Watch This Space

You may (or may not) have noticed that it’s been quite a while since I last posted here. All of my good intentions about continuing to blog have fallen to the wayside as I have been dedicating my writing energy to the dissertation and, more recently, the dreaded job application process. It’s been a productive summer. I have two chapters out for review with my committee, and a third has just undergone its first review with my supervisor, and I’ve even found some positions to apply for. But I didn’t decide to start blogging again to bore you with the details of my academic progress; I want to share some exciting news.

On September 28, I will embark on a six-week trip to Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa to conduct research for my dissertation. I will be meeting with a few contacts, visiting historic sites, taking tours, and trying to remind myself that this is in fact real life. This trip has been in the planning stages for a long time, and it’s hard to believe that it’s actually finally happening. In order to make the most of my time, I will be blogging more actively from South Africa, mostly site reviews and observations about the heritage landscape. I’m even renting an iPhone while I’m there to make it even easier to document my trip! (Yes, I am one of those Luddites clinging desperately to a flip phone.)

So… watch this space!

Same Song, Different Verse

If you’ve been keeping up with the bankruptcy situation in Detroit, you’re probably aware that the situation is pretty dire. The city is home to thousands of abandoned buildings, ranging from grand industrial and commercial buildings to private homes. The sprawling metropolis’ population has steadily declined since the mid-20th century, but it was laid particularly low by the Great Recession. In 2013, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, arguing that its debts far exceeded anything the city could afford to pay. After a series of court cases, the bankruptcy was allowed. Since the decision at the end of 2013, the city has been in negotiation with its creditors over the terms of its bankruptcy, to be decided by a federal judge this year.

William Livingstone House in Detroit, as photographed by Yves Marchand & Roland Meffre:

William Livingstone House in Detroit, as photographed by Yves Marchand & Roland Meffre:

One of the key pieces in the debate is the fate of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA is home to an extraordinary collection, ranked as one of the top six in the United States. It holds the a Van Gogh self-portrait, the first Van Gogh painting to become part of an American museum’s collections, along with extensive collections of art from around the world. The DIA offers free admission to local residents (those who live in Detroit and three surrounding counties), something that is sadly increasingly rare.

The LA Times does a much better job unpacking the legal and political aspects of bankruptcy case than I am equipped to do, but the crux of the situation is that the city has been working on a “grand bargain” which involves the state, several private foundations, and the museum raising some $820 million to fund the municipal pensions that are on the chopping block. In exchange, the city will give the collection and the building to the affiliated nonprofit that runs the museum. This bargain allows the art collection to remain local and available while rescuing the pensions and benefits of city workers.

Detroit’s creditors, however, are less than pleased. Financial Guaranty Insurance Company has insisted that the collection is worth far more than $800 million, and want the entire collection to go on the auction block to repay Detroit’s debt. The infamous Koch brothers have weighed in, with their PAC Americans for Prosperity threatening to “make life difficult” in the next election for any Republicans who vote for the grand bargain, despite its popularity with Michigan residents on both sides of the political aisle.

Edgar Degas' The Violinist and the Young Woman, part of the DIA's permanent collection. Via wikimedia commons.

Edgar Degas’ The Violinist and the Young Woman, part of the DIA’s permanent collection. Via wikimedia commons.

It’s hard to see this story and not be reminded of all of the art and museum collections currently and previously under threat. The Maier Museum situation of course comes to mind, along with the Fisk University’s sale of its Georgia O’Keeffe collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum (founded by a Wal-Mart heiress). It’s also hard not to be frustrated by this trend of putting price tags on cultural heritage.

For me, access to cultural heritage is a key part of the democratic experience. There was a time when people believed that fine art was the exclusive purview of the wealthy and aristocratic, and that ordinary people could not appreciate such things. Museums like the DIA are the opposite of this notion. Those collections belong in a very real sense to every visitor who walks through its doors to visit them. For locals especially, the chance to see a collection like that of the DIA in their hometown is a chance to visit far away places practically for free. As globalization has contributed to a sense of same-ness, museums offer a place to experience the truly unique in person.

Detroit has suffered in the last ten years or so. The population has declined, and the built environment has suffered tremendously. To further gut the city’s cultural heritage by auctioning off its signature art collection would be a devastating blow, and to what end? So that wealthy creditors won’t have a bad quarter? To appease a pair of billionaires? Detroit has taken extraordinary measures to rebuild itself, with local businesses and government going to great lengths to encourage people to return to the city and revitalize it. In a way, it would be poetic if a city built on capitalist enterprise was destroyed by it, but there would be no beauty in that poetry, only a landscape whose abandoned buildings reflect the barrenness of its soul, and the first bleak signpost on a road many cities may shortly follow.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“It’s Complicated”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about interpreting uncomfortable history. It’s something I’m engaging with in my dissertation, and it’s something that seems to be popping up a lot.

