Material Culture for Museums and the Negative Space
If I had to choose one image that captures the essence of the Black Lives Matter protests, this would be the one. The photo is by Reuters photographer Julia Rindleman and features two young ballerinas (fourtheen year olds Kennedy George and Ava Holloway) in black ballet dress infront of the monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee marked with graffiti and spray shortly before its removal. In my mind, this picture represents the inherent paradox between the liberties and achievements of a given society on one hand and the struggle that continues unabated on the other. It does so and, I would add, exceptionally well too.
The focus is nonetheless on General Lee’s monument and what it has come to stand for over time. Beyond the sprayed graffiti — a conservator’s nightmare for that matter — the monument, along with 1,700 Confederate monuments across America has come to stand for oppression as much as it stands for the military hero or leader it represents. Indeed, Kennedy’s and Ava’s statement is directed towards that contested heritage that Lee’s monument now stands for, which was a matter of debate ever since the idea of a Confederate Monument was conceived. In his letter to Gen. Thomas L. Rosser dated 1866, Lee shares his concerns about erecting Confederate Monuments also acknowledging that such symbols would slow the country instead of “accelerating its accomplishment”.
Should Lee’s words then be taken as an admonishment albeit acknowledged relatively late in the day?
How, then, should contested heritage be understood and valued beyond the emotive reaction of removing and defacing?
There is no straight answer to this question and Hyperallergic’s suggested six strategies for dealing with controversial monuments and memorials certainly makes a valid point on the possible scenarios. The strategies proposed range from doing nothing, to removal, relocation and recontextualisation. Museums are also mentioned as potential repositories but not all are in agreement. Museums are certainly much more than safe spaces where to present contested heritage and material culture.
The Other Side of the Coin
At the other end of the spectrum, and also informed by the Black Lives Matter protests, museums have engaged more than ever before in rapid response collecting. The concept was developed by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2014 with antecedents in the History Responds project spearheaded by the New York Historical Society.
The Victoria and Albert Museum describe it this way on their website
Contemporary objects are acquired in response to major moments in recent history that touch the world of design and manufacturing. Many of the objects have been newsworthy either because they advance what design can do, or because they reveal truths about how we live.
Many more museums have taken up rapid response collecting over the past weeks and months as curators have mingle with crowds to scoop up fliers and ask people to part with signs, or perhaps a piece of clothing.
Sarah Cascone’s recent article on artnet.com provides some very valid opinions about rapid response collecting. Aaron Bryant, curator of photography and visual culture and contemporary collecting at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, understands the object as a portal, a medium of sorts, connecting story and public. Peggy Monahan, director of content development at the Oakland Museum of California, also underpins the exceptional circumstances of being aware of a significant moment when you’re living through it.
I do agree that Rapid Response Collecting is a step forward in adressing percieved imbalance in collections development practices. As the act of protest in itself becomes the producer of material culture worthy of acquisition, the democratisation of the museum institution becomes much more than a mere desired ambition.
Bias is nevertheless much more ingrained in the museum institution than one can think of on first impression.
A good case study for this bias concerns the Google Arts & Culture app project, and its arts matching portrait feature introduced in December 2018. Self-portraits or selfies could be matched with portraits in museum collections located anywhere around the globe that were available on the Google database. Google itself was taken aback by the App’s sudden success but the app mostly excluded people of colour for the simple reason that portraits of personalities in colour are not common at all. At the end of the day the App worked much better for white users. The database was populated much more with European portraits, and prevalently 18th century too.
It is also the case, I believe, that portraiture of colour is much less available in collections worldwide, certainly the case in the West. Taking Britain as my case study, the first known portrait of a black African personality, incidentally also a free salve, was painted in 1733 by William Hoare. It does not belong to a British institution but to the Orientalist Museum in Doha, Qatar.
The Negative Space
Both sides of the coin stand for the challenges ahead that museum institutions keen on decolonising the museum institutions share and which are in need of anything but a quick fix or a straightforward answer.
It is a given that no matter how hard museums try to address the inherent imbalance that they still hold on to, bias shall remain inherently present. Material culture might not be available for acquisition, knowing too well that it might have been destroyed and, in any case, unavailable.
Public monuments might still hold on to their contested narratives even when relocated to a museum. Democratising the decision making process through which a monument is erected or removed can go a long way in adressing bias. The same can be said for material culture acquired over time by museums.
One other approach to democratising material culture is about, what I call, understanding negative space. I can explain this with an analogy. When a sculptor is given his block of material to sculpt, a quick sketch helps him block the work trapped within. In his selective and deliberate choice of chisel blow, the sculpture edges closer to what is in a essence a very subjective opinion best expressed in the finished product. The act of choosing what to remove and what to keep is very much akin to how museums develop their collections. Museums shape the ideas and ideals that their choice of material culture stands for and continue to do so in their choice of acquisition, their presentation and interpretation. That same material culture can also be presented and interpreted for what it does not stand for and how that particular narrative has become the dominant one, elbowing out others in due course.
This is what Art Historian Alice Procter has been working on with her ‘Uncomfortable Art Tours’. Procter’s tours are a clear attempt at decolonising museums and galleries by bringing into the picture the subaltern narratives that are represented by the material culture on display, including the ways and means how this is displayed, lighting and labelling.
The tours are but one other voice, an additional layer of meaning that has not been given its fair share of space. It nonetheless enriches the polyphony of meanings that material culture can hold and stand for, bringing into the picture those subaltern and unacknowledged narratives that might have been left by the wayside for far too long.
This can be a major stepforward in democratising museums. It shall not be an easy one though.