Adventures in Museums as Racist Institutions Part II, or, Grappling with Slavery in my Daily Life
I finally started reading The Underground Railroad, long after most of my friends have raved about it. Perhaps comes as no surprise that mid-bus-ride I had my hand shoved firmly under my nose and my lip firmly bit between two teeth this afternoon. The kind of descriptions that leave your toes curled and your face involuntarily responding.
I have a blanket feeling for the word slavery. It is uncomfortable, and icky, gross. It is something I can avoid like the woods: I don’t want a tick, so I’ll just walk on sidewalks. Slavery, though, I don’t want to face history, so I’ll just stick to modern times. I can legally date my boyfriend, now! It’s fine! Slavery stopped with some laws some people made a while ago! I can casually respond to a sixth grader says to me very matter of fact, Martin Luther King Jr freed the slaves, right? “No, he was alive long after slaves were freed,” and quietly move forward in the conversation.
No. No, not right at all.
I am currently working on a room in a historic house. The historic house was built in the middle of the nineteenth century, before the Civil War and before emancipation. The house was owned by white people, and have you ever stopped to think how horrifically obvious that is? Just that part. Pausing on getting to the raging emotions about the people that operated the house, that were confined to live in its attic and forever serve people — just fathom how obvious it is that Only White People could ever own such a goddamn thing, could create a thing in the United States.
As an American public, my perspective is that white people, self included, take slavery, and knowledge of it, as a passive thing. Some people were hurt and killed. If we were alive we would be northern abolitionists, duh, all of us. What a shame.
What we don’t do, and what this historic house is not doing, is begin to tell stories that are anything but the dominant, well recorded, repeatedly told, celebrated like white Christmas with white Santa stories. We say, There are so few primary source documents about African Americans. Sorry. Then we repeatedly build the same shrine to capitalism.
As we take the words Social Justice, and swash them around in our mouths; and as we take the words Other Narratives, and claim that we are making efforts to tell them, we continue the stomping, the erasing, the not-seeing, of simultaneous histories.
The African American People who were seen as property have direct descendants that are walking the streets of the same city this house sits in. We neglect them. We repeat that they are not important. We make excuses for why we know more about a single Japanese ceramic than we do entire families that lived in this house.
Our priorities are fucked.
I am working on a room, and it is called a studio. It is a place to:
- Experience and participate in whatever the fuck intergenerational learning is. Perhaps putting together a puzzle about architecture. (Perhaps a conversation about Juneteenth?)
- Be a gallery for artwork, created in the space and/or by stends and community members of Baltimore
- Participate in developmentally focused activities — maybe children’s books and fluffy things for tiny children; maybe historical books for adults
- Engage in feedback & response of the general public in regards to the space, and the museum as a whole
All of these points were listed out and determined by me, because mere months before the opening of this space (after Three Years of being closed) no one had settled on Anything At All.
Take that, and add that on my literal first day of work, I was advised that I soon needed to determine objects from The Collection to be put on view in this space. There are 40,000 objects in our collection, none of which did I know shit about. Less than 1% are made by African American artists.
I am designing a function for this studio, which includes determining objects for the room. Long story short, I found out a few hours before my “object selections” were due that we have a small collection of art by African Americans. I was told of a piece by Henry Ossawa Tanner — a man known for landscapes, largely Biblical, who created this “rough” bust of his free Bishop father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner. His father was in Baltimore for a hot second as he worked around the east coast in churches, and this piece is seen as a “personal work”, rare, and not the subject he typically portrayed. An African American bust in the mid-nineteenth century. In a museum with little African American art. In a city that is majority Black. Why had this bust not already been selected, already been included, already been brought up to me as existing in the universe?
I know nothing about Collections and Art Museums and Fancy Elitist Shit That Rich White People Established, unless it’s the American education system. I don’t really understand how to curate this space, how to select things, how to frame history. I do not know how to do my job, aside from Research How To Do My Job.
Aside from, usually, Guess.
Next, I find images drawn by Alfred Jacob Miller. He’s known for landscapes of The West at a time when the west was being discovered. He has a lot of paintings of native peoples. He also, as I found, completed a number of sketches of slaves from the property his family owned that he frequented. They have scrawls on the back that include words like “dis darkey” and “massa.” I both recoil and stare closer. Both of the drawings with those words have never been on view.
This house had an owner who also owned other human beings as property. Owned human beings as property in a way that left little evidence of their existence. We know a few names, we know one person was freed, we know one person was at least somewhat literate, we know there were two infants purchased by the wealthy doctor who owned the house, who spent time in jail during the Civil War because he was a Confederate sympathizer.
Little of this history, from my understanding, will be made clearly and explicitly known. We have an app that visitors can download of their own accord, on their own devices, that has a shit ton of text and that includes at least some of this information.
Who will download that app? Who will go out of their way to read about labor?
And that’s how anyone who lived in the home who was not Rich and White is talked about in this app, or at all in the house: as laborers. As people who performed for the rich white owners.
I’m struggling, here.
I work in a place in which there is Literally No Guidance From Leadership, a symptom of there being Literally No Knowledge In All White Senior Leadership, about interpreting a story of slavery. There’s also next to no knowledge about equity as a whole, about working with diverse stories, about interacting with and presenting and exploiting / erasing / removing / dismissing history of a group of people that The Majority Of The City This Museum Is Situated In shares an identity with. Of course our institution is 95% white (maybe more), when you remove the security officers (who are, of course, 95% Black and are deliberately instructed to only use last names at work). This, we can say with all the sympathy we can mostly sarcastically muster, is a symptom of the greater context of a) museums and b) institutions at large, especially c) institutions that cultivate and value and search for extremely elite intellectual training and expertise. There are few Black curators because museums tend to house encyclopedic collections that exclude African influence. Because this is the history of our country.
My job is to design a room, which includes curating pieces from our massive collection, which lacks guidance and leadership about extremely loaded, extremely important, extremely salient topics such as slavery.
My job feels laughably ludicrous on a daily basis.
Knowing me, and my personal interests, I wonder: am I the one being ludicrous? What if I designed the space with no mention of African American art, or African Americans? I think senior leadership wouldn’t mind, and likely wouldn’t notice. What if I entered and left the museum without compulsively researching and magnetizing myself to learning about the history of African Americans through the history of the house? What if I was more drawn to the immigrant experience of servants in the house? What if I didn’t give a flying fuck about history and just had some puzzles made so people could happily engage in intergenerational learning while they mind their own business not worrying about the erased narratives on the first floor?
How much do my decisions matter?
Daily, I look at my work and my personal life and the books I choose to read, and I wonder what in the fuck is going on. I try to figure out if I need to take myself more or less seriously. I wonder if Baltimore is a good fit for me. I plot for ways to leave my museum job before an editorial to the biggest Baltimore paper about explicit racism and ignorantly abused institutional power just pops out of me, just spills out of my fingers.
And also, as my singular human life, as my personal influence of power, what if I can manage to influence something in a way that is not erasure, but inclusion? What if I can manage to press directly against Senior Leadership to ask more questions and work to solve more problems?
On a daily basis, I am considering slavery. On a daily basis, I am interrogating my whiteness.
Currently, I made the decision to push for the Tanner bust and the Miller drawings of slaves to be included in this room. I’m not sure how I feel about the drawings; I’m not sure how to interpret and talk about slavery in this museum, how to present them as art and narrative, how, or if, they should be presented.
The house opens in exactly two months. I will probably finish this book in two days. More updates as I can sit myself down and think clearly enough about this to write something down.