Fresh View of Maryland's Past


Who writes history? How much of our view of the past is shaped by the conventions and expectations of a day at the museum? These questions are posed by "Mining the Museum," a provocative installation currently on display at the Maryland Historical Society. It is worth seeing.

At the entrance to the show stands an imposing display case flanked by pedestals and marble busts. On one side, pillars support a trio of white European males enshrined in stone -- none of whom, it turns out, ever lived in Maryland. The pedestals to the left, by contrast, are empty except for small brass plates inscribed with the names of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Benjamin Banneker -- three native Marylanders for whom the museum lacks likenesses. Evoking the disparity between history and its representation, the display forms the first of many sardonic commentaries on our skewed views of the past.

Another display juxtaposes the delicate craftsmanship of 18th-century Maryland silversmiths with the coarse ironwork of a set of slave shackles. Still another suggests the voyeuristic complacency of a caste-bound society by contrasting fine period chairs and a whipping post once used to flog prisoners at the Baltimore City Jail. Although all the objects are drawn from the museum's permanent collection, they have never before been displayed in such unorthodox fashion.

Nearly every element of the installation makes a whimsically oblique reference to the word "Truth" inscribed on a silver globe at the exhibit's entrance. The meaning of it all is indeterminate, as are many of the historical "truths" museums are supposed to conserve. Chief curator Jennifer Goldsborough says the contrast between this approach and the conventional, "read-the-label-on the-wall" method forces visitors to interpret each display on a highly personal level. Although the nominal subject of the exhibit is the exclusion of blacks and others from standard histories, the exhibit constitutes a far more general critique of how we choose to perceive the past.

"Mining the Museum" is a joint project of the Maryland Historical Society, the Museum for Contemporary Arts and New York artist Frederick Wilson, who acted as curator for the show. It has been an exceedingly fruitful collaboration. Museum staffers say it has changed how they view their mission. It has also drawn national attention to this local museum and its collections. This is an achievement of the first magnitude and well worth a visit by all Baltimoreans who care about the future, as well as the past, of their city and state.

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