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.
Kiara, you’re at an earlier stage in your work, having just completed your foundation course, Introduction to Public History, and starting your internship work, also at the UMass Museum of Contemporary Art. Tell us a little bit about what you are doing. Are there ways you see the principles and practices of public history already informing your work there?
KH: It’s funny that you ask this. Prior to enrolling in the Introduction to Public History course I was quite apprehensive about its relevance to my academic aspirations. Then again…I was also pretty new to History as a field in general. I can recall being intimidated during our first meeting because I was the only without any experience at a historic site or museum. By the end of the class I was left wondering why I hadn’t looked into Public History sooner. Interestingly enough, it was also around that time that I began my fellowship at the UMCA. Once again, I was the odd man out as I am the only fellow in my cohort without a background in Art History…but I quickly realized that situating Art within a larger historical narrative was just as important as understanding the stylistic context of the artistry. It’s like they go hand in hand. We work collaboratively to create memorable experiences for museum goers–an experience that is intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally satiating.
As of now I seek to create that experience as the Assistant Education Curator for the Kara Walker exhibit. In addition to creating events, I’m also learning how to give tours, and create educational literature that helps elucidate themes raised in the collection with historical context. Part of what we do as Public Historians is make historical events accessible to the public. By accessible I mean succinct and lucid…which can be extremely difficult depending on the subject matter. Especially if you’re passionate about it. One of the biggest takeaways I got from the course is that our job should be to provide a more nuanced, inclusive representation of history. This exhibit encourages that ideology, so it’s been an amazing experience thus far.
Each of you also bring to your work scholarly interests in African American women’s history. Do you think that public history and contemporary art presents unique opportunities or challenges to engaging audiences around those topics?
KH: Mmmmmmm…yes and no. The down side to working on exhibits that are so closely aligned with your scholarly interests is that you forget that not everyone shares your fervor for the subject matter. Like I’ve overheard a number of conversations amongst visitors where I walk away thinking…How did they come up with that? Or when you can see them actively resisting the visceral reactions they have to the themes raised in the work. The worst is probably when you can hear visitors compartmentalizing the themes from the artistry itself. On the contrary, when visitors get it..they GET IT! It comes out in the questions they raise, in their attachment to the works, and some are even willing to interrogate their own biases externally. From that perspective, contemporary art is a great vehicle for visitors to grapple with polemical historical content…especially if they feel implicated in any way. Plus there’s typically so much to unpack that visitors who are willing to engage make contemporary connections…and that’s always great because it means they are thinking. If I can help cultivate an interest in African American History in general, but especially Black women’s history…I’m winning!
KM: I totally agree! I have yet to figure out why Black women’s stories make so many different people uncomfortable. And many Black contemporary artists, especially Walker, are really taking audiences to task about that discomfort and it’s soooo fulfilling to see it unfold in the galleries. I’m specifically referencing the “ah hah” moment visitors have when, like Kiara said, they “get it.”
In that way, I think contemporary art is doing what it always has: it’s giving Black women a subsequent visual means to communicate their experiences, just as neo-classicism did for Edmonia Lewis in the nineteenth century and modernist sculpture did for Elizabeth Catlett through the twentieth. I think Black women have historically been at the forefront of contemporary art practices and by being trained in both public history and art history I’m able to articulate that fact through curatorial projects that many people wouldn’t think were possible, because unfortunately, most Black women artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are still pretty much unknown to museum audiences.