The work of Fred Wilson seems to me like the three-dimensional equivalent to Eisenstein’s theories of montage. Montage, according to Eisenstein, is the juxtaposition of two or more images that are in conflict. One type of montage is idea-associative montage, in which two shots clashed together give way to another meaning, focused on an individual person or object. The conflict of the shots gives meaning. Though these two methods of creating meaning from clashing objects are similar, the point at which they diverse is not merely spatial.
Kenneth Haltman states “the longer and harder one looks, the better one sees; the better one sees, the subtler the connections one finds oneself able to make” (Haltman 5). The ability to look closely and look back is what makes Wilson’s work so successful in reexamining artifacts. Michael Baxandall, who is mentioned in Haltman’s essay, once wrote, “what I want to lay emphasis on is that the viewer, moving about the space between object and label, is highly active. He is not a passive subject for instruction.” This is what Wilson’s work and any successful museum does is make the viewer an active participant in the narrative being constructed. Haltman labels the actions of the viewer “intellectual detective work” in which we “see articulation and deduce patterns of use; we see interaction and deduce relationship; we see expression and deduce reception” (Haltman 5). In Mining the Museum this detective work comes from the juxtaposition of historical objects which make us reconsider what their purpose was and is today.
Haltman also allows us to consider the feeling of polarities as a metaphor. Wilson realizes this idea in his work as does Eisenstein in his use of montage. Wilson also speaks to polarities making for more complex understanding in this video on beauty and ugliness.
While Thigpen’s research into the life of Mary Walker is fascinating, it seems slightly odd that she was so surprised to discover Mary’s more “conventional” side. As a 21st century historian with access to Mary’s writings – which she read before examining her personal affects – Thigpen began her relationship with Mary with more information than Mary’s contemporaries would have had. A 19th century individual who was not already Mary’s “near and intimate friend” would never have seen the diaries in which she expressed her dissatisfaction with domestic tasks. Mary seems to have hardly wanted her deepest feelings to be made public, even requesting that one diary be burned rather than be read by a stranger. Instead, she would have made her first impression using the very things that Thigpen found surprising: her clothing, her ability to perform household activities, and so on. There was never a reason to assume that Mary did not sew or dress like other women of her status simply because she did not write as much in her journals. On the contrary, such things were so commonplace in the 19th century that Mary probably did not think they merited a detailed description. While a dress and a thimble do not seem to reflect Mary’s primary interests as much as her writings do, her contemporaries would have found these writings far more indicative of Mary’s “complexity” than the fact that she sewed and raised children. We in the 21st century are always looking for historical figures to stand outside the conventions of their time (hence the popularity of the “Edith-Anne” sampler), but to what extent are we framing history according to what we hope to find in it? Although it is important to consider Mary Walker as an individual rather than simply a product of her time, it would be equally unwise to let 21st century expectations separate her from her historical surroundings.
I was very impressed by the article, Mining the Museum, but I think Corrin missed one of its main points by framing it as an issue of “diversity”. Putting silenced voices back into a colonized white supremacist narrative is not always part of the liberal framework of inclusion, but rather should be about decolonizing history. This means looking at it through different eyes, through the “archive of feeling”, and through the archival silences. I thought the project with the busts was particularly impressive for illustrating these silences very literally. I also thought the chair and whipping post exhibit was particularly salient, because it brought in issues of class. The metalwork exhibit also illustrated how American wealth was built on literal shackles of white supremacy.
The article itself did not really discuss class, which I see as a huge problem and part of the liberal focus on “diversity” without actual structural change. True equality requires structural change and anti-capitalism, as illustrated by the exhibits themselves. I am impressed, though, that this exhibit was allowed to appear at all. Other exhibits like the infamous Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian and their art exhibit about the West were cancelled or highly criticized and quickly removed because of their revisionist stance. This exhibit is revisionist in some ways, but I think the over arching narrative doesn’t discuss class and how these objects were founded on white supremacy, like the wealth they embodied, enough.
Reading about material culture and its presentation as well as the overall meaning that it’s trying to convey in this week’s readings got me thinking about a topic I just presented on in my junior seminar as well as the work I did over the summer as a docent in my hometown’s farmhouse museum.
In terms of my presentation, another classmate and myself presented on the Smithsonian’s two most controversial museum exhibits in recent memory: the West as America art exhibition and the Enola Gay exhibition (which never made it to public). Out of the many things that made these exhibits controversial, one of the most prominent critiques being made against both of them was that the framing of the exhibits respective narratives were too biased and the material items being used to represent these frameworks were being inappropriately used. For the West as America exhibit, the curators were accused of using the artwork in the exhibit to prop up the view that Native Americans were mistreated during European Americans’ quest for prosperity out West. For many people, the idea of using artwork (which they considered to be unbiased and/or untied to the exhibit’s purpose) as a means to get across a current political opinion, was uncalled for and anachronistic. Putting aside the fact that it is problematic to ask exhibits to remain unbiased since history itself is rarely unbiased (in addition to many other reasons), the idea of material culture being used in an active (potentially activist) manner is off-putting for a lot of people. While a huge chunk of art is deeply tied to politics, activism, emotion, and protest, the West as America exhibit was not allowed to frame its art pieces in the same way. The sense that there should be neutrality in history exhibits transferred over to the art exhibit.
