Slavery on Exhibition: Display Practices in Selected Modern American Museums Open Access
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Abstract of dissertation Slavery on exhibition: display practices in selected modern American museums In the postmodern museum, exhibitions frequently serve as charged sites for ongoing debates occurring in society over subjects that include authenticity, authority, difference, representation, identity, exclusion, and inclusion. This dissertation explores how modern American museum exhibitions became critical locations for ongoing efforts to interrogate slavery. Slavery first received sustained attention in mainstream museums some forty years ago through a series of pioneering presentations positioned against a portrait of the American past as divisive and troubling. Initiated following the Civil Rights era, when museums struggled for inclusivity on several fronts, these projects illustrate multiple approaches advocated by social history methodology, which legitimated slavery as a subject for serious consideration in American culture. A series of history exhibition case studies presented chronologically, beginning with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History's "After the Revolution" (ca. 1984), reflect on how slavery has been "museumified." As American museums re-imagined national history and identity through these "re-presentations," these projects attempted to resist the museum's powerful tendency to fix or homogenize difficult subjects. In the late 1980s, two pioneering exhibitions in Richmond, Virginia, organized by the Valentine Museum and the Museum of the Confederacy offered up an image of slavery to the public that challenged their own racially nostalgic institutional histories. "In Bondage and Freedom: Antebellum Black Life in Richmond" at the Valentine and the Museum of the Confederacy's "Before Freedom Came: American Life in the Antebellum South" strengthened each museum's own legitimation but also brought to public attention the latest historiography, which focused on enslaved agency and the ability of slaves to create lives that were autonomous from whites. Foreground against the subsequent decades-long contestation over representations of historically marginalized groups, "At Freedom's Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland" (2005-2007) resulted from a close collaboration between artists, Maryland Institute College of Art students, and several Baltimore museums. This example permits a behind- the-scenes glimpse at the continuing role that both memory and contemporary racial dynamics can play in exhibition making. Finally, "Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty" (2011-2014), a collaboration between Monticello and the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture focused on Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. The exhibition hoped to demonstrate how slavery helped to shape a collective national past, which African Americans and whites share together. As demonstrated, despite decades of presentations related to slavery in museums, greater familiarity with slavery as an historical event does not translate into significant change with respect to race in the national discourse. Scheduled to open in 2016, exhibitions at the National Museum of African American History and Culture promise to employ a hybrid approach that will work across difference to embrace multiple perspectives, simultaneously creating a post-national turn. NMAAHC's embrace of slavery may finally help to reconcile elements of our troubled racial history within a national museum.