FBI poster of missing civil rights workers

FBI poster of missing civil rights workers

On Wednesday night, I made the trek up to Nashville to see a documentary, Freedom Summer, being shown as part of the Nashville Film Festival. As you might have guessed from the title, the film focuses on the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project of 1964, during which hundreds of college students from around the country poured into Mississippi under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to assist and encourage black Mississippians in attempting to register to vote. The registration effort led to the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative integrated delegation of Mississippians who unsuccessfully attempted to replace the all-white official delegation. Freedom Summer gained national attention when three civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) disappeared while investigating a church burning in Neshoba County. Their bodies were later found buried 12 feet beneath an earthen dam. The story was dramatized for the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.*

Thursday night, I went up to Nashville again for a curator-led tour and roundtable discussion of the Tennessee State Museum’s new exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation.** The exhibit, which was two years in the making, is a close study of life and relationships on a 13,000-acre Robertson County tobacco plantation. It’s a great (and free) exhibit, and if you find yourself in Nashville before August 31, you should make a point of visiting. The event was organized by the Inter-museum Council of Nashville, so attendees included museum professionals, historians, and people in related fields, and we had a great conversation about the evolution of the exhibit and some of the challenges of interpreting the painful past. The Wessyngton Plantation story is unique in that nearly all of the plantation’s records from the antebellum period survive, including farm records that detail the involvement of the plantation mistress in both industry and punishment of slaves. The exhibit also features a math workbook that belonged to one of the Washington men, which includes word problems that talk about dividing workloads among overseers and slaves, showing how the institution of slavery shaped every aspect of the antebellum plantation world.

The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via

The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via

At the same time that these conversations were taking place, a friend sent me a link to this great video describing what’s going on in the Central African Republic. I love the vlogbrothers, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should remedy that maybe right now. Anyway, aside from the content, what really grabbed me about the video was the point John makes about how as Americans, we’re very attached to good vs. evil in our narratives, and that this is something that we both deliberately and subconsciously project onto our history. I also came across a good piece on History@Work (NCPH’s blog) about finding a balance between the need to tell a story that won’t put visitors off without backing away from hard truths.

The thread that pulled these various moments/experiences together for me was that tension between the need to be good historians who confront the truth in all its ugliness and good storytellers who can engage and entertain visitors. Sometimes we do this well, and other times we do it less well. For me, the success of the Wessyngton Plantation exhibit in presenting the lives of the enslaved people is that alongside accounts of punishments and a display case with neck shackles is the story of individuals who created their own lives and families within bondage. The exhibit does not fetishize the violence and brutality of slavery, nor does it try to paint a picture of happy slaves under a “good” master. It simply describes what was and leaves it to the visitor to make what he or she will of it.

I had more mixed feelings about Freedom Summer. While it was an excellent documentary, I found myself a little frustrated by the ending, which on the one hand connected rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the rise of black separatism (yes!), but then on the other hand tied it to the success of the Voting Rights Act. Now, I agree that the Freedom Summer Project had an important impact on that legislation, but the connection with the material presented in the film felt like an afterthought–a need to tie a bow and put a “happily ever after” on a story that frankly didn’t need one. So much of the film focused on how the experience of Freedom Summer changed the way both the civil rights workers and the black Mississippians thought about themselves that tacking that connection on at the end felt awkward in an otherwise beautifully made film. The film would have been stronger overall if the creators had simply let the work speak for itself and left viewers to decide for themselves whether the ending was happy or not.

Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.

Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.

I think that sometimes as public historians we can fall victim to that desire to create a neat, tidy narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and in particular, we want to end on an optimistic note. There’s nothing wrong with at impulse, and a huge part of our job is presenting content in accessible ways that encourage people to think critically. While I don’t have any great magic trick for solving that problem, I think it’s worth looking at pop culture for ideas. I think we’re at a really good moment in pop culture for engaging with complicated stories that go beyond the epic good vs. evil grand narrative of say, Lord of the Rings.*** There are popular shows with much more complicated stories that engage in much more complex narratives, shows like Mad Men where the characters do terrible things to each other and themselves and yet we still care about them, or Game of Thrones where good guys die, bad guys live, and it’s hard to find a hero(ine). While I’m not suggesting we pattern the history we present after these programs (both of those shows have serious issues with representations of people of color, for one thing, and we have enough trouble with that already), they point to a willingness of the public, or at least parts of it, to be entertained by and engaged with complicated stories and multidimensional characters. If people can (and do) follow along and be fascinated by complex characters like Don Draper and Varys, surely they can do the same for figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

The way we think about and understand the past has a tremendous impact on how we think about and understand the present. Is emancipation a happy ending for enslaved people? Does the civil rights movement have a happy ending? Does it have an ending at all?


*Mississippi Burning is a problematic film in a lot of ways, not least of which is the passivity that characterizes all of its African American characters and the heroic role it assigns the FBI.

