“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
In 1992, a huge sign was hanging from the façade of the Maryland Historical Society announcing that “another” history was now being told inside. The sign referred to African-American artist Fred Wilson’s exhibition project “Mining the Museum,” which presented the museum’s collection in a new, critical light.
Incorporated in 1844, the Maryland Historical Society was founded to collect, preserve, and study objects related to the state’s history. This mission included accounts of colonization, slavery and abolition, but the museum tended to present this history from a specific viewpoint, namely that of the its white male founding board. It was this worldview that Wilson aimed to “mine.” He did so simply by assembling the museum’s collection in a new and surprising way, deploying various satirical techniques, first and foremost irony.
For instance, in the first room of the exhibit, the audience was confronted with a silver globe — an advertising industry award given at clubs in the first half of the century — bearing the single word “Truth.” The trophy was flanked by, on the one side, a trio of portrait busts of prominent white men and, on the other side, three empty black pedestals. The busts were of Napoleon, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson. None of these worthies had ever lived in Maryland; they exemplified those deemed deserving of sculptural representation and subsequent museum acquisition. The empty busts were labeled Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, and Frederick Douglass, three important African-American Marylanders who were overlooked by the ostensibly “local” institution.
“What they put on view says a lot about a museum, but what they don’t put on view says even more,” Wilson said in an interview about his installations. He communicated this point by contrasting what is with what should be. By drawing attention to the overlooked black figures, his installment asked whose truth was on display at the Maryland Historical Society.
The installation “Metalwork 1793–1880” was another way that Wilson reshuffled the museum’s collection to highlight the history of African Americans. The installation juxtaposed ornate silver pitchers, flacons, and teacups with a pair of iron slave shackles. Traditionally, the display of arts and craft is kept separate from the display of traumatic artifacts such as slave shackles. By displaying these artifacts side by side, Wilson created an atmosphere of unease and made apparent the link between the two kinds of metal works: The production of the one was made possible by the subjugation enforced by the other. When the audience made this connection, Wilson succeeded in creating awareness of the biases that often underlie historical exhibitions and, further, the way these biases shape the meaning we attach to what we are viewing.
There have been other attempts to use satirical techniques to critique museum institutions from within. Often these have caused controversies due to misinterpretations and the difficulties inherent in the ambition to destabilize one’s own foundation. “Mining the Museum” worked because it was suggestive rather than didactic, provocative rather than moralizing.
Wilson’s intervention was a correction of the museum’s identity in the sense that it made the underlying racism apparent. Using glass cases and neat labeling, Wilson’s installations mimicked the usual methods of museum display but with a twist so that a new voice or persona was created. As he said it himself: “By bringing things out of storage and shifting things already on view, I believe I created a new public persona for the historical society.”
Wilson appropriated the museum’s collection and reshuffled it so that it communicated a different message, almost antithetical to that of the original constellation. Titling his exhibition “Mining the Museum,” he sowed a three-way pun: excavating the collections to extract the covert presence of racial minorities; planting emotionally explosive historical material to raise consciousness; and, finding reflections of himself within the museum (as in “making it mine” — mine-ing).
Wilson communicated his critique through a strategic juxtaposition of the museum’s artifacts. The audience was left to draw the conclusions. For example, in an installation entitled “Modes of Transport,” Wilson exhibited an old baby carriage in which a Ku Klux Klan hood substituted the usual bedding. The baby carriage was placed next to a photograph of black nannies with white babies — their future employers. Again, Wilson did not make any explicit statements, but simply provided the audience with a strong visual statement about the persistence of racial hierarchies. The suggestion that children readily absorb their parents’ prejudices was clear.
One of the ways Wilson made the invisible visible was by rewriting the tags of the museum’s paintings and changing the lighting to re-direct viewers’ attention. Further, in a series of “talking paintings,” Wilson gave black child slaves voices by playing recordings asking such questions as: “Who calms me when I’m afraid? Who washes my back?” or “Am I your friend? Am I your brother? Am I your pet?” By altering the lighting and adding an audio track, Wilson drew attention to people and groups who historically have been rendered invisible and mute.
In the final part of his exhibition, Wilson displayed the journal of Benjamin Banneker, a free, self-taught African-American who became a prominent mathematician, surveyor, and astronomer. Banneker was one of the figures absent from the exhibition’s first installation. In this way, the exhibition ended with a solution to the problem it pointed out in the beginning. After the indictment of institutionally codified racism, Wilson offered a testament to those pioneers who had managed to resist oppression.