Here is the latest chapter in public entities stepping up to the ongoing and necessary work of questioning the history we tell through public art — and changing it when necessary.
The city of Pittsburgh just removed an 800-pound bronze statue of songwriter Stephan Foster with a black man sitting at his feet playing the banjo, according to an April 26 story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
The move followed an October decision by the Pittsburgh Art Commission, which found that the statue should be removed within six months and hosted in a private, “properly contextualized” location. Many residents have held that the sculpture — showing a shoeless African-American banjo player seated at the famed composer’s feet — is condescending or outright racist. Speakers at commission meetings last year largely agreed.
These are issues confronting civic leaders around the country, including the recent debate about art in the Minnesota State Capitol which had mixed results.
I recently came across a Minnesota Historical Society webpage titled: Reconciling History, focused on art in the Minnesota State Capitol.
The site gives the impression that the Historical Society is wrestling with the problematic issues of historical Capitol art and its embedded racism (my word, not theirs). Yet, the website uses language that seems to keep the Historical Society above the fray, as if it were possible to be neutral about whether or not the art is offensive. As I read its website, the Historical Society’s solution to interpreting Capitol art seems to be simply adding more voices, not taking a position on whether or not the art is racist.
Here’s how the website starts out:
Throughout the United States today, people are having conversations about our relationship with the past. From Confederate statues to artwork in museums and public spaces, communities are struggling to reconcile a historical narrative that leaves so many stories untold.
The Historical Society’s website fails to define what it means by “Reconciling History.” The phrase itself is nonsensical.
Merriam Webster offers several definitions of reconciling. The first is “to restore to friendship or harmony.” Using this definition, “reconciling history” is meaningless. The real challenge is to reconcile people, in our case descendants of white settlers with indigenous peoples.. Even then, the term “reconcile” is inadequate, because it assumes there was a trusting relationship to be restored when that was never the case. Anyway, the Historical Society’s website doesn’t appear to attempt this type of reconciling.
The second definition of reconciling is “to make consistent or congruous, reconcile an ideal with reality.” Using this definition, “reconciling history” is rather meaningless, too. It’s impossible to have a “consistent” and “congruous” history for all people. The Historical Society’s website makes no attempt to reconcile “an ideal with reality.”
The third definition of reconciling is “to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant.” Based on this definition, the Historical Society’s website is an abject failure. It avoids discussing unpleasant history.
The Historical Society’s website leaves me wondering whether it used the term “reconciling history” because it sounds good without thinking through what it means.
The Historical Society’s website states that it took “A critical look at the capitol’s artwork.” It did not. Examining the process the Historical Society and state leaders used to review Capitol art will lay bear why the term “reconciling history” is empty.
Dartmouth College, one of the Ivy League Schools, was established by the Royal Charter of King George III in 1769, when New Hampshire was still an English colony. The college’s main goal, according to the charter, was: “to encourage the laudable and charitable design of spreading Christian knowledge among the savages of our American wilderness.”
I first learned this history while taking a self-guided tour of the New Hampshire state capitol. As regular readers know, this blog has explored the artwork in various state capitols and critiqued how these buildings of political power continue to display historic art with images of Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery. (The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the 15th Century religious and legal justification used by European monarchs to seize lands of non-Christian peoples, and to convert or enslave them.)
One of four major paintings in the New Hampshire state Senate chambers pays tribute to education by depicting Dartmouth’s first commencement.
The caption reads: “The First Commencement at Dartmouth College: The Reverend Eleazar Wheelock Receives Governor John Wentworth, 1771.”
Center right in the painting, above Wentworth’s shoulder, the viewer sees the naked torso of a Native man. This is a common image of the Doctrine of Discovery: White people saving the naked savages.
So the question is: Why do New Hampshire’s leaders still deem this painting an appropriate image to place before a legislative body and the people of the state? It is not. It belongs in a museum with appropriate historic interpretation.
Let’s now look at New Hampshire history in more detail and see how it illuminates the Doctrine of Discovery.
The Minnesota Historical Society was founded in 1849, the same year Minnesota became a Territory. That’s only 30 years after Fort Snelling opened (known at the time as Fort Saint Anthony) and still nine years before Minnesota became a state.
It seems odd to create a Historical Society before you have that much history to tell. That’s until you realize just how important it is to control the historical narrative and define who are the heroes and who are the villains.
One of the early Historical Society presidents was Henry Sibley, the state’s first governor. (I leaned this fact by reading the new biographical sketch the Historical Society added to Sibley’s State Capitol portrait. The new narrative notes: “Sibley was a prolific chronicler of the state history he helped make.”)