When working as a docent this summer, I too found myself in situations where I had to work with the museum’s other docents/curators to figure out what would be most conducive to making it a fun learning space as well as one that was safe for people to walk around. Since we were dealing with a lot of heavy farming equipment as well as some more obscure items, we were constantly thinking about the framework we wanted to operate in. We also had to take into account what outside organizations, like the local public libraries, were doing with the museum as a historical site. The library decided to include us on its scavenger hunt, and we had to be prepared to explain the purpose of our museum as well as gear it towards the scavenger hunt at a moment’s notice.
Material culture is hard to work with because oftentimes there is this assumption that it is neutral and/or universal in meaning. This makes it hard to put it in a space where it challenges the positing that it has traditionally operated in. I would love to see more deviance from the static-ness of physical objects in time and space, I think it’s necessary.
I admit I was a little disturbed this week by Jennifer Thigpen’s article this week, mostly because of what it implied about history as a discipline: that in order to get a full picture of history, we need artifacts alongside documents– that somehow, documents aren’t enough.
Rationally, of course, I know this to be true, and I knew that before I read Thigpen’s article. I’m working on a 15th century book in Special Collections for another class right now, and less than half of my work has been on what the documents actually say– much more of my time has been devoted to how they organized their excerpts, whose hand wrote which items, what condition the book is in, etc. The picture I’ve been able to draw from it (sorry, I just finished writing my first draft of that paper, and am accordingly a little preoccupied at the moment) has been extensively piecemeal, but it would have been much more so had I only focused on what the documents in the book said, since most of them were copied over from somewhere else in the first place.
Still, I wrote my thesis without ever seeing an actual document that belonged to Woodrow Wilson. I visited his house, sure, and saw a few things that had belonged to him, but nothing that shaped or altered my research in any way. Nor did any of the people who wrote my secondary sources work with artifacts. Were we all wrong, then? Are there things that we all missed because we read Wilson’s writings but didn’t examine his 100+ walking sticks? How far can the discipline of history go while staying with documents, and where exactly is the line between history and art history, anyway? Is there one? Should there be?
As more of a document person than a visual one, I have to believe in the value of documents even without artifacts, and I have to hope that a picture of a person can be created and understood without the artifacts to match. Thigpen is right, of course. Having those artifacts certainly helped. Maybe they would have helped me, too. But I appreciate there being distinctions between the disciplines, however arbitrary they may be–particularly if it’s possible for a balance to be struck somewhere in between history and art history when necessary.
This week’s readings about Fred Wilson’s exhibit “Mining the Museum” reminded me of a museum exhibit I visited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which collects and exhibits modern art. According to the museum’s website, the exhibit, called “how far how near”, “centers around the key question of how museum collections and exhibition policies historically and today are limited and challenged in relation to geographical emphasis.” The exhibit featured a variety of works by African artists in an attempt to broaden the Stedelijk’s traditional focus on European art, and many of those pieces of art explicitly addressed questions of if and how cultural classification is possible in a world increasingly dominated by globalization. (To read more about the exhibit, visit the website: http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/exhibitions/how-far-how-near)
Like the Stedelijk’s “how far how near” exhibit, Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” attempted to use a museum’s collections, exhibited in a museum space, to interrogate the norms and definitions of the museum itself. Lisa Corrin’s article “Mining the Museum: An Installation Confronting History” says that “Mining the Museum” wasn’t the first time an artist had “created a museum-critical work for a specific institution”, and I’m sure, in the two decades between “Mining the Museum” and “how far how near”, many artists and museums developed exhibits designed to critique the very museums in which they were displayed. Corrin’s article clearly shows how “Mining the Museum” was a powerful experience for both outside viewers and the museum itself to consider how ideas about history are created through seemingly impartial museum exhibits. Similarly, when I visited “how far how near”, I was forced to consider the geographical biases in the Stedelijk’s collecting policies, which I might not have been as aware of otherwise. The exhibit also made me wonder about whether our cultural and geographical categorizations of art and artifacts are as simple as we like to make them seen. Does it really make sense to categorize an object, especially in the modern era, as from a specific place in a world increasingly dominated by globalization, where ideas and materials flow regularly between places?
While Corrin’s article highlights the potential of exhibits like “Mining the Museum” for redefining the concept of museum itself, I also wonder what limitations may arise from using a museum’s collections to try to critique the museum itself. How critical can you truly be of the museum, either an individual one or the larger concept, when your work uses a museum’s collections and exists in a museum’s spaces? What benefits and drawbacks are there from critiquing an institution from within, in contrast to from the outside? I also wonder if diversifying a museum’s collections and exhibits, while making the museum more inclusive and self-reflective, also serves to bolster the institution of the museum, and ultimately keep intact all of its potentially oppressive and exclusionary policies. If a museum was founded to collect only European works, or to steal and exoticize art and artifacts from non-European countries, can those histories ever be “corrected”, even if collecting policies are changed and representations are expanded? In other words, can the museum–or any other institution founded in oppression and exclusion–ever escape its own history?
This is an aside, but even so…
I stumbled onto the Comments tab. Pending comments… (1). Approved comments… (60). Spam? (292). What? From our little BMC public history blog? Yep. And it’s pretty hilarious what is in there. (Horny Women was my favorite username from the Junk Bucket.)
But it got me thinking. How do virtual public history exhibits/projects manage spam? I’m assuming Prof. Mercado didn’t have to deny all 300 of those messages; there must be some form of spam filter. But if the project is more specifically public-oriented, how would one not censor the public while keeping spam at manageable levels?