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.
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 →
The long and contentious debate over art in the Minnesota State Capitol resulted in some victories. Offensive paintings have been relocated within the Capitol or removed altogether. In addition, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) has started a new tour that focuses on interpreting Capitol art in a new way, including the controversial pieces that remain.
The tour is called Making Meaning of State Capitol Art, and will be held Tuesday, Sept. 12 and Friday, Sept. 29 at the Minnesota State Capitol. Both tours run noon to 1 p.m. According to the announcement, you can: “Explore the varied meanings behind some of the art at the Minnesota State Capitol in a small group dialogue with Joe Horse Capture, director of American Indian Initiatives at MNHS. This is an opportunity to listen to different opinions and share your own story.”
As a reminder, two controversial paintings that hung in the Governor’s Reception Room — one showing Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls at St. Anthony and the other of the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, have been moved to a third floor space known as the Cass Gilbert Library. Two other paintings have been removed altogether: The Attack on New Ulm and the Battle of Ta Ha Kouty.
A particularly offensive mural remains in the Minnesota Senate Chambers. Called “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” it is a tour de force of Manifest Destiny and flies in the face of our deeply held beliefs in freedom of religion. It remains a complete mystery why our state leaders allowed this painting to remain after the recent renovation. The message it sends is as troubling as the Confederate memorials now being removed in southern states.
Under an omnibus bill Dayton is expected to sign today, the State Historic Preservation Office would be moved from the Minnesota Historical Society to the Minnesota Department of Administration.
Dayton proposed this move just a few months after the historical society and he disagreed over renovations to the Governor’s Conference Room, the story said.
The Governor’s Conference Room had six major paintings, including four Civil War scenes. The other two paintings concerned early events between Native Americans and explorers and settlers. One shows Father Hennepin “discovering” St. Anthony Falls; the other depicts the signing of the Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux, a coerced deal in which the Dakota ceded most of their lands. Native Americans and their allies wanted these two pieces removed.
I sat through many hearings of the Art Subcommittee that debated art decisions for the newly renovated Capitol.The result of the lengthy process was that not much changed. The Father Hennepin and Treaty paintings will get moved out of the Governor’s Conference Room and the Civil War painting stay.
The Historical Society participated in this process. It’s my opinion that for the most part, staff had a deaf ear to proposals for major changes, particularly addressing issues of art that had offensive depictions of Native Americans. Further, the Art Subcommittee’s public participation process was deeply flawed. The only outside interests allowed to testify before the Subcommittee were people who supported keeping the Civil War art in the Governor’s Reception Room. It felt like the deck was stacked. Healing Minnesota Stories request to testify was denied. (We wanted to speak about offensive art in other parts of the Capitol, art that is still in place.)
The downside of moving the State Historic Preservation Office to the Department of Administration that it could make historic preservation issues more political, as the governor (from whatever party) will oversee the department.
Dayton’s staff said the disagreement over art did not play a role in the decision to transfer historic preservation powers. Jessica Kohen, historical society spokeswoman, expressed disappointment over the move in the StarTribune story. She said the historical society didn’t get a clear answer about problems with its preservation work.
Pine Ridge’s poverty and unemployment rates are very high and life expectancy there is the shortest in the country, according to a recent study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the story said.
The future at Pine Ridge could soon grow bleaker. The budget that President Donald Trump unveiled on Tuesday makes deep cuts to a slew of areas that life at the reservation depends on. The spending reductions touch every part of life from access to clean drinking water to block grants that fund programs to feed the elderly to much-needed after-school programs. In one of the nation’s most deeply impoverished communities, residents and tribal leaders say the cuts could be devastating.
Thanks to Saint Paul Public School’s (SPPS), initial conversations are happening with the Minnesota Historical Society to get student art in the Capitol, according to Sherry Kempf, who works in the district’s Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). The MRC staff has been a wonderful partner in promoting the Healing Minnesota Stories Capitol Art project, which teaches students about the historic art in the Minnesota Capitol and challenges them to create their own contemporary Capitol art.
Several SPPS schools have participated in the project. The MRC now displays some 70+ pieces of student art, and more classrooms are in process. (Check out the MRC’s gallery, located in the Washington Technology Magnet School.)
Here is a short video the district created about the project, with footage from an art opening.
Screening of the documentary: Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code. Come see the film and join the post-film discussion. The film is being hosted by the United Methodist Church, and Bruce Ough, the UMC Bishop for Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota will attend. (March 16)
Mde Maka Ska Community Conversation: Following the Sacred Current of Water (March 22)
Minnesota Historical Society to hold public meeting on renaming and reinterpreting the Jeffers Petroglyphs. (March 25)
Walker Film Series INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present. (Runs through March 25.)
Screening of Dakota Creation Stories film. (March 26)
The “Jeffers Petroglyphs” are a collection of ancient carvings made by Native American ancestors more than 7,000 years ago in what is now southwestern Minnesota. As old as they are, they bear the name “Jeffers” because of a recent immigrant family that once owned the land.
The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) is working on giving this site a more appropriate name and interpretation. This is part of a growing interest in recognizing the original inhabitants of this land, their contributions, and their original place names, such as restoring the Dakota name Bde Maka Ska to Lake Calhoun. Continue reading →
The Minnesota State Capitol reopened for business on Tuesday after being closed for a $300 million renovation. The restoration is ongoing, but the legislature convened and the show must go on.
The Minnesota Historical Society promotion says: “Come visit your shiny new Minnesota State Capitol—refurbished, renovated and restored from top to bottom. Ooh and aah over its gleaming marble, magnificent murals, vibrant paintings and more, all restored to their original 1905 perfection.” Minnesota Public Radio ran a story on the new look Capitol with the headline: The awe is back.
It’s not that simple. There is both new beauty as well as retained historical ugliness. The MPR story included this telling line: “… planners didn’t want to tinker too much with history.”
That’s a shame. There is some history that we should not continue to glorify, such as the denigration and the genocide of Native Americans. Just because the renovation is over, the criticism isn’t. We should not delight in being frozen in 1905. Significantly, some artwork fails to reflect our values, an unacceptable situation in our the state’s most important public building.