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.

Understanding National Heritage through Object Ownership and Contestation: Print Proposal

In 2020, there are numerous Western museums facing criticism for maintaining collections filled with looted artifacts. Many of these objects formerly belonged to colonies of imperial nations in Africa, Asia, and South America, creating arguments between nation-states about ownership, decolonization, repatriation, and national heritage. Institutions like the Louvre Museum and British Museum face persistent requests for the return of looted objects, but many nations and museums find themselves at an impasse regarding the physical return of popular artifacts like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, or bust of Nefertiti. Not only are these some of the most popular objects within the museums mentioned above—Western museums also posit arguments about their superior ability to care for artifacts and the importance of displaying non-Western art in Western nations.

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Greek protesters beside the looted Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
Source: The Economic Voice

                Often, competing narratives of ownership lead to these controversies; specifically, ideas of national heritage vs. international appreciation for shared history. Futhermore, the maintenance of colonially-formed collections perpetuate Western dominance over and oppression of former colonies. These competing narratives between nations are ripe for study, especially following a surge of calls for repatriation at present.

So, for my print project, I would like assess the different ways that Western nations talk about their museum collections (especially those that are contested) as compared to the nations which claim ownership of certain objects but do not have them within their own borders. In order to do this, I would like to compare foreign language Wikipedia pages for museums that hold contested objects. The major museums that I will focus on are the Louvre and the British Museum, two major aforementioned museums that are the center of controversy regarding repatriation. Specifically, I will look for the way that foreign language pages treat the museums, as compared to the English and French pages themselves, and how they present their collections: as international or national, patriotic, educational, etc.

I will also study pages which specifically consider contested objects held within these Western museums, like the Elgin Marbles, Benin bronzes, and Zodiac Ceiling, all foreign objects that are at the center of repatriation controversies in their home countries (Greece, Benin, and Egypt, respectively). I will be looking for statements which assume ownership, reference contestation, or denote heritage within each object’s foreign and native language pages.

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The Zodiac Ceiling, on display in the Louvre, was looted from a temple in Dendera, Egypt in 1821, and has not been returned, though the temple still stands.
Source: Louvre Museum

                My goal is to illuminate these opposing narratives between nations and the power dynamics that undergird the language used to describe national and international patrimony. I believe that this research is timely and allows for the voices and views of conflicting groups to be heard and perhaps, better understood. Furthermore, this research will emphasize the effect that collecting practices in museums can shape global narratives of decolonization and diplomacy. In the end, who owns history?

Defining Digital History and the Public It Serves

Hey everyone! Today, I wanted to sort of unpack the final four readings for the week. In total, the assigned readings this week give us a sense of the definition and theory behind “digital history,” but the last half of these readings wades into “who” does digital history and “who” consumes it.

In terms of the “whodunit,” there are many answers: anyone can do digital history—but who really needs to? According to “Digital History and Argument,” a White Paper document, there is a discrepancy between “digital historians” and every day academics. Although the two aspects of “doing” history naturally feed into each other, there seems to be a barrier between the two methodologies of digital work and more traditional research methods. Essentially, this white paper shows that digital methods can benefit academics, and vice versa… if only they partner up! As a result, many benefits await: non-linear research, pattern identification, and visualization of history, to name just a few.

An interview with “feminist digital historian” Sharon Leon dug a bit deeper, showing the discrepancies within the field of digital history itself—she emphasized that while there is an improved balance in the number of female digital historians today, there is an ethnic and racial gap that must be overcome by those in the field. Furthermore, she made a point which I’d love to discuss in class or in the comments below: the difference between public history and history in public. Is this differentiation important? Why? What implications does this statement have for those of us that plan to work in the field, and how can it color our own work?

Leon’s point here about taking digital history public leads to the last two readings this week, which really pinpoint the universality or vastness of interaction allowed by digital history. Spiro’s “Getting Started in the Humanities” blog post is a how-to-guide for engaging in this type of work, with helpful links, trainings, tips, and more. Often in academic history, issues of “gatekeeping” come up. Here, it seems like digital history is for everyone! The blog post’s accessibility level really shows the improvement in the realm of interaction and openness that digital history has, compared to traditional academic history.

This brings me to the final—and perhaps most interesting—of the articles. Slate’s article titled “Snapshots of History: Wildly popular accounts like @HistoryInPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you” is exactly what it sounds like… a rