Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums in a Changing World

Ken Yellis
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Controversial Smithsonian Air & Space 2011 Military Unmanned Aircraft Exhibit

Editor’s Note: Here, Ken Yellis’ analysis of the museum world gains particular currency in today’s political climate: because, most recently, on Saturday, October 8, 2011, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington was closed after anti-war demonstrators swarmed the building to protest a drone exhibit. Security guards used pepper spray to repel them, sickening a number of protesters.

The museum’s exhibition, “Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” covers the history of unmanned aircraft and their current use as offensive weapons. Drones are often called the weapon of choice of the Obama administration, which quadrupled drone strikes against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, up from less than 50 under the Bush administration to more than 220 in the past three years.

In an increasingly polarized political and social atmosphere of American values-in-transition, an exhibition of this kind can often serve as a hair-trigger for shaping public opinion. The questions surrounding the role of the museum, acting as a venue for an exposition of often-controversial facts—on display for public consideration—appears ever more cogent.

I have to ask myself: Did I let a teachable moment slip away? artes fine arts magazine

Col. Paul Tibbets, pilot of Enola Gay, plane that dropped atomic bomb on Hiroshima, waves from cockpit before takeoff, August 6, 1945. Source: Nat’l Archives

In my 2009 article, Fred Wilson, PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], and Me: Reflections on the History Wars (Curator: The Museum Journal, 52:4, Fall, 2009), I predicted that an episode like the recent controversy about the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, would soon happen:

“The field has to find a way to heal our professional PTSD. Enola Gay [a controversial exhibition project, The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II, that roiled Smithsonian in the mid-1990s] was a cautionary episode. One of the lessons learned from it is that grappling with difficult and contested subject matter need not in itself be fatally toxic — but you’d better be ready. I think we are more wary, but I also sense and hope that we are lately showing a little more willingness to pick an occasional fight. The difference is that now when we go into the saloon, we make sure we are packing and that buddies have our back.”

A-Bomb exploding over Hiroshima, August 6, 1945

As it turned out, my optimism about how such an episode would play out was wholly unjustified. Hide/Seek demonstrated that in the current cultural landscape, you can’t just prepare for one bar fight and stay out of all the others: there are bars all over the place and the air is thick with truculence. To explore the Hide/Seek story in greater detail, a good place to start is the video of the morning session of a conference held on April 9, 2011, Hide/Seek: Museums, Ethics and the Press, organized by the Institute for Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University, available at http://www.museumethics.org/ . At this event, Sullivan described how NPG and Smithsonian prepared for a different fight from the one they found themselves in. The exhibition was intended to push the envelope on forms of gender representation. Smithsonian leadership had not anticipated that the envelope might push back on an entirely different subject: how religious symbols are used in art.

Poster Image of David Wojnarowicz (Silence = Death), Photo: Andreas Sterzing (1989)

A dimension of the story the conference did not fully address is what I have long considered the great unanswered—because unasked—question of the museum field: what do we mean when we make an exhibition? On January 20, 2011, the Huffington Post reported that Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough stated that he decided to pull A Fire in My Belly from the show, “because the controversy had overshadowed the exhibition and threatened to spiral beyond control into a debate on religious desecration.” Clough and the Smithsonian PR apparatus reiterated that mantra—one is tempted to say cover story—frequently over the following months. I am happy to report that if the removal of the abbreviated version of David Wojnarowicz’ video, A Fire in My Belly, was, indeed, intended to change the subject, Mission Accomplished.

(Editor’s Note: In December, 2010, a short, 4-minute edit of a larger film-work by late artist David Wojnarowicz was removed from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) after it was deemed objectionable by certain religious groups. The 4-minute film featured a 11-second sequence of insects crawling on a crucifix).

Once the video was gone, an entirely new—and potentially more productive—debate developed, centered on an issue Smithsonian was no less unprepared to address: will the Smithsonian—or any cultural institution dependent on taxpayer support—ever be in a position to defend the intellectual integrity of its work and, not incidentally, to honor its commitments to its lenders and private sources of funding?

The answer may turn out to be maybe. On the Smithsonian website, Clough reassured us that he is “committed to improving these processes so that this Institution can meet the challenges of its public mission, including our role in educating about complex topics that involve social transitions or incorporate, in art or objects, cultural or religious symbols.” Not so committed as to educate us about complex topics that incorporate in art or objects cultural or religious symbols in this case, it appears, but in a general way at some uncertain point in the not-so-proximate future, Smithsonian might be up for taking this on.

The B-29, Enola Gay. Part of mid-90s Smithsonian exhibit, The Last Act: The Atomic bomb and the End of World War II

Clough has said several times that if he had it to do again he would make the same decision “but…handle it better.” I suppose experience does equip us to screw up with greater efficiency and less collateral damage. But the Secretary may be wrong in both respects. A different process might well have produced a different disposition, however risk- and conflict-averse the decision-makers and fraught the political environment. For one thing, more of the consequences of caving might have been foreseen—and more allies might have stepped forward. For another, what’s the point of a different process if it doesn’t open up the possibility that you might wind up somewhere else? If Clough is right, however, to say that changing the process would not have produced a different outcome—except for making more people complicit in the decision—what purpose would changing the process serve?

In fact, there was a more deliberative process that might have been followed but was, instead, bypassed. My experience tells me that CEOs often get where they are in life because of their ability to take the hit now and move on, rather than subject themselves to what they perceive as prolonged agony. But future cases may have different outcomes for another reason: Clough and his successors as Secretary may find Smithsonian’s bureau directors less willing to allow their autonomy to be compromised, restoring something more akin to the power balance in effect in the Smithsonian of the 1970s. And there is some evidence that the Hide/Seek episode may have stiffened the Smithsonian bureaucracy’s backbone. The strident voices will not be stilled by attempts to mollify them—they will just find something else to complain about –and the Institution’s leaders may conclude that its support will prove sturdier and more robust if it were actually to stand for something—like, to pick a word at random, excellence. Pandering is no way to build a constituency and has no stakeholders.

It would be a pity if Smithsonian’s sole response to this faux-crisis proved to be organizational reforms, better internal communications, and a more resolute posture, however laudable those measures are. This, too, was a teachable moment when the spiritual dimension of Smithsonian’s work in the world might have been articulated and controverted, and the existing genuine constituency for that work bolstered. But that opportunity went un-seized and may not return; it is not for nothing that Gore Vidal calls this the United States of Amnesia. Still, it is not too late—or too soon—to prepare for the next time by thinking long and hard about that work.

Cri de Coeur and Battle Cry

When I submitted Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars, Curator’s Editor, Zahava Doering, asked, “Why did you write it?” I hemmed and hawed for five minutes without really addressing the question. The correct response would have been, “Beats me.”

The B-29 Superfortress, Enola Gay, with pilot Paul W. Tibbits, Jr. (1945)

But it was a fair question and one I still can’t really the answer. The essay had actually been gestating for a very long time. As it started to take shape, it became clear that it was at least in part about what happened to Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s proposed exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the detonation of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, The Final Act. The project, which most museum people refer to in shorthand as Enola Gay (for the airplane that dropped the bomb) and about which much has been written, triggered a lacerating controversy that inflicted deep wounds on the Smithsonian. Its effect on the museum community, especially on history museums—by far the most numerous kind of museum, by the way—was chilling. Most of us seemed to have decided to avoid bar fights by staying out of bars.

A few years later, moreover, in the aftermath of 9/11, the national narrative seemed to have become murkier and the role of museums in clarifying it more uncertain. In that stressed post-traumatic environment, it was hard to know what to say that would be helpful—and all too easy to say very little. But by the mid-2000s, I had started detecting a growing discomfort about this reticence and the hesitancy of museums to tackle big issues and tell big stories. This unease was accompanied by a greater readiness to attempt something that might be contested, to, in fact, provoke controversy.

Behind this, from an emotional perspective, was the fact that life in the DMZ was both boring and tense, warfare with all the terror and none of the glory. More importantly, we were learning that silence on matters of consequence only seemed safe and that we got no points for not ruffling feathers. On the contrary, by making the work of museums less socially relevant and culturally salient, we risked consigning our institutions to the margins of the national debate. That was unsustainable: we were better off under siege than ignored. If museums sought to demonstrate that they were necessary, they had to take risks. Otherwise, who cares?

If we cannot always anticipate what will trigger these fights, it may be in part because we are not sufficiently self-reflexive. Susan Crane has written that: “The unfortunate lesson of the Enola Gay controversy was just how little publics know about what historians ‘really do’…and just how little-used historians are to having to defend their interpretations before non-academic publics.” I think that’s true but I think further that the museum field needs to be clearer about what we think we are doing when we make an exhibition. If we were, we could embrace these fights as opportunities to spend our prestige on something worth buying: a firmer public understanding of our work and why it matters. That’s ground worth shedding blood for.

Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me

Above: Baby Carriage with KKK Mask, Mining the Museum, Maryland Historical Society (MdHS),1992-3. See End Note 2.

Yale Peabody, Ken Yellis, Curator, 'Mixed Blessings: The Complex Social Life of Cliff Swallows' (1992). End Note #2a.

My essay attempted to contribute to this process by raising questions about the exhibition medium and the way it is practiced. Is there something about the nature of the medium, or something about the way museums go about doing what they do, or something about the relationship between museums and their visitors—or, perhaps, all three—that makes these outbreaks more likely and, perhaps, inevitable? What are we missing about what we do? What is it about our medium that we fail to understand?

Fred Wilson, Curator, 'Cabinetmaking 1820-1960,' MdHS. End Note #3.

My method was an extended compare-and-contrast discussion of two exhibitions, both a few years before the Enola Gay fiasco: Fred Wilson’s much-celebrated but also much-controverted 1992-1993 exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS), Mining the Museum, and an almost exact contemporary, my own, little controverted exhibition, Mixed Blessings: The Complex Social Life of Cliff Swallows, at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Both Mining the Museum and Mixed Blessings arose out of the same desire to challenge visitors. The fact that while both risked controversy, only one encountered any made the compare-and-contrast discussion a good place to start. The article’s second section, ‘Undermining the Museum,’ analyzed Wilson’s out-of-the-box methods and the theoretical issues they posed—the problem of memory and forgetting, the complex relationship and reciprocal responsibilities between institutions and their communities, the changing role of the museum, how museums can break through boundaries of presentation and chronology while being mindful of visitor expectations and needs, and more. (To follow that discussion, go to <<link>>.) The photos and captions that follow give a sense of the different ways in which these exhibitions challenged visitors.

Entrance, 'Mixed Blessings,' at Yale Peabody. End Note #4.

Though both Mining the Museum and Mixed Blessings were small exhibitions, both tackled big ideas. For Mixed Blessings that idea was trade-offs in nature. It had the potential to change the way visitors looked at the natural world: every characteristic and behavior of animals—or, for that matter, plants—would become the subject of the same sort of marginal utility analysis that cliff swallows do on the wing every day of their lives. If you looked at Mining the Museum with the same attention, it would erode some of the smugness or complacency you might feel about the American past. If you were a museum person, it was likely to shake you to the core and force you to confront the choices we make and the language we use. If, as I think and as others have said to me, people go to museums for insight and not so much for information, both exhibitions were worth the trip.

But only Mining the Museum aroused intense feelings among visitors, both positive and negative. There are several possible reasons for this, each of which may be somewhat true. One is the obvious one: nowadays, people are much less misty-eyed about nature than they are about the past. Mixed Blessings in presenting natural history unsentimentally, anticipated the approach that has become commonplace in museums and in other media, notably television. The settings may have played a role, too: visitors might expect uncompromising science in a university natural history museum.

'Truth and Metalwork,' Mining the Museum, MdHS (1992-3). End Note #5

But in an entity named the Maryland Historical Society they would look for a more traditional, even nostalgic or mythological, narrative about the past. It is pretty clear that, compared to natural history, the emotional stakes in public history are very high. Lisa Corrin, Wilson’s collaborator on Mining the Museum wrote that the exhibition “was about how deconstructing the museum apparatus can transform the museum into a space for ongoing cultural debate…. Our audiences told us that they want to be challenged.” But we know from the responses the Maryland Historical Society collected from visitors that at least some told them the opposite. And, as the feedback I received suggests (see below), Mining the Museum seems to have had more impact on how museum professionals think about their work than on how they actually practice it. It may be that in the current risk-averse environment, Mining the Museum remains a largely unrealized fantasy for museum professionals.

Cliff Swallow Colony, 'Mixed Blessings,' Yale Peabody (1992). End Note #6.

For many of us, too, the straightforward but hard-nosed approach taken in Mixed Blessings is more comfortable than the subversive, ironic and guileful cast of mind that created Mining the Museum. And there may be another reason why it is easier: while museums depend on text to convey their messages, lay people seem to understand intuitively that what exhibitions show is vastly more important than what they say about it. This disconnect, in my view, helps account for both the Enola Gay and Hide/Seek controversies—and it may be that to visitors the uninflected text and harsh view of nature in Mixed Blessings matched each other, so it was okay. Visitors, who live in the world, know that the impact of the visual cannot be wholly mitigated by explanatory text.

When we miscalculate this, we guarantee that the exhibition we intend will be very different from the exhibition the visitor experiences. I believe visitors telling us, either by their anger or their silence, that they come to exhibitions to have another kind of experience from what we typically offer. They are teaching us something about our medium that we ought to have known: that we are telling when we should be showing., that we are didactic when we should be seductive, that we are transmitting data when we should be offering insights.

Are our words saying one thing, our choices another? I think so and, apparently, I am not alone.

Image right: ‘Water Jug, Wicker Basket and Painting,’ Mining the Museum (1992-3), Maryland Historical Society. End Note #7.

Writing Fred Wilson brought two very gratifying rewards. One was the pleasure of working with Zahava, Curator Managing Editor Kay Larson, and the perceptive peer reviewers who read the piece to shape it into publishable form. The other was the response to the essay, the steady stream of scintillating and thoughtful emails and conversations.

One of the reasons for this latter phenomenon is that Curator is one of a small handful of museum publications able to accommodate long-form theoretical writing, a gap much felt by museum professionals. In the course of the correspondence, I was struck again and again by what my correspondents saw that I hadn’t quite seen:

The Carriage and the KKK hat were shocking, then put into context, but still not as shocking as the cliff swallows [in forced copulation] Image, left, Mixed Blessings (`92). See End Note #8.… When I first saw it, and read what it was supposed to be, it was disturbing on so many levels. At first, I thought it was just two dead swallows. That was upsetting enough. But when you read the explanation of their existence, the harshness, no beauty as I have been used to in my avid bird watching days. The savagery of the scene is adequately explained. But it does not take away the horror of that picture. It makes it worse.… When I compare the two exhibits, my first thought goes to your discussion of whether to read about the exhibit first, to be prepared, or to be given something on the way out so that you can digest what you have seen, have time to think about it.… My personal feeling is that I would get more from the Mining exhibit taking something to read away at the end. With your Cliff Swallows thou, I needed to have some kind of explanation as I looked at the picture.… I could not, however, have looked at the exhibit and then read about it entirely after I left. I would have missed much of the sensation that I think you wanted people to take away from the exhibit.

As a related outcome, since professional meetings have become so heavily programmed of late, there are fewer opportunities for conversations about these sorts of issues in general. In a series of workshops that Linda Norris and I conducted at conferences last fall, which grew out of an extended email exchange triggered by the article, we were thrilled by the eagerness of our colleagues to think about these matters. Fred and its companion piece, Cueing the Visitor: The Museum Theater and the Visitor Performance, which appeared in Curator 53:1 (Winter 2010), are now appearing on museum studies course syllabi as well, which is gratifying.
 
Image, right: ‘Punt Gun Aimed at Duck Decoys and Jointed Wooden Doll with Runaway Slave Posters in Background,’ Mining the Museum (1992-3) Maryland Historical Society. End Note #9.

The correspondence and conversations suggest to me that a lot of us think or feel that the field is at some kind of a crossroads whose nature is unclear. At first, I was struck by the intensity, emotionality, and insightfulness of the responses. In re-visiting them for this article, however, I have been more moved by the powerful sense of loss and unrealized possibilities—although that sense was by no means universal. I should add, the same range of feelings ran through a discussion thread on the Museum Ethics Listserv that was in part a response to my article and from which I have taken some entries.

One media developer spoke directly to that sense of loss:

“I’ve been thinking about the sense of loss that I have developed during the birth of tech and a few things stand out. I think this sense of dramaturgy is one of the big casualties. In a world where everything is only two or three clicks away, we’ve lost a big chunk of time that focuses our thoughts, and organizes the drama of life experience. In the arts, it’s the loss of skillful narrative, good writing coming out of rigorous thinking, good films that play with the forms of storytelling (and last longer than three minutes)…. As someone who works in a media business I run the risk of being pegged as a dinosaur when I speak of the virtues of narrative film as opposed to web sites.”

Bull Snake Attacking Cliff Swallow Nest,' Mixed Blessings (1992),Yale Peabody. End Note #10

The internal dynamics of project development arose several times as a contributing factor, as these passages from several different correspondents indicate:

“I was lucky enough to see Mining the Museum and it left quite an impression on me as to what an exhibition could be.… I suppose that many of us wanted to use some of those subversive approaches in exhibits we were developing and designing- I know I certainly wanted to. But when it comes to actually putting those ideas into practice, it is far more difficult to get anything like that passed by a committee. There is nothing like a committee to drain an exhibit of poetry, dumb down an aesthetic and kill new ways of looking at things.”

“I recall casually strolling over there at some point during AAM…for a light break from all the hustle of the conference only to be floored by it all. The brave politics aside, I was simply thrilled to see each display as an explicit puzzle to be figured out, each with a clear ‘Oh, I get it!’ moment. I’ll admit that I even remember not ‘getting’ some stuff only to be clued in which was somewhat of a motivating challenge to ‘look closer’ at the other displays…. While most of our past projects have had comparatively tame themes over these past 25 years, I would like to think that they all have had explicit ‘concepts’ that are hoped to be uncovered by the visitor in some creative way.”

“Unfortunately, in museum schools or conferences or in our back rooms, there is too little awareness of how exhibition esthetics coupled with the excitement of intellectual discovery are a powerful combination. Museums ARE places to convey ideas to audiences in ways that are meaningful and engaging and sometimes uncomfortable and shocking. But in our desire to please, and plan by committee, and compromise, and to get things done with shrinking budgets, we’re not serving the public as well as we could. And many don’t seem to be aware of doing things any other way.”

Pikes Used in John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry and Reward Posters for Runaway Slaves, Mining the Museum (`92-3), MdHS. End Note #13

On the other hand, some of my correspondents and participants in the discussion thread were much more positive and inclined to be proactive about the state of the field in this respect:

“I can say that [Wilson’s] approach has directly changed the way I have worked as a curator and the way the museums I have worked in approach their exhibitions (temporary or permanent).… I believe viewers are often more ready to be challenged than museum staff give them credit for. In my experiences, the resistance more often comes from inside the museum (due to complacency, fear of risk, rigid departmental structures) rather than from audiences. I am a firm believer in providing viewers with an engaging and positive museum experience. But I also feel that museums must attempt to go beyond what audiences want or expect if they are really serious about ENGAGING their audiences. It is important to not only engage our audiences within their comfort zones but also to challenge them to exit their own comfort zones (which Wilson does) for deeper and meaningful learning. It is often in those locations of ‘discomfort’ that the most amount of learning needs to and can take place–and those locations can be frightening (both to museum staff and its audiences).…”

“[Mining the Museum’s]importance for me was in revealing that any artifact can be interpreted through different filters. In Film Studies, it is called ‘gaze’ theory — what you see depends on who is seeing it. When Wilson re-interpreted and re-exhibited the artifacts in Mining the Museum, he took the institutional authority away from the Historical Society and its traditional interpretations. But, he didn’t just use that borrowed authority to impose a[n] outside voice’s new interpretation. He challenged the visitors to interpret for themselves by provided two contrasting but accurate solutions to the ‘what is it?’ question. I found this very liberating as a fairly new museum professional. Looking back on the exhibit, I realized that it was liberating for the general audience as well. Much of the ‘imitation’ of Mining the Museum came in history sites and museums’ staff-led re-interpretations of collections away from “who owned it?” to “who made it?” or “who used it?” and the new value given to artifacts of slave and trade populations. There is also a new expectation in art and general museums for artist/guest curators. Rather than simply curating a show to reflect their tastes, they are now empowered to compile exhibitions from the permanent collections and interpret them in first person.”

'Nestling Covered with Blood-Engorged Swallow Bugs,' Mixed Blessings, Yale Peabody (`92). End Note # 14.

End of the Story—or not

So where are we?

Too early to say, I suppose.

Public Survey Responses, Mining the Museum, MdHS. End Note #15.

Because of the power museums are capable of exercising, it is appropriate and necessary that we have fights about what is presented there. Museums are, after all, where the national narrative is blocked out and staged and where our sense of the world is informed, if not shaped. “Perhaps,” Susan Crane writes, “we can also enjoy museums which confound and confabulate.” Perhaps, but the relationship between museums and their audiences has proved far more difficult to re-negotiate than we thought. We have learned to our regret that there is a torrent of rage and tears waiting to break through the fragile membrane of civility at any time.

Still, while for many museum professionals Mining the Museum has been a path not taken, for others, its rewards have transcended its attendant difficulties and risks. We are still aspiring to decipher what his methods reveal about our medium and its largely unrealized potential. So two years after its publication, Fred Wilson, PTSD and Me has made me more resolute in one of my core convictions.

It appears that for visitors as well as professionals museums can and should act as interlocutors between the past and the present, between ourselves and the other—and that we should be ready to take the consequences of doing so. After all, through our portals pass large numbers of people of diverse backgrounds and conditions and interests and learning styles. Their lives are in the process of changing, whether they know it or not; they are in the constant process of learning, whether they know it or not. Museums can, if we choose, assist in these metamorphoses by opening unseen windows on cloaked realities. Or we can retard them. Museum people, some of them at least, are thinking long and hard about who we are supposed to be in this moment. From my perspective, some at least have concluded we have the right and the duty to choose which role to play in this unfolding, epic drama.

By Ken Yellis, Contributing Writer

___________________________________________

End Notes

1. Fred Wilson (pictured left, in 1992) is an artist with an anthropologist’s cast-of-mind and a lot of experience working for and with museums. His exhibition, Mining the Museum, is only one of many he has created in a wide range of settings, but it has had by far the most impact on the museum community, at least in part because its installation coincided with the 1993 annual meeting of the American Association of Museums.

2. The methods Fred Wilson used in Mining the Museum challenged visitors to confront an uncomfortable reality without providing interpretive support or reassurance. Perhaps most upsetting was the placement of a Ku Klux Klan mask in a baby carriage, with a photo nearby of a black nanny caring for a white child. Randi Korn reports overhearing an angry mother saying to her daughter: “I don’t know why they put that thing in there.”

2a. Mixed Blessings started innocently with a flock of more than 150 sculpted swallows swirling through the gothic foyer of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, modeled on the donjon of the medieval Chateau Coucy. A Peabody curator observed that this was entirely appropriate since birds are commonly found roosting and flying in and out of castles, cathedrals, and other buildings.  Since coloniality was the main theme of the exhibition, it made sense that 150 cliff swallow sculptures would also usher visitors from the lobby, up the stairs, to the exhibition on Peabody Museum’s 3rd floor (see image, right).

3. Wilson’s ironically-captioned Cabinetmaking 1820-1960 juxtaposed Victorian chairs with a whipping post for disciplining slaves, making visitors unintentional witnesses of a historical crime.

4. The entrance to Mixed Blessings, conceived by exhibit designer Sarah Buie, frame the exhibition’s centerpiece, a detailed reconstruction of a cliff swallow community, built into the side of a bluff.

5. Juxtaposition and also irony are king here, too, as a silver globe and slave shackles are placed near a model of a slave ship in the Truth and Metalwork section of the exhibition. The visitor is confronted by the oppression that created the wealth that bought the silver.

6. The carefully re-created cliff swallow colony in Mixed Blessings—populated with the skins from the handful of ‘net kills’ (swallows accidentally killed during the course of the research project the exhibition was based on)—displayed the high price cliff swallows pay for living together graphically and unsentimentally.

7. Mining the Museum used typical museum exhibit strategies—object juxtapositions, labels, selective lighting, slide projections, and sound effects—subversively. Thanks to plantation owner inventory book found in the Maryland Historical Society archives, it was possible to add to a label for a rare painting of workers in the fields the names of the depicted slaves—listed in the ledger along with other household property and livestock. Nearby was a water jug and wicker basket some of them might have carried.

8. Another cost of living in a large colony—there are cliff swallow ‘cities’ of more than 4,000 nests—is reproductive interference, which takes many forms. In this scene, a male forces copulation with a female in a neighboring nest to his own, increasing the chances that his genetic material will be passed on and that another male will bear the burden of nurturing some of his offspring.

'Truth Trophy and Pedestals,' Mining the Museum (1992-93) MdHS. End Note #11.

9. “The term ‘mining’ in the exhibition title,” writes Noralee Frankel, “refers to Wilson’s culling of the MHS collections as he created the exhibition. It also suggests the intellectual land mines that place the concept of subjective reality before the visitor through the entire show.” The combination of a punt gun, duck decoys, a doll, and posters offering rewards for runaway slaves exemplifies both meanings of ‘mining’ at work.

10. A voracious bull snake invades a nest to devour eggs, nestlings, and adult swallows. Nests around the colony’s perimeter are especially vulnerable to this kind of predation, against which the birds have no defense.

11. Fred Wilson has said, “I look at the relationship between what is on view and what is not on view.” For him, the busts missing from the pedestals and the Maryland Historical Society collections—Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman—speak volumes about the museum’s unconscious assumptions about the past.

Swallow Destroying Egg from Neighbor's Nest,' Mixed Blessings (`92),Yale Peabody. End Note #12.

12. Many adult swallows remove eggs from neighbors’ nests and replace them with eggs of their own, letting unsuspecting adoptive parents pay the price of feeding their offspring.

13. Fred Wilson has said that “For me, juxtaposition is king. Context is king.” The placement of the pikes used by John Brown’s party in their raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and reward posters for runaway slaves, whom Brown sought to free, illustrates this principle at work.

14. The highest price cliff swallows pay for their colonial way of life is severe victimization by a particularly nasty and prolific ectoparasite, the bloodsucking Cimicid swallow bug. The only defense the adult swallows have is to abandon the nest; chicks too weak to fly are left behind. The nestling in the photo has fallen out of the nest and is unable to get back in; it will succumb to the swallow bugs or be picked off by a predator.

'Swallow Watching Neighbor Feed Nestling,' Mixed Blessing (`92) Yale Peabody. End Note #16

15. Donald Garfield wrote that the title Mining the Museum “speaks of the effect of Wilson’s approach…to enable disenfranchised communities to at last call a part of the museum ‘mine.’” Randi Korn reported that in the visitor responses collected by the Maryland Historical Society. “There were visitors who were moved to tears by some objects and the meanings that had been hidden from view until now…. African American visitors [found] comfort in the thought that others will now know what they have known for years…. Visitors reported a range of emotions and realizations: some were saddened, some were angry.” Wilson’s colleague Lisa Corrin cited two particular visitor comments: “Mining the Museum has the ability to promote racism and hate in young Blacks and was offensive to me,” wrote one visitor. “I found Mining the Museum ‘artsy’ and pretentious,” stated another. “A museum should answer questions not raise questions unrelated to the subject…. It snookered me”

16. Aggression and strife, parasitism and predation are unavoidable aspects of colonial life, but for cliff swallows living in large colonies improves the survival odds for their offspring. As in the photo, swallows learn the latest whereabouts of insect swarms from their neighbors. In large colonies foraging cliff swallows collect 65 percent of their body weight in insects every hour to feed their young; birds living in solitary nests or small colonies do less than half as well. The more food, the faster nestlings grow, meaning that they will be able to leave the nest before the swallow bugs kill them and they will be strong enough for their long flight to South America at the end of summer.

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