As part of my trip to the US, I’ve been visiting a range of cultural institutions, including art, science and social history museums, as well as the occasional aquarium and botanic gardens. My focus has been on art museums, but an unexpected bonus has been how much I’ve gained from visiting social history museums. I’ve written previously about how objects in these museums affected me – particularly seeing a KKK hood in Dallas and an electric chair in Indianapolis. I’ve been learning about historical instances of deeply entrenched racism and social inequality in these museums, and then I’ve seen the impact of this history when walking down the street and witnessing the differences between the haves and have nots; or when I’m watching the (almost daily) news reports of yet another unarmed African American man, or sometimes boy, shot to death by police. Throw in the surreal election campaign and accompanying braying media coverage, and the whole world seems fit to explode. Fortunately, museums can redress the balance by providing a place to contextualise current events and to present the many ‘hidden histories’ that have previously been ignored and repressed.
Having seen that hood in Dallas, little did I know that KKK objects would be a recurring theme, and I have encountered similar objects in at least four collections I’ve visited. For example, in The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis there was an incredible display, called The Power of Children: Making a Difference, which explores the lives and impact of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White. White contracted HIV in 1984, aged 13, from a blood transfusion. He did a huge amount to increase knowledge and understanding of the disease before his death in 1990.
Ruby Bridges, aged six, was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the American South. She was escorted by federal marshals, and had to navigate a mob of angry adults, to get into the school. The Children’s Museum told her story and placed her into the broader context of the role of children and young people in the civil rights movement, who took incredibly brave actions to access education and bring change. And there it was, the KKK again, this time in the form of a ceramic ornament, as part of a display about the racism of the time. Wisely, the museum has provided boxes of tissues at various points in these galleries as the material provokes strong emotions – all three children demonstrated so much courage in the face of so much adult idiocy and fear.
As time went on, I noticed a stark difference between the social history museums, that are really grappling with the difficult and ugly sides of US history, and the art museums, that are still turning a relatively blind eye and, through omission, staying on the vanilla side of the fence. Hmm. Having said that, there are some examples of good work, such as at Columbus Museum of Art, that has a couple of great collections built around social justice and a gallery that addresses four aspects of this: women’s rights, employment, poverty, and African American lives. However, it wasn’t until I got to the Brooklyn Museum that I really understood how much further art museums could go – I have never seen so many artworks on display by women artists. And not just in the ‘women artists’ corner, but right throughout, almost as though their work was of equal value and worth to the other 50% of the population. Similarly, there are many artworks by African American and Native American artists on display, and the museum also has substantial displays of African, Pre-Columbian, and Native American art. The best bit was the interpretation; I took so many photos of labels because I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading; I’ve never seen such strongly-worded text in an art museum.
One of many striking juxtapositions at the Brooklyn Museum was an oil painting of a Native American man on a horse, alongside two ink and crayon drawings of conflicts between Native Americans and US soldiers. I want to quote the label text in full to give an indication of the museum’s approach.
The oil painting is called The Outlier, 1909, by Frederic Sackrider Remington. It is described as follows:
In this nocturnal scene, the Native American appears as something of a lone relic, disconnected from his culture and ambiguously detached from a specific historical moment. Depicted in isolation, the figure simultaneously suggests former glory and inevitable demise, a fate that most European Americans at this time considered to be certain for Native Americans.
Frederic Sackrider Remington painted many versions of the solitary Native American – a motif inspired by the lingering psychological impact of his harrowing experience in wartime Cuba as a war correspondent. However, it is the American Impressionist-inspired style, featuring broken brushwork and lightened palette, that dominates the painting’s narrative content.
The ink and crayon drawings are both titled ‘Ledger Book Drawing’, 1890, and attributed to a ‘Cheyenne male artist’. They are described as follows:
Depicting the Indian Wars
As gold and land lured non-Native settlers westward, Native American fought for their homelands in fierce battles with the US Army, as depicted here. Government pogroms attempted to wipe out Native peoples by deliberately spreading disease and by killing off the life-sustaining buffalo and native sheep. Native warriors, who had traditionally depicted their battles on hide shirts and tipi liners in the 1800s, co-opted ledger books from government agents to draw their war experiences. General Custer’s 1876 defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana and other Native victories were overshadowed by relentless US Army massacres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the famous one at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. The wars continued until all Native peoples were driven onto reservations.
This tone of voice felt far more akin to what I‘d seen in the social history museums; it was fascinating to experience such a large art museum through a similar political lens. Brooklyn Museum also houses the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and gives pride of place to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974-9. I have known this work since I was a teenager and it was incredible to see it in person. The installation is presented in a bespoke gallery with highly reflective black walls and this has the effect of multiplying the triangular table-setting into infinity. It felt like being in a chapel and visitors were especially quiet and contemplative as they walked around and read the names of these 1,038 women.
I also want to include a few examples from the Whitney Museum, where women and African American artists are also well represented. I loved Steve, 1976, by Barkley L. Hendricks, for its simplicity which brought to mind nineteenth-century examples such as J.M. Whistler’s Symphony in White, no.1 (The White Girl), 1862. I also enjoyed Byron Kim’s Synecdoche, an ongoing project started in 1991 (see Header Image). There are over 400 panels in the series to date. Each panel ‘records the unique skin tones of friends and fellow artists on monochrome painted panels’. The Whitney is showing a selection from the series, focussing on artists represented in their collection. Again, I liked the simplicity and art historical references (because I’m a big art history geek).
And finally, I was struck by Annette Lemieux’s work, Left Right Left Right, 1995. This piece shows 30 photographs of fists, presented as placards. Ten unique images are each reproduced three times and there is a mix of the famous (Martin Luther King Jnr, Jane Fonda) and the anonymous (a sailor, a preacher, and a concert goer from Woodstock). The label states, ‘together they suggest the united front of a political demonstration whose cause remains unspecified. Taken out of context, the individual fists could be raised in celebration, anger or solidarity.’ This work is over 20 years old and yet it feels very contemporary in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and the symbol of the raised fist. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last weekend in Washington DC to much fanfare and I’ve heard glowing reports from those who’ve seen it.
Having seen how well these art museums are addressing issues around gender, sexuality, race, and inequality, I’m looking forward to returning home with this particular heightened awareness and looking again at how UK art museums are conducting similar discussions. Do please share any examples of good practice that you’ve seen – I’d love to hear from you.
Header Image: Synecdoche, 1991 – ongoing, by Byron Kim