[Guest post by Jennifer P. Kingsley]
I am a non-disabled white cisgender woman specializing in the arts of medieval Europe and Byzantium. When I was in graduate school, my PhD department focused almost entirely on western Europe. Today, I run an interdisciplinary undergraduate program in museum studies. I have an abiding interest in how museums have shaped art history and in the ways museums develop the public’s understanding of the subject. I teach at a research university in Baltimore, a hyper-segregated city comprised of a white L and black butterfly, to borrow the term coined by Lawrence Brown, Associate Professor of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University.
I start with my own socio-biographical, intellectual, and professional position because it shapes what I see and what I overlook. People of color have been calling on us for more than a century to recognize the racism in our intellectual cultures and related professional environments. It is logical to begin with our own biases and those of our training. I believe academic integrity includes the responsibility to examine and dismantle the disciplinary structures that contribute to injustice and inequity. We must teach our students to understand the social exclusions of the past and present and their reciprocal relationship to the shape and contents of our disciplines. Developing a pedagogy informed by a social justice perspective is an ongoing inquiry and commitment. A lot of resources already exist that can help. Myriad feminist scholars have worked to diversify our cultural canons and to rethink the questions we ask of them. And although still principally applied to the arts of Africa / the African Diaspora, Asia / the Asian Diaspora, the Carribean, LatinX and First Nations communities, critical race theory as a framework has been around since the mid-1980s.
I’ve been working recently on aggregating some of these resources, pulling both from existing academic scholarship and from museum projects, public talks, and discussions on sites like this one. I’m also creating some video shorts to serve as entry-points into key concepts and questions (one is inspired by Carol Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, others draw on interviews with museum visitors, and still others will be object case studies based in undergraduate research). Eventually all will be available on a public libguide (still in process. I promise to post the url soon). At the heart of this toolkit-in-development is a new course: Object Encounters at the Museum, which uses the resources of the toolkit and at the same time serves as the toolkit’s testing ground. It ran for the first time in the Fall of 2018.
The course serves undergraduates at any level of study, many of whom have no background in art history or museum studies (and for whom this might be the only class in either subject). The course emphasizes the ‘recognition’ condition of justice, meaning concerns pertaining to cultural domination, nonrecognition, cultural imperialism, and status hierarchy. Although we do discuss political, social, and economic dimensions of exclusion as it pertains to art institutions, the students’ semester-long project work emphasizes dismantling cultural exclusion in how we interpret art.
My hope was to craft a learning journey through which we would grow more attentive to our cultural biases and critical of the art systems (including those based in the university) that sustain them, while avoiding the resolution of intellectual tension that can accompany institutional critique (ie: avoid the temptation to become an armchair quarterback). I wanted to create opportunities for epistemic and ethical conflicts that would be authentic, emergent, and productive, with real intellectual and social stakes.
Eleven students registered for the class. Represented majors included art history (2 out of the 11), history, anthropology, music (at the Peabody Conservatory), economics, public health, and neuroscience. One student had already declared a minor in Museums and Society, two more declared the minor mid-semester. More than half of the students self-identified as people of color. One student was motivated to take the class because the student had worked for several years with disabled artists.
Learning Objectives and Assignments
The stated goal of the course was to unpack the stories we tell about art and to test new approaches to object interpretation. I was fortunate to find a museum partner for this endeavor that had embarked on a similar project, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), which made international headlines this summer for deaccessioning works by Franz Kline, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol in order to fund new acquisitions by women and artists of color. The BMA’s recently revised mission includes the commitment to “social equity in every decision from art presentation, interpretation, and collecting, to the composition of our Board of Trustees, staff, and volunteers—creating a museum welcoming to all.” With this partner on board and the active support and facilitation of Chief Education Officer Gamynne Guillotte, Object Encounters operated very much like a laboratory class.
For the past fourteen weeks, BMA staff have been extremely generous with their time, experience, and records. We’ve spent half of our time in the museum (in the galleries but also in the museum archives) and half in the classroom. Along with course readings and class discussions, students have researched select BMA artworks, some of which hail from the historic European arts galleries, and some from the African arts galleries. Students have combined traditional art-historical research with applied research in the museum. Through this activity students have:
- become familiar with the historical (and historiographical) trajectory of select artworks and collections
- practiced identifying the relationship between artworks, ideas, and assumptions about art, and art’s public presentation
- had to offer evidence-based alternatives to existing art narratives
- gained experience in archival research and in applying basic techniques of museum evaluation.
Assignments included specifically:
- Object timeline: an object biography shared as a commented timeline in a medium of the students’ choosing; students were expected to range beyond just their single object, where relevant, in order to note patterns in the historical trajectory of the object type.
- All but the paper: an annotated bibliography introduced by a research question, hypothesis about the research question/problem, and thesis statement sustained by the annotations
- 4 Museum-based assignments:
- museum mapping (e.g.: here)
- visitor survey (prompt: here)
- object f.a.q. (I had initially thought to have students interview stakeholders and propose/write their own object label, but students made a case inspired by the Brooklyn Museum’s Ask app for writing instead a pamphlet aimed at general audiences that addressed some of the friction points for visitors, countered some of our cultural assumptions about individual artworks (such as the genius artist narrative), and shared some of the unspoken episodes in their objects’ histories.
