What do Public History perspectives have to offer contemporary art museums? What do contemporary art museums have to offer public historians? Recently, Professor Marla Miller sat down with Kelli Morgan and Kiara Hill, both PhD students in the UMass Amherst W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who are pursuing the Graduate Certificate in Public History while also preparing for careers, to talk about those and other questions.
First — Kelli, you’re back on campus to talk about Kara Walker, as part of the University Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power.” As the Winston & Carolyn Lowe Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Fine Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, can you share a little bit about you see Walker’s work at the intersection of history and art?
KM: Absolutely, I feel like Walker’s work is a dramatic illustration of that intersection, both materially and thematically. Her use and play with shadow through silhouettes – a historical form of portraiture – puppetry, and sculpture, visualizes the antebellum era in ways that trigger us…that force us to see just how much we carry the history of slavery and all its sordid events around with us in our contemporary moment.
In your coursework, you contributed to several “field service” projects in partnerships with area museums…how do your experiences with public history practice inform your work now, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts?
KM: Tremendously. I say all the time that one can’t responsibly engage with historical or contemporary African American art without having a sound command of the history of Black people in this country. For instance, while working on the permanent exhibition for the Samuel Harrison House in Pittsfield, MA, I learned how to read objects within the contexts from and for which they were made. You can read history books that will inform you of Harrison’s diligence as a chaplain and an abolitionist, but it was his meager shoe workshop that illuminated why he was so dedicated to his community and the greater cause of abolition. He didn’t make enough money to support his family on his activism alone, so both he and his wife had to supplement their income – he as a cobbler and she a seamstress – because even in “liberal” New England, a hotbed of abolition, racism prevented them from receiving equal wages.
Thus, my curatorial philosophy is firmly rooted in history first. My visual analyses typically begin with the object’s broader cultural and sometimes political context, then I move into its aesthetic and formal value. For example, now on view at PAFA is our WWI exhibition, which includes several pro-war posters commissioned by W.E.B. Du Bois in efforts to encourage Black men to enlist. I often lead tours that offer visitors a brief but detailed overview of the racial mythologies surrounding the Black male body during the first two decades of the 20th century, and how these mythologies were visually perpetuated through minstrelsy. This way, viewers come to understand that these posters functioned not simply as war propaganda, but as visual evidence of Black middle class families and Black men’s bravery and intelligence, as a means to show white American audiences that Black men and women were everything but stereotypical minstrel caricatures.