Digging for diversity: WCMA invites a closer look

In an age when society is constantly questioning the role of cultural institutions as the so-called guardians of history, many leaders of the museum world have started rummaging through their own aesthetic attics to change their focus and redefine their intended audiences. Such was the overarching theme highlighted and discussed during last Thursday’s lecture at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), “Mining the Museum.”

Part of Claiming Williams Day, the event was described as a “discussion about the landmark exhibition ‘Mining the Museum’ in which artist Fred Wilson challenged notions of privilege in the museum context.” While WCMA Director Lisa Corrin certainly gave the promised lecture describing the curatorial achievements of Wilson’s conceptual arrangements, what distinguished the event was the direct appeal for community input. Corrin herself introduced “Mining” with the mantra that has come to represent one of the museum’s foremost interests: “This is your museum – own it!” This time around, however, she followed with a twist by asking the audience, “but can all students own it if they don’t feel that it belongs to them?”

The question of ownership became the event’s thematic foundation and set the stage for discussions on issues of class, race and gender in both Fred Wilson’s work and WCMA itself. Corrin’s introductory remarks related her own history of feeling uncomfortable and forgotten in certain museum contexts. “Museums have protocols about how you dress and how you act,” Corrin said. “But what if you don’t know them? Assumptions are made about visitors. So whose story is really being told? How do you feel when you can’t find what you’re looking for?”

Such was the question Wilson asked himself when designing his landmark 1992 exhibition for the Baltimore Historical Society. The artist’s method, which usually begins with an inventory of a museum’s collection and concludes with a final exhibit of items rearranged to bring forth hidden meaning, at first seemed at odds with the Historical Society’s collection, he explained on his Web site. Wilson, himself a member of the black community, wished to create a gallery space devoted to the history of African Americans within the state that produced such greats as Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall. The response, however, seemed dismal: the museum’s holdings contained very little in the way of traditional African American art, which further pushed Wilson to ask why museums often choose objects that tell the history of some to the exclusion of others.

Refusing to back down, Wilson began work. Symbolically directing his campaign from within the office of the director, who ironically presided over a board of trustees that did not include a black member, Wilson set various objects from within the collection in positions that, when considered among the manipulated string of lighting, sound and structural atmospheres, transformed subtle undertones into sometimes loud and often striking messages. His attempts to find himself within a museum that was superficially alienating led to a remarkable show that revolutionized the way many exhibition spaces think about the objects they display. Said Wilson, “There are so many stereotypes about people and cultures and ideas that have been translated into the visual through black collectibles, and sometimes that’s hurt me in the past because that’s how people see me before they even get to know me.”

Works saw a wide range: “Truth Trophy,” a piece comprised of a literal trophy flanked by busts of antiquity on one side and empty black pedestals with plaques that included the names of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Banneker on the other. Another piece Wilson labeled “Frederick Serving Fruit,” a painting depicting a family picnic and a black servant that was originally entitled “Country Life.” Interactive media mingled with sketches of slave ships and baby carriages and a Ku Klux Klan hood in a fashion that would evoke emotional responses of horror and shock, even from behind a slide lecture over 15 years in the future.

Corrin, usually an articulate and easy speaker, concluded her remarks by admitting that this particular subject still produced a very emotional and personal response. “I usually give this lecture as an art historian, but I’m speaking in a different context than ever before,” she said. “We need to take these lessons and translate them into our own community.”

The following, more interactive portion of the event welcomed 15 minutes of introspection and questioning within WCMA’s own galleries. The final discussion allowed students, teachers and community members to speak up about their personal relationship with the museum and how the exhibitions could be expanded to connect with a broader community. The audience obliged, giving appraisal of the curators’ signatures on exhibition plaques (“We’re not this monolithic voice but have individual views on how to knit these things together,” Corrin said) and suggestions like incorporating more history of the Berkshire community.

“Mining the Museum” effectively provided an unusual environment in which community feedback was not only welcomed but also requested. As Corrin said, “WCMA as a small museum isn’t stuck having to present in any one way. This is why we can change, and why your voice can make an impact.”