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Rethinking the lessons of history


"Mining the Museum," the thought-provoking exhibit currently on display at the Maryland Historical Society, is ostensibly about the exclusion of blacks and other people of color from the historical record. But that is only part of the project artist-curator Frederick Wilson set for himself in assembling this extraordinary exhibit. The experience is as much about what one sees in a museum as it is about Maryland history, as much about personal meanings as about historical "truths."

Instead of clearly labeled objects presented as "objective" representations of unambiguous historical facts, the installation displays groups of artifacts whose relationship to each other -- and whose ultimate meaning -- depend on the psychological links the viewer is able to draw between them. The viewer is thus forced to become a participant, rather than a mere observer, in the social construction of reality we call "history."

In one display, for example, a portrait of a wealthy planter's young son hangs under a spotlight that emphasizes the face of the boy's companion, an African American servant who is about the same age. When the viewer approaches the painting, a recorded voice representing the black child asks, "Am I your brother?" -- an oblique reference both to the biblical injunction to be one's "brother's keeper" and to the fact that slaveholders often fathered children by black women and raised them alongside their legitimate offspring.

In another display, a linen Ku Klux Klan mask discovered in a Towson attic nestles on the cushion of a baby stroller like those once used by black nannies in the employ of well-to-do white families. The juxtaposition of the two objects suggests the schizophrenia of a society that savagely persecuted blacks, yet felt perfectly secure in entrusting its children to the care of black women.

The complete installation represents a significant departure for the normally staid Maryland Historical Society, which mounted the project as a joint venture with the Museum for Contemporary Arts. All the pieces on display belong to the museum's permanent collection, yet the installation employs them in unprecedented ways.

Not all future exhibits will make use of the techniques so strikingly demonstrated by "Mining the Museum." But chief curator Jennifer Goldsborough says the show has already prompted museum staffers to rethink their mission and the institution's relationship to the community. Meanwhile it continues to inspire viewers to reconsider the conventional lessons of history -- and to radically revise their expectations of a day at the museum.

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