Throughout its own history, the Minnesota Historical Society has been deeply rooted in telling the white colonial story. Even in the 21st Century it has struggled to free itself from that frame.
The Historical Society’s nearsightedness — and that of the state’s political leaders — was on full display during the recent Capitol renovation. There were contentious debates about whether or not to remove controversial historic artwork with images of Manifest Destiny. The Historical Society seemed resistant to change.
At some point, I hope the Historical Society does some self reflection and creates an exhibit that examines its own history, its past leaders like Sibley, and the colonial myths that they have helped perpetuate.
For now, let’s turn to the new historical interpretive plaques the Historical Society has added to the Governors’ portraits that line the Capitol hallways. In Friday’s blog, I criticized the Historical Society for the short and sanitized biography it added to Gov. Alexander Ramsey’s Capitol portrait.
Next let’s read the new biography that accompanies Gov. Sibley’s portrait. I have fewer criticisms of this narrative than I do of Ramsey’s. It offers a more balanced story, however, there still are parts of the narrative that are troubling.
An old African proverb says: “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
And so it is in the Minnesota State Capitol building and the stories it tells about the early settlers and the Dakota, the original people of this place. A historic plaque hangs in the hallway near the Governor’s office extolling Alexander Ramsey, the state’s first Territorial Governor and its second Governor after statehood.
It was placed there in 1929 by a group called “The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.” The plaque tells the colonial story, saying Ramsey was:
RESOLUTE AND VIGOROUS IN ACTION
FAR-VISIONED AND SAGACIOUS IN COUNSEL
HE GAVE THE STRENGTH AND
ENTHUSIASM OF HIS LIFE
THAT THE FOUNDATIONS OF THIS
COMMONWEALTH MIGHT BE
Not surprising for the time, the plaque failed to acknowledge Ramsey’s mercenary side, such his role in forcing through unfair treaties, or his decision to put bounties on Dakota scalps after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.
The Minnesota State Capitol just underwent a major $300-million-plus renovation. It included a vigorous debate over how to tell Minnesota history through art and interpretation. Historically, gubernatorial portraits have lined the Capitol corridors with only the governor’s names and dates of office. The renovation added short biographical narratives for each governor.
The narrative accompanying Ramsey’s portrait is an improvement over the plaque, but still falls well short of freeing itself of the colonial narrative. Instead of telling multiple sides of the story, the narrative is a sad amalgam of dry and irrelevant facts and narrative that lacks context. Its silence on Ramsey’s major flaws speaks volumes about the Historical Society’s inability to tell difficult truths about the state. Continue reading →
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when Italy has a controversial political problem, it turns to its artists.
Hey Minnesota, check this out. Remember when we got all tied in knots over how to address our controversial Capitol art? Oh that we had known about Bolzano, a city of 100,000 in northernmost Italy. An opinion piece in The Guardian tells the story of how Bolzano officials dealt with a controversial World War II-era public building featuring a massive bas-relief of facist leader Benito Mussolini on horseback. “The sculpture bore the slogan ‘Credere, Obbedire, Combattere’ (‘Believe, Obey, Combat”), the story said. (Yep, that’s, creepy.)
In the polarizing frame of “preserve or destroy” the mural, city leaders chose a third way. According to the story:
A public bid was launched, soliciting ideas over how to “defuse and contextualize” the politically charged frieze. Open to artists, architects, historians, and “anyone involved in the cultural sphere”, the bid explicitly stated that the intention was to “transform the bas-relief into a place of memory … so that it will no longer be visible directly, but accessible thoughtfully, within an appropriately explanatory context”.
Almost 500 proposals were submitted and evaluated by a jury composed of local civil society figures, including a history professor, a museum curator, an architect, an artist and a journalist.
The murals in question occupy are in Notre Dame’s Main Building (the building with the golden dome.) As the story notes: “All tours of the campus include a stop there, and its steps are where the marching band gathers before football games.”
But lining the walls of the second floor’s main hallway are 11-foot murals that send the wrong message about Notre Dame, say more than 450 students, faculty, staff and alumni who have signed an open letter to the university president urging their removal.
The 12 Renaissance-style murals, painted from 1882 to 1884 by Vatican portrait artist Luigi Gregori, depict and celebrate Christopher Columbus, who at that time was seen as something of “American saint,” according to a pamphlet produced by University Communications.
The arguments on both sides will be familiar to anyone who followed the debate about the art in the Minnesota State Capitol.
The university says murals “are of historic and artistic value,” and they will stay in place.
The letter writers call the murals the university’s “own version of a Confederate monument.” “The letter says they are contrary to Notre Dame’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, not to mention the church’s teaching on universal human dignity.”