**Much of the research for this exhibit is based on the work of John F. Baker, Jr., who has published a book on the topic. Full disclosure: I have purchased the book, but not yet read it.

***I love LOTR, please don’t send me hate mail.

Men of the Docks, Revisited: Part II

So, in my last post I discussed the context for the sale of George Bellows’ Men of the Docks and three other paintings from the Maier Museum at Randolph College. In this post, I want to talk about Men of the Docks in particular and the response to the sale.

Men of the Docks by George Bellows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Men of the Docks by George Bellows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Part of why there has been such an uproar over the Bellows painting in particular is its place in the Maier collection. Men of the Docks was a key piece of the collection. The painting was selected by Louise Jordan Smith, R-MWC’s first art professor who later left her valuable art collection to the college. She and a German professor established “The Randolph-Macon Art Association of Lynchburg,” a coalition of students, faculty, alumnae, and local townspeople who raised the $2,500 to purchase the painting from Bellows in 1920. It was the first masterpiece in the collection. Men of the Docks was not simply another valuable piece in a large collection; it was one of the first, and it had special meaning attached to it due to the circumstances of its acquisition.

Deaccessioning is the process of transferring ownership of a museum piece to another institution or individual through sale or exchange. The deaccessioning of collections is a tricky topic, and several museum organizations who offer guidelines on the topic, including the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. In general, pieces are considered for eligible deaccessioning if they do not contribute to collection; for example, if a museum specializes in 20th century abstract expressionism, and had a few pieces of American folk art, they might consider deaccessioning the folk art in order to acquire more abstract expressionist work. This is the other side of deaccessioning; any proceeds from the sale of collections should only be used to expand the collection, rather then put toward building maintenance or the general endowment.

Edward Hicks' A Peaceable Kingdom (image via cultureGRRL blog)

Edward Hicks’ A Peaceable Kingdom, one of the two paintings still on the auction block. (image via cultureGRRL blog)

Museums are stewards of heritage and art with tremendous cultural significance and often great monetary value. In order to protect their role as stewards, museums cannot treat their collections as financial assets to be cashed in on a rainy day. Donors who give their art or collections to museums usually do so in order to ensure that the pieces will be cared for and appreciated by future generations, otherwise they would simply sell the items themselves and keep or donate the profits. The concept of a museum piece is is that it has a cultural value that far exceeds whatever price could be put on it. I’ve talked about this idea in earlier posts, so I won’t dwell on it here.

This is why the sale of Men of the Docks and the other three paintings has raised so much attention. Men of the Docks is a foundational piece in the college’s museum collection. According to the Maier’s own website, the collection features “works by outstanding American artists of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries”; a description that the Bellows painting clearly exemplifies. Beyond the fact that the painting should not have even been considered for deaccessioning, the proceeds from the sale are being used to bolster Randolph College’s general fund, not further the museum collections. The money from the sale of Rufino Tamayo’s Trovador went into the general fund. When questioned, current president Bradley Bateman indicated that the Trustees intend to go forward with the sale of both Edward Hicks’ A Peaceable Kingdom and Ernest Hennings’ Through the Arroyo. There is no reason to believe these sale proceeds will go anywhere but the general fund.

Maier Museum of Art

Maier Museum of Art (image via cultureGRRL blog)

Essentially, what’s happened is that the Trustees of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College mismanaged the college’s finances so badly that the only recourse was to open the college to men and sell off a portion of the art collection, the proceeds from which will go back to a fund managed by the people responsible for the crisis in the first place.

Randolph College’s response to the objections raised by those in the museum field has been somewhat disheartening. In addition to continuing on with the plan to sell the two remaining pieces, the college has gone so far as to claim that the Maier is not actually a museum.This should make for interesting discussions this fall in Randolph College’s Art History 261: Introduction to Museum Studies and Art History 315: Curatorial Seminar at the Maier Museum of Art.* Perhaps these courses would better be titled “Introduction to Asset Management” and “Commodities Seminar”?

It’s easy to see, then, why this action has drawn so much criticism from the museum field. While Randolph College had already been censured for its actions by the Association of Art Museum Directors, on March 12, 2014 the organization officially sanctioned Randolph College for its actions. (For commentary, see: this, this, and this.)

So then, what can be done? In the case of Trovador and Men of the Docks, nothing. There has been surprisingly little backlash against the National Gallery in London as the majority of articles focus on Randolph College’s poor practices. Randolph College has tried to focus on the fact that the Bellows’ painting will still be on public view, and alleges that this the start of a partnership the National Gallery. The college also claims that no other artwork will be sold; the college still owns a Georgia O’Keeffe (Yellow Cactus), an Edward Hopper (Mrs. Scott’s House), and a drawing by Mary Cassatt, so the remaining paintings are not insignificant (though quite valuable, which might put them in jeopardy). The problem here is that the college has already tried once to break the trust through which Louise Jordan Smith left her personal collection to the college.** Although the effort was abandoned, it is hardly reassuring to those interested in protecting the remaining collections or considering future donations.

