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.