Confronting Historical Silences

What most moved me about Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” exhibit was the way in which he confronted historical silences. Often, historians deal with lost, absent, and suppressed histories with a sense of defeatism: How can we reconstruct what isn’t there? How can we represent what we don’t know? Wilson confronted these silences and reframed their representation in a more positive light.

The opening display of Wilson’s exhibition was a “Truth” award, presented to an advertising company in the early 1900s, bracketed by six pedestals. To the right of the award, three pedestals held famous figures: Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Andrew Jackson. To the left, three pedestals stood empty, each with placards for Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. This very obviously and dramatically confronts the silencing of African-American contributions in the historical record. (One does wonder, especially in light of Erika Doss’ book, Memorial Mania, Mason B. Williams’ article, The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble, and the UNC Unsung Founders Memorial, how representative any of those busts would be. Further, one wonders if they would even be well-received. Even so, the display is striking and gets to the point.)

Following this demoralizing presentation of just how much is historically silenced, Wilson then uses the resources made available to him by the Maryland Historical Society’s archive and collection. He juxtaposed items he found there in order to tell a story: cigar shop representations of “Indians” stare at period photographs of Native Americans, highlighting the disparity between them. A white child’s elaborate dollhouse depicts scenes of slave rebellions. Slave manacles sit among a lavish silver service. Slave-crafted items, such as a basket and vase, are displayed alongside items crafted by freed slaves in an American colony in Africa. Even with what was lost and suppressed, Wilson shows that the story can be framed by what remains and teased out.

Further, the final display of Benjamin Banneker’s astounding astronomical journal, crafted by an African-American born free, shows that, while he may have been lost in the larger scheme of history (as depicted by the empty pedestal), his legacy lives on buried in the archives, waiting to be found. Through these exhibits, both juxtaposed and explicit, Wilson shows that even the lost, absent, and suppressed stories can be given a voice once again. They just need to be found or properly framed. No, the whole story, a representation in its entirety, will not be found. That is the case with all histories. Those that have been silenced, however, are more subject to that loss than most.

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