The path in front of Main Hall at R-MWC. (author's image)

The path in front of Main Hall at R-MWC. (author’s image)

For many alumnae (though of course not all), the decision to admit men and sell the art has been a one-two punch, insult on top of injury. The Trustees have adopted a party line that brooks no opposition. More disturbing still, to me and the unscientific smattering of alumnae I’ve spoken to, is the way the Trustees and the college have dismissed the alumnae who feel betrayed by all of these actions as “bitter.” If it is true that some alumnae contacted SACS and put the college’s accreditation into question, that is not an action I agree with. At the same time, the Trustees have hardly shown themselves to have the best interest of the legacy of R-MWC at heart, nor have they made any effort to mend fences with the alumnae. During the year or so following the decision to admit men, I sent the college letters and emails asking them to reconsider or explain the situation. I never received a reply, though I did continue to receive requests for donations.

In the days following the announcement of the decision to go co-ed, many of my classmates and fellow alumnae were asked whether we would prefer that the college no longer exist. The question seems moot now. Randolph-Macon Woman’s College has become a footnote in the history of Randolph College. The sale of the art, especially Men of the Docks, has only underscored how fragile the legacy of my alma mater truly is, and by extension, how important and fragile all cultural heritage is.

The story of the “Maier Four” and Randolph College is not unique. In 2009, Brandeis University came very close to closing its Rose Art Museum or at least selling off part of its collections. Fisk University broke up a collection given by Georgia O’Keeffe and sold work to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. It’s too late for Men of the Docks and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, but it is not too late to take a serious look at how we value our cultural heritage and the institutions that safeguard it for the future.

*Course names based on Randolph College Catalog for 2013-2014.

**Incidentally, before deciding to sell the four paintings, the college first attempted to break the trust through which Miss Louise (as she was known) donated her collection. This is further elucidated in Meredith Minter Dixon’s And When I Go (pages 62-63).

Men of the Docks, Revisited: Part I

It’s been difficult to write this piece on the fate of the art being sold by Randolph College. I’ve commented freely about it on facebook, where I am sure of my audience of sympathetic and equally distraught alumnae, but it’s been more difficult to find ways to discuss something that feels so deeply personal in a more public forum. This is a challenge at the

An objective historian. (via wikimedia commons)

An objective historian. (via wikimedia commons)

heart of public history: how can we talk about painful topics that have deep personal meaning for individuals and communities in ways that are both analytical and constructive? Objective history is a bit like a Sasquatch; people like to imagine it’s out there, but folks in the know have basically discounted its existence. Personally, I think you’re far more likely to run into a Sasquatch than an objective account of history, but that’s an argument for another day.

The events at The Institution Formerly Known As Randolph-Macon Woman’s College have had a profound impact on my professional and personal life. R-MWC was the first place where I felt that I was part of a community much larger than myself, and institution rooted in the past that would go on indefinitely into the future. The announcements from 2005 onward constituted an attack on that community. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I am now interested in community identity.

I have tried several times to compose a piece that addresses only the sale of the Bellows painting and the other artwork, and every time I have hit a (red brick) wall. Like all good history, to really understand what happened we need context. This first post will look at the circumstances leading up to the decision to sell the art.

I graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 2006. It’s hard to convey the women’s college experience to someone who did not attend one, but I can tell you this: enrollment was around 750 total at any given time, and the vast majority of students lived on campus. We ate together at family-style tables in the dining hall and lived in dorms that mixed first years, sophomores, and juniors (seniors had their own dorm and annexes). We took part in traditions like Neverending Weekend, Pumpkin Parade, and Even/Odd rivalries. We knew each other, if not personally than on sight. We lived by a strict honor code that gave us unproctored, self-scheduled exams and dorm rooms that were often left unlocked. Our classes were small; the history department boasted a total of four faculty members, most of whom I still keep in touch with. Though it took me a while to figure out where I fit in, I don’t recall feeling cloistered or isolated. We were sisters, and our t-shirts boasted that we were “Not a girl’s school with no men, but a women’s college with no boys.” When I graduated, I was eager to go out and make my way in the world, but I knew that for better or worse, I would never again have an experience like I had at Randy Mac.

At my graduation with my sister class ('04) senior. You can always tell an Even!

At my graduation with my sister class (’04) senior. You can always tell an Even!

The fall after I graduated, the college announced its decision to begin accepting men. This decision was made unilaterally by the Board of Trustees, supposedly in response to falling enrollment numbers and financial problems. The supposed financial challenges had been brought to the attention of students the year before when the college announced that it would do away with its long-standing study abroad program at the University of Reading in England. Readingites (as they called themselves) and their fellow students objected vigorously and ultimately salvaged the program. I refer to the financial challenges as “supposed” because the college had just completed two very successful development campaigns, and there is considerable evidence that the financial problems were the result of poor management by the Board, which was paying then president Kathleen Gill Bowman more than $370,000/year (only 28 percent of private college presidents made more than $300,000 a year at that time).* The enrollment crisis was something of a red herring.** None of this should sound unfamiliar in the wake of the recent financial crisis.

Ultimately, the Board went ahead with its decision to go co-ed, over vigorous protests from current students and alumnae. The Board’s approach to the decision and the attitude of the Board members, especially interim college president Ginger Worden (’97), further enraged and alienated alumnae, who made repeated offers to drum up the necessary funds to reverse the decision. Lawsuits began when these offers were ignored or dismissed. At some point, SACS, the college’s accrediting institution, launched an investigation into the college’s financial status which was a factor in maintaining its accreditation. I was told at the time that SACS was contact by a few alumnae, but I am not sure whether this is true or not. In any case, the question of accreditation was raised, which put more pressure on the Board of Trustees.

On October 1, 2007, College representatives along with Lynchburg police entered the Maier Museum of Art and seized and removed four paintings from the collection: George Bellows’ Men of the Docks, Edward Hicks’ A Peaceable Kingdom, Ernest Hennings’ Through the Arroyo, and Rufino Tamayo’s Trovador. The paintings were not handled or wrapped and stored properly, and they were sent to Christie’s in New York immediately before the students or alumnae could be notified. More lawsuits followed, but Randolph College (as the institution is now known) was permitted to sell the four paintings. Trovador was sold in 2008 for $2.7 million. The funds raised by the sale of the art have gone into the college’s endowment fund, which is a violation of museum ethics (it is typically only acceptable to use the profits from the sale of deaccessioned items to purchase other items for the collection). The outrage of the alumnae was matched by censures from leading art and museum associations.

R-MWC is no more, one painting is sold, and three more are on the auction block. So ends Part I.

*Meredith Minter Dixon, And When I Go: the End of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), Kindle edition, 2.

**Enrollment regularly fluctuated in connection with economics and other factors since the mid twentieth century; to my knowledge, it has not recovered to pre-coed levels at the time of this post. (see Dixon’s prologue for a more thorough analysis)

Post Script: Men of the Docks

I learned this evening that Randolph College has sold George Bellows’ Men of the Docks to the National Gallery in London. You can read more about the sale here.

Though the sale should not come as a surprise, I cannot help but feel a sense of profound loss, partly for the painting but more for what this transaction means for the legacy of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, which will always be my alma mater. I also cannot resist taking this opportunity to note that the sale of the painting comes on the heels of a study showing that Randolph College has the sixth highest per-student endowment of all colleges in Virginia, DC, and Maryland.

I wanted to sign off with a link to the college song, but I found this instead, and somehow, it feels right. Hopefully you’ll agree.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sarah Palin, and White Privilege

Martin Luther King, Jr. at a 1964 press conference (via wikimedia commons)

Martin Luther King, Jr. at a 1964 press conference (via wikimedia commons)

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day when the federal government shuts down and our nation celebrates Dr. King’s contributions and legacy. This holiday usually sparks some commentary pressing people to recall that King was not a warm and fuzzy character who encouraged others to dream about racial equality. He was a radical, and his commitment to nonviolence was a key part of that radicalism. Like many other civil rights leaders, King was under intense surveillance by the FBI, a fact that seems even more salient given the US’s current NSA surveillance controversy.

The struggle to remember King’s radicalism is particularly salient in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela. NPR used the occasion to discuss what happens when media outlets agree to agree, calling up the examples of King and Mandela. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent piece over at The Atlantic on Mandela’s rejection of nonviolence that also cites comments on the topic by King and Malcolm X, a reminder that while King embraced nonviolence, the story was more complex than Kumbaya.

While it may seem tiresome to some audiences to continually speak to King’s radicalism and fight back against the sanitization (whitewashing?) of his image, the cost of not speaking out is higher. Just yesterday, former Alaskan governor and reality TV star Sarah Palin used King’s words to accuse President Obama of “playing the race card.” Palin’s remarks immediately drew fire from most circles, including her supporters. While most comments have focused on contextualizing her statements and arguing about whether Obama has played “the race card,” fewer looked at her misappropriation of King’s words and legacy.

The reason I bring up Palin’s remark is that it is a perfect example of the impact of white privilege on society and how we talk about the past. I can basically guarantee that whatever Palin was thinking when she posted that comment, it had almost nothing to do with Dr. King and his work and everything to do with her whitewashed ideas about him. When we don’t talk about the parts of King’s legacy, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, that make us uncomfortable, that remind us that he was a human being instead of a saint, we lose the significance of his contribution. He becomes the comfort food version of history; empty calories that feel good without providing any nourishment.

If we can’t talk about Dr. King’s complicated legacy, how can we expect to create a society where we can talk openly about white privilege and other aspects of institutionalized racism? One of the more recent pieces I’ve seen discussing the topic (cited here on Buzzfeed) evidently drew so much ire that the author took down the tumblr where the comic originally appeared. Pieces surface all over the place, from Peggy McIntosh’s classic “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to articles written in dude-speak to posts on “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” These ideas are difficult to discuss even in communities where respecting different perspectives is supposedly the ideal; just look at the #solidarityisforwhitewomen controversy that erupted in the name of finding a path to more intersectional feminism.

March on Washington flyer (via

March on Washington flyer (via

I was attracted to public history because it seemed like a way to make history useful and relevant. As I have worked on civil rights history, and more importantly talked with people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, I have to come to believe that as a public historian, I have an obligation to facilitate a discussion about social justice, especially when the injustices of the past connect with the injustices of the present. The way forward, from my perspective, is finding ways to talk about complicated topics that are respectful both of those engaged in the conversations and the facts themselves.

So let’s start talking about Dr. King’s radicalism. Let’s talk about Mandela’s rejection of nonviolence. And in the meantime, white people, before we say anything at all, we need to ask ourselves, Yo, Is This Racist?

*This post was originally developed for another project, and as such is cross-posted elsewhere.

Don’t Go There: The Commodification of Cultural Heritage

One of the challenges of preserving heritage in a capitalist society is the inevitable commodification of cultural heritage. In an earlier post, I talked about how seeing objects of cultural heritage can create a sense of ownership in people who view those objects and the impact of that feeling on issues of repatriation. In this post, I will be revisiting some of those topics, and also discussing some issues that occurred to me the in the last couple of weeks as I’ve been reading a few news articles related to Native American heritage.

Men of the Docks by George Bellows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Men of the Docks by George Bellows, the first painting acquired by the Maier Museum through student and local fundraising, was deaccessioned under then President John Klein for sale in 2007. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

For better or for worse, one of the main ways that capitalist societies determine value is by assessing monetary worth. The highest value a painting can have, for example, is to be “priceless,” something we associate with paintings like the Mona Lisa. While some of this value is conferred by the painting’s quality and rarity, it is also derived from its exposure to the public. Pricelessness can be relative. I have to admit here that I am somewhat biased on this front; I am a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and along with a number of my fellow alumnae, I was outraged when the college made the decision to sell several masterpieces from the Maier Museum’s permanent collection to replenish coffers damaged by the Great Recession. Though the college has since changed its name and begun admitting men, for me at least, the decision about the art remains for me the most tangible demonstration of the administration’s profound disregard for our legacy. Though the paintings were owned by the college, it still feels to me as though they belonged to the alumnae and the people of the Lynchburg who were able to see and enjoy these masterworks free of charge.

With my own perspective well and truly noted, I wanted to discuss something far more significant: Native American heritage. In 1990, the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which required federal agencies and institutions receiving federal funds to restore items of cultural heritage to their appropriate Native American tribes, organizations, and/or descendents. The law and its enforcement have not been uncontroversial, but on the whole it seemed to be a step in the right direction in terms of respecting the cultural heritage and cultural sovereignty of Native Americans. In the past week or so, however, I came across a couple of articles that brought home for me how far the United States government and its citizens still have to go.

The first article comes from NPR’s fantastic Code Switch blog and discusses the sale of Hopi artifacts at auction in Paris and a US Appeals Court decision upholding the right of the Arizona Snowbowl (a ski resort) to spray artificial snow made from treated wastewater onto the San Francisco Peaks, a sacred site for a number of tribes including the Hopi and Havasupai. The second article is an op-ed piece in the New York Times on the growing preservation problem facing Pueblo ruins in the Navajo Nation caused by tourists who feel that having GPS coordinates for these sites entitles them to sneak out to the sites and explore them (and then post photos on Flickr, naturally).

The San Francisco Peaks (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The San Francisco Peaks (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

These articles bother me because they indicate not only a disregard for the cultural heritage and beliefs of Native Americans, but what seems to me to be an apparent unwillingness or inability to even consider those matters. The cultural value of these objects and spaces cannot be quantified in dollars and cents, and yet because some individuals or institutions are willing to put a price tag on them they are instantly commodities. In the court case on the mountain issue, for example, the Court acknowledged that spraying treated wastewater onto the sacred space was offensive, but decided it did not pose an undue burden on the Native American tribes concerned. The wastewater, however, was not being sprayed for some ecological purpose or stop a wildfire that threatened nearby homes, but to provide snow for a ski resort–a purely commercial enterprise.

This ongoing legal disregard for the cultural value of spaces sacred to Native Americans has broader implications for how non-Native American citizens treat the cultural heritage of Native Americans. Sneaking into Pueblo ruins, for example, and then blatantly posting pictures showing that you visited the site and damaged it with your presence is galling. It reminds me of a story that one of the narrators I interviewed in Selma shared. She described being at a mass meeting on voting rights in First Baptist Church when Sheriff Jim Clark and several deputies entered the church and arrested two leaders who had been leading prayers at the pulpit. The violation of this sacred space was still viscerally painful to her even fifty years later.

