again its devotion to diversity and inclusion in its local community. Among other initiatives, the museum hosts their ACTivists program wherein re-enactors help bring St. Louis’ history of civil rights activism to life for museum-goers, especially students and those who may have participated in the movement themselves. Sarah Sims, the director of K-12 education programs at the Missouri History Museum, stated that the museum also works toward diversity and inclusion through “the focus of our exhibits, making sure we’re telling multiple different perspectives and stories that represent every St. Louisan, and also through our programming,” of which the museum hosts about 700 public programs per year. In addition, the museum works to train and support all of their staff in a way that reflects these standards.
As we think about how our own museums can and do promote diversity and inclusion, we can also ponder on an “uncomfortable question” that Dr. Levine poses in light of recent threats to cut federal funding for arts and humanities institutions and the politicized nature of museums: “Will museums continue to serve everyone in the future?” Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
For further reading, see the following articles: