Unveiling Slave Ownership in the National Gallery of Art

Though America is only starting to come to terms with explicit examples of slavery’s impact on the country—the interpretation of plantations, for example—I believe that it is crucial to unpack the minute way that slavery shaped the culture of our country, often in less visible ways. Inspired by the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project at University College London, I would like to create a digital exhibit which reveals the way that slave money in America has molded our country’s cultural heritage. Specifically, I would like to document the numerous art works and artifacts in our country’s museums which were purchased/commissioned with or influenced by money from slave trading or plantation income. In addition, I plan to illuminate portraiture and other forms of art that display Americans who kept others in bondage, hung in museum galleries without mention of the business that allowed them to accumulate their wealth.

Originally, I had hoped to do a broad study of multiple museums across America, either documenting specific art works or creating a map with pins representing sites which house these types of artifacts or art works. Now, I think that this might be too ambitious. Instead, I propose an Omeka-based online exhibit which specifically compiles and documents the impact of slavery in the artworks held within Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art.

I consider the NGA to be the premier site to assess these legacies in America, as a government-run entity meant to represent the country, as well as home to some of the most iconic art in the country.

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The NGA
Source: Washington Post

To give one example: within the galleries, there are numerous works by Charles Willson Peale, famous portraitist of Revolutionary heroes like George Washington. However, the fact that he enslaved a man named Moses Williams goes unmentioned in any didactic text about the artist. In fact, Moses worked for Peale and later became an artist in his own right.

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You may also know Peale as the creator of America’s first museum.
Source: PA Academy of Fine Arts

Using Omeka, I will compile works (available online through the NGA’s own database) and tell these hidden histories. I hope that this project can illuminate the insidious effect of slave ownership on the culture consumed by Americans through the present day, and the way that museums have (unintentionally or intentionally) hidden less-desirable provenance or backstory to acclaimed works within their collections. By starting with the National Gallery of Art, I hope that this can expand to other museums across America and unearth previously untold stories of the enslaved and their oft-ignored experiences.

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