The damage we do to cultural heritage is not always visible. One of the challenges of intangible heritage is that it is difficult to quantify; its value is what it means to the people who care about and for that space, and we have to both accept and respect their claims. We also need to bear in mind the context in which these claims emerge. The US Government has a deplorable record when it comes to respecting the rights of Native Americans, and if we truly wish to rectify the situation, both the government and individual citizens need to do what they can. While individuals can do little about court decisions, they can certainly educate themselves and others on how to respect sacred spaces and objects. They can not buy sacred objects at auctions or sales. They can visit appropriate parks and follow the rules for viewing or accessing sites. They can refuse to patronize businesses that do not respect the rights of Native Americans.

As public history and heritage professionals, we make our living from cultural heritage and thus have a special obligation to educate ourselves and the public about these complicated issues. While these articles (and this post) merely scratch the surface of the ethical challenges of cultural heritage, I hope that it can contribute to a broader exploration of the subject that seems to be taking place both formally and informally in popular culture and academic spheres.

Suggested reading:
Caring for Country: Aboriginal Australia

Agency & Ambiguity in 12 Years a Slave

I saw 12 Years a Slave on November 29, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I don’t quite know how to talk about how the film made me feel, but I can tell you that it was the opposite of a clinical, academic reaction. I went to an evening show, and I was glad that I could leave the theater in the dark and did not have to go about my business for the rest of the day. 12 Years a Slave

I went to see the film on the heels of a week-long trip to Selma to conduct interviews, and as I watched the film, pieces of those narratives flashed through my mind. The use of the n-word. The contrast between Ford and Epps, two points on a spectrum of evil, one complicit the other openly sadistic. The destructive toll on the humanity of all involved. More than anything, Northrup’s struggle against and within a system designed to strip the enslaved of all agency. As I watched, I thought about the stories my narrators had shared, and I saw Jim Crow in the attitudes and relationships on screen.

Part of why I wanted to see 12 Years so badly was that I was still angry about Django Unchained, the Tarantino revenge flick about a white man who frees an enslaved man and teaches him how to wreak vengeance on his former oppressors. Django bothered me on a lot of levels; beyond its obvious function as a statement piece so that Tarantino could prove how not racist he is by using the n-word liberally, I hated the way the movie bought into all of the stereotypes we have about the mid-19th century without challenging them. I hated the way Tarantino underdeveloped his female characters. I hated the way he played along with the made-up sport of mandingo fighting, when the true sadism of slavery, I thought, was in a thousand more mundane and horrifying moments. The excessive violence and Tarantino’s self-congratulatory smugness sickened me–and I generally like Tarantino’s work.

Django UnchainedThe problem at the core of Django, for me, is agency. Both films depict slavery as a state where agency is largely stripped from black (male) character. Django is given his agency by the protagonist of the film, the bounty hunter Dr. Schultz, and he uses it to go on the offensive and rescue his wife–after, of course, he fulfills his bargain with Schultz, who freed Django because Django could identify Schultz’s quarry, the Brittle brothers. The problem, from my perspective at least, is that Tarantino repeatedly implies that the enslaved men could be free if only they stood up to their oppressors. As others have pointed out, this entire premise implies that enslaved people did not engage in resistance and that if they had, slavery would have ended.

12 Years also engages in questions of agency, and part of what makes the film so gut-wrenching is how hard McQueen drives home that sense of powerlessness and the arbitrary nature of the justice meted out. There is a scene where Northrup stands up for himself against the plantation’s carpenter. Several members of the audience openly cheered when this moment took place, and I even laughed once because while it was as unexpected as it was welcome. At the same time, though, my chest clenched in anxiety because this act of rebellion, this moment of seizing agency, would only bring more violence on Northrup–and it did. When Northrup ultimately regains his agency, like Django, it is at the hands of white men, although the context is far more complex as we see Northrup leave behind his fellow enslaved workers who will be no doubt bear the brunt of Epps’ wrath at losing Northrup.

Unlike in Django, where white slave owners and their minions are treated as uniformly evil, 12 Years presents a much more nuanced picture. McQueen lets us see the spectrum of complicity, as well as the toll the entire system takes on those who are a part of it. The “good” plantation owner Ford remains a slave owner, and for all of his apparent compassion for Northrup, the human being he owns along with many others, it is he who sells Northrup to Epps who is known for his cruelty. Ford only seems good in the sense that he lacks Epps’ sadisim, but he is still a willing and conscious participant in the system. Epps, meanwhile, is indeed a sadist, but seems also to be tormented by a mania that disrupts his wife’s life as well.

Mistress Epps and Patsey

Mistress Epps and Patsey

The women in 12 Years are more than the two-dimensional characters presented by Django. The relationship between Mistress Epps and Patsey, and their relationships to Epps is complex (and there’s a fantastic discussion of it here). McQueen allows us to see the intersections between race and gender and how these relationships play out in the omnipresent violence of white (male) supremacy. This tension continued well beyond emancipation; the defense of white Southern womanhood prompted lynchings and rioting well into the 20th century. To me, this is the most profound contribution of 12 Years; not its depiction of slavery per se, but the way the film shows the complex racial and gender-based relationships rooted in slavery that have continued on well past emancipation.

The end of the 12 Years is ambiguous. Our protagonist Northrup has been reunited with his family, but he never receives anything approaching justice for his years in bondage, nor are the men responsible for his capture held liable. The circumstances of his death are unknown. We never learn Patsey’s fate–she is always standing in the dusty road, scarred visage fading while Northrup begins his long-awaited journey home. This ambiguity parallels much of the historical experience; emancipation did not beget equality, the desegregation of schools has not closed the achievement gap, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement have not resolved institutionalized racism, the election of President Obama did not usher in a post-racial society.

Our role as historians is not to shy away from these ambiguities, but to bring them to the fore and discuss them. The (admittedly idealistic and possibly naive) reason I decided to pursue public history was to find ways to use my interest and skills as an historian to make some sort of contribution to society. I am deeply optimistic that despite the ambiguity of our victories and distance we have left to travel, that by engaging with our past we can find solutions to the challenges of the present and even hope for a better tomorrow.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blessed:

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

-Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

*This post was originally developed for another project, and as such is cross-posted elsewhere.

On Diplomacy & Heritage Unseen.

The other day, I came across an article in the LA Times about how the US used the return of a chalice that had been illegally removed from Iran to help open the door for negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The chalice had been brought into the US illegally and was seized by customs, where it was held until its recent return to Iran.

This is where I assume they kept the chalice, next to the Ark of the Covenant. (from the Indiana Jones wiki)

This is where I assume they kept the chalice, next to the Ark of the Covenant. (from the Indiana Jones wiki)

The article mentions a couple of times that there are questions about the chalice’s authenticity; in particular, Iranian hardliners opposed to the recently elected President Hassan Rouhani and his stance regarding the West claim that the chalice is a fake. The head of Iranian cultural heritage and tourism, Mohammad Ali Najafi, replied that, “We do not look a gift horse in the mouth. Even if it is fake, it is worthy.”

The griffin chalice returned to Iran. (via the LA TImes, Mehdi Moazen / Islamic Republic News Agency / November 30, 2013)

The griffin chalice returned to Iran. (via the LA TImes, Mehdi Moazen / Islamic Republic News Agency / November 30, 2013)

Now, of course the chalice’s authenticity is not particularly important in this context. Its real significance is the gesture, the return of a piece of cultural heritage not to a ruler, but to a nation. Repatriation of cultural heritage can be a touchy subject; just ask the British Museum about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Diplomatic concerns aside, however, the return of the chalice is much less controversial than the repatriation of cultural artifacts and art removed under imperialism. The chalice was kept under lock and key in storage, and the dealer who imported it intended to sell it rather than display it in a public museum. There was no significant national attachment to the object, unlike the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, which many consider to be an integral part of the British Museum’s collections.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon in His Study

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon in His Study

It seems to me that the question of display is central to our emotional attachment to cultural heritage. When I lived outside of DC, I heard about visitor complaints when the Star-Spangled Banner was taken down for much-needed conservation. Similarly, several years ago the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art underwent a significant renovation that required various sections of the building to be closed off. I visited during a stage of the renovation when large parts of the galleries had been closed off and was startled to see the most popular paintings jammed into whatever space remained available so that visitors would not miss out on their chance to see Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den or Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life. I was personally relieved to see David’s Napoleon in His Study, a painting I am rather attached to, having seen it for years every time I visited the National Gallery and then coming across it unexpectedly at a wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

In the case of art or antiques, seeing cultural heritage is how most people encounter it. Few of us have the resources to own a famous work of art, and I would argue that work people get to see and engage with is more culturally valuable than work hidden away in a private collection. In an age where visual media saturates culture, seeing something in real life is a unique experience. It’s so unique, in fact, that people will fight through amazing crowds just to take a crummy camera photo of the Mona Lisa so that they can show that they were really there and they really saw it. They could just as easily look at the painting and drop a Euro or two for a postcard reproduction, or spend nothing at all and look at it online. The value is showing that they saw it with their own eyes, and that experience sets the heritage object beyond financial value. When we think about repatriating heritage, we think about giving away not only the object itself but the experience of seeing it.

Crowds at the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa (via wikimedia commons)

Giving the chalice back to Iran makes sense because it will hopefully allow the Iranian people the chance to enjoy this piece of heritage that was going unappreciated and unseen here. It becomes more complicated when the heritage in question has become a part of the culture where it currently resides.