- Object connections: inspired by Fred Wilson’s provocative use of juxtapositions in the 1992 exhibition Mining the Museum, students picked four works from the museum collection that could offer a different way of making meaning from their artwork.
Their final deliverable was an interpretive plan for their artwork that they justify with reference to scholarship and to their findings from the museum practice assignments.
From the students’ feedback it is clear that of all of the museum-based assignments, the visitor survey was by far the favorite, and the most stressful. Students were very nervous about interacting with the public, even though their encounter was entirely scripted (so as to make the results useful in the aggregate). They grew more comfortable over time and found inspiring the experience of putting a face to those their academic work was intended to serve. The process also, it turns out, improved students’ visual understanding of the art. In order to complete 10 interviews (approaching 1 out of every 3 visitors who entered the gallery), students had to spend almost two hours looking at and discussing their artwork with strangers. The assignment that produced the weakest content from my perspective was the object connections one. I had high hopes for it, imagining that the prompt would solicit some creative and thought-provoking associations. The students seemed to enjoy it and several shared on their evaluations that they had a really good time hunting through the museum for ideas. On balance, though, I think that developing illuminating relationships between artworks and across collections requires a broader and deeper knowledge than a single semester can develop.
Planning the Lessons
I decided to use three collections as a springboard for in-class work: a large collection of late antique mosaics from Turkey, a small corpus of Quattrocento paintings from Italy first exhibited in the context of a Renaissance period room, and a large collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sande Society masks originating from several distinct ethnic groups who live along the southern Atlantic coast of Western Africa. Sessions on the collections would alternate with readings of the museum narrative, the study of its audiences, and the analysis of the historical trajectory of its diversity efforts (which pretty much track with historical patterns for the field as a whole). You can download the syllabus here.
I brought in a variety of guest speakers. My role became less that of a subject expert and more that of a fellow, albeit more experienced, learner. I also helped liaise with stakeholders that included specialists both inside and outside the university, museum staff, and public audiences (for reasons of feasibility we worked with existing museum visitors, although in future iterations I would like to engage more with communities that have a stake in how we interpret our target collections but are not necessarily museum visitors). Lessons modeled the process I expected the students to follow in their independent work, so that each of the class meetings during the first six weeks included me applying one or two of the assignment prompts on the collection under discussion that day and inviting critique of the result. In terms of topics, for each collection I hoped to work against student expectations while also exposing them to important critical frames for an ethical art history – pairing late antique art with post-colonial theory for example, or applying a critical race perspective to medieval art and reading work by African feminists to confront our western assumptions about gender.
The BMA’s Antioch mosaics offered opportunities to discuss colonialism in relation to archaeology, museum collecting, and the interpretive frames that we apply to the Middle East (or Near East depending on the chronological boundaries within which you work). In the 1930s, a consortium led by Princeton University had conducted seven seasons of excavations in what was then the French mandate of Syria and Lebanon. Archaeologists were looking for the “lost city of Antioch,” which we continue to discuss today principally as a cradle of Christianity, although many religious traditions co-existed there in late antiquity. Scholars and newspapers hailed the mosaic find for how it would illuminate the study of Roman wall painting and the transition to flatter, less naturalistic, western medieval artistic styles. Yes, that’s floor mosaics to understand wall painting and artworks excavated from Syria (now Turkey) to explain the art of the European “Dark Ages.” While perhaps easy to dismiss as outdated scholarship, the history of the public and scholarly reception of the Antioch mosaics demonstrated how persistently art history has framed anti-classical impulses in art (and its anti-art cousin iconoclasm) as other, attributing them to Middle/Near Eastern influences.
The mosaics also had overt relevance for international relations. Ancient Antioch is present day Antakya, a city located in Hatay province, which Turkey annexed in 1939 and which Syria still claims as its own. Since about 2010, Turkey has increasingly pursued the repatriation of important cultural properties it believes are best understood and belong within its borders. While to my knowledge Turkey has not pursued the Antioch mosaics as part of that campaign, it has been attentive to the ways that Western museums locate Antioch on their labels. Given the geopolitics of both past and present, and a current public discourse that presents Syria as a site of Muslim extremism (have your students do a google image search for Syria), I asked students in our first session on these mosaics to consider how we might reconsider the ways we engage with and narrate the material culture of ancient Antioch. Later sessions explored how current scholarly interest in the more holistic analysis of Antioch and its suburbs on the one hand, and materiality and ancient color, on the other, might be allied to that effort.
Florentine Quattrocento paintings raised the specter of taxonomies and classification along with their consequences for artworks that are transitional, peripheral, or otherwise appear hybrid in some way. Later sessions explored the presentation of sacred art in museums as well as a discussion of the whitened Middle Ages (see Karen Overbey’s August post on this blog). Acquired by a key early donor to the BMA for the purpose of creating a Renaissance period room, the paintings are now part of an installation that introduce the BMA’s European galleries and tend to be read by visitors as medieval. At the time of her purchase, the collector was responding to the cultivation of a new taste for Italian “primitives” in the United States. Invented in the nineteenth century, the label “primitive” for late medieval painting served equally that era’s search for spiritual refreshment in the arts of the “other” as it did its growing preoccupation with national origins. Both ideas continue to resonate in contemporary popular depictions of the Middle Ages that oscillate between romantic portrayals of knights and ladies and brutish images of poverty and inequity.
Despite these inherently contradictory ideas, we tend to assume the European Middle Ages and its inseparable sibling, Christianity, are familiar concepts that require only minimal explanation. I have been to many a museum that provides me with a map of Asia or Africa but expects me to know the site of Flanders or Burgundy. I will also never forget and be forever grateful to the student who came up to me after class in my early teaching days to ask me timidly to explain who that Mary person was that I had been talking about for the past hour. Equally arbitrary is the decision of when to treat a painted image of the Virgin and child as a painting and when to present it as a ritual object. How do the ways we discuss and present such works compare to our interpretation of sacred art in other traditions, for instance the BMA’s collection of Chinese Guanyin (a Bodhisattva in water moon form).
At the risk of confirming the popular association between the medieval world and religious persecution, ought we tackle Christianity’s destructive histories alongside its generative power for the arts?
The Sande masks brought the opportunity to investigate the reception of African art in western scholarship and museums, and also raised significant questions for feminist art history. The BMA owns an extensive collection of masks from the Sande Society, the only masking tradition in Africa performed by women. The masks are danced during initiation rites that included a range of types of female circumcision (also known as “cutting” or “genital mutilation”). Their display can trigger feelings of trauma for those who have experienced the rite. At the BMA, the scope of the Sande mask collection makes it one of the best collections with which to discuss African aesthetics and African artists (whose names colonial collectors did not record), and through that presentation counter primitivizing narratives about Africa and African art. How to do so and acknowledge the realities of the Sande traditions remains, however, an intractable problem (a critique of the BMA’s interpretation appears in the Baltimore Sun here; a statement from the museum on the subject is here). Some provocative feminist readings of these artworks dispute the existence of gender (as the West understands it) among the ethnic groups of the Sande. How has feminist art history assumed a particular idea of gender or challenged it? What are some of the problems of existing feminist approaches that need complicating? How do multiple and intertwining identities – cultural background, race, class, family, age, sexual orientation etc. – help to shape women’s artistic production, the representation of women, and their engagement with cultural objects? Why should these intellectual frames matter for students investigating, say, a portrait by Raphael or a Rembrandt painting?
Each collection did a lot of work (spread over multiple sessions). It required students to maintain a high level of intellectual engagement and creativity. This could at times be disorienting for students, as one confided on their end of semester survey, but they also found it thrilling, and it did help foster some changes in attitude.
Outcomes & Evaluation:
I won’t see the results of the formal student evaluations that the university distributes until early February. I did, however, ask students to complete an anonymous survey on the last day of class. My first question repeated a prompt I had given the students on their very first day as part of a “getting to know you” questionnaire: please describe an art museum. When I rifle through what they wrote then, I see a lot of descriptions of what museums call the white cube, and expressions of an expectation of quiet contemplation. At the end of the semester, students describe the art museum as “a space where we should learn how to interact with others we don’t see in our everyday lives” and as “a site for discussing hard to confront topics.” They list key take-aways from the course that range from statements like “museums are political” to “institutional voice can and should be challenged.” They also made some thoughtful suggestions for improving the course, such as tackling accessibility earlier in the semester so that it is better integrated into our work.
I’m reminded of another project I’ve been involved in this past year to document the stories and experiences of black staff at my university. My colleagues and I set out (I would say now rather arrogantly, at least about myself) to change the archives. Lately though, we’ve been talking a lot more about how engaging in the practice of archiving has changed us. This shouldn’t be so surprising to me. The most superficial bibliographic search reveals many more scholarly publications on the history of ethics than on the ethics of history. The exception, for both history and art history, are the realms where academic activity intersects directly with the public sphere – as they do, for instance, in archives, public history, and museums. I want to suggest, in a similar way, that a publicly engaged art history can be a productive way for university-based art historians to apply an ethical lens to their activities as scholars and teachers as well as bring a sense of the relevance of humanistic inquiry to students in a wide array of disciplines.
 Including in the ways we use diversity to obscure racism. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Duke University Press, 2012). Portia Moore “The Dangers of the D word: Museums and Diversity” Incluseum blog, January 20, 2014.
 The Association for Critical Race Art History is a professional organization that promotes art historical scholarship from a critical race perspective and is actively building a suite of resources and bibliographies. See also Karen Overbey’s post on this blog.
 I was delighted to find in the BMA archives a letter from the Turkish embassy asking for a correction to the BMA labels to reflect the fact that Antioch was part of Turkey.
 Laura Morowitz, “Medievalism, Classicism and Nationalism: The Appropriation of the French Primitifs in Turn of the Century France,” Studies in the History of Art 68 (2005): 224-241.
 Personal conversations with different BMA staff in July 2018 and in October 2018.