Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

The 400th Year of What, Exactly?

Next summer, the United States will mark a somber anniversary. In August of 1619, the first recorded group of African people destined for sale in the colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Although, as Michael Guasco argues at Smithsonian.com, the date is not as important as many make it out to be, for race-based slavery was already well underway in other parts of the Americas, this is a date in US history that will likely be met with a fair amount of commemoration. As with other anniversaries marking the advance of European conquest and settler colonialism in the Americas, this event is an opportunity for museums and educational institutions to present content and programming that grapples with the complicated and complicit legacies of racism, colonialism, conquest, violence, and slavery in US History.

In looking at the 2019 Commemoration page for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, doing justice to this difficult history does not appear to be at the center of their plans. This anniversary is one of four being celebrated this year, along with the arrival of English women, the first meeting of a representational assembly in the European Americas, and the first official Thanksgiving. In general, the events planned seem to be focused on “the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the Virginia Colony”, that seeks to “build awareness of Virginia’s role in the creation of the United States and reinforce Virginia’s position as a global leader in education, tourism and economic development.” In other words, these events are presented as an opportunity for economic development and tourism promotion, rather than for reflection or reparative work.

This is an excellent moment to reflect on the idea put forward by LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski that  “Museums are not neutral”. Every exhibit, program, marketing material, and tour given at a museum is crafted by people with unique collections of knowledge, perspectives, and goals. They bring their own life experiences to how they view the world and a hierarchy to what they deem important. Though many might aim for neutral presentations in their work, the fact of the matter is that there is no neutral, there is only the illusion of neutrality, which usually manifests in “default” presentations: content that focuses on white Europeans, on men, on the cis-gendered and heterosexual, on the non-disabled, on the wealthy. In a history museum, the archive, too, is biased in favor of these individuals, making it appear as if all of humankind’s history has only been for these humans.

What, then, should the goals of a commemoration of a terrible anniversary like the first arrival of enslaved Africans endeavor to encompass? Here are a few thoughts, and by no means is this list exhaustive. We welcome your additions in the comments.

  • Placing the US and its adoption of slavery in a larger Atlantic context that acknowledges the economic interdependence of the British colonies and situates their actions amid European empire building of the era.
  • Acknowledges the transition to race-based slavery and the long lasting ramifications of that change.
  • Remembers that though the crime committed was vast and difficult to process, for each human who endured the violence and violation of bodily autonomy, the trauma was real, specific, and inescapable.

Above all, this is a good moment for museums to take a hard look internally to assess how the legacy of slavery is manifesting within their own institutions. Who are the curators? Are there people of color in positions of power in the organization? Who has input into telling the story of this group of Africans? Does the story told center the experiences and legacies of those most affected, or is the story used to strengthen a dominant group? These are only a few jumping off points for exploring this and similar events as we navigate a number of coming quadricentennials with complex narratives.

 

Acknowledging Slavery in Early American Art at the Worcester Art Museum

I’ll admit it. Oil portraits are not my thing.

Yes, I am a museum studies student, and yes, I think there’s something to love about pretty much all museums. But if you take me to the Met or the MFA, I am not dragging you to the 18th and 19th century portrait galleries. In fact, we may skip them altogether.

For me, a history and museum studies student, context is key. I like understanding what’s going on in a piece of art, who the subject was, who the artist was, why the portrait was being made, what common symbols are present in the image.  Frequently, those galleries are thin on details and the takeaway is simply, “Here are some wealthy people demonstrating their capital and standing by commissioning a portrait to become a family heirloom.” I’m not sure I need to spend my leisure time appreciating the vanity projects of colonial merchants no matter how talented the artist was. More simply, I don’t find much relevance in these galleries to my life or the world I live in, and I think that’s true for many museum-goers (or non-museum-goers, as the case may be).

The Worcester Art Museum, however, recently implemented a change to their Early American galleries that made me take notice. Under the direction of Elizabeth Athens, the former curator of American Art there, the museum installed additional labels for many of the works in these galleries that point out the subject’s economic relationship to slavery. These connections vary; some subjects owned enslaved people or belonged to a family that owned enslaved people. Some traded in goods that were entirely dependent on the institution of slavery for their production, such as sugar, rum, or tobacco. Regardless, these influential Northerners benefited and profited from the forced labor of people of color, something that is not always remembered in the South-centric education Americans receive about slavery and the Civil War.

In presenting these new labels, the Worcester Art Museum reminds us that these paintings represent real people who lived and had significant influence over their worlds…and that their existence was supported by and enriched with slave labor. Suddenly this gallery screams to life before me, provoking questions about New England’s complicity and profit in slave labor. It also invites comparison. As a white, middle class person in America, how do I profit from unfair and illegal labor practices? As well, the labels add context, but not representation: I can see myself represented in this gallery, but a person of color still cannot. New forms of art are required to accomplish that.

There is no question that these portraits are pieces of art, painted by talented artists. These labels do not suggest otherwise. They merely reframe the content of the work to reflect a larger story, one that prompts questions about inclusion, representation, power, and profit. All of this happens with a relatively low price tag, as well – research, label creation, and installation powerfully amend an existing exhibit. Museum professionals would do well to look to this example when evaluating their own exhibits to find ways to dispel notions of neutrality, increase representation, or provide multiple views on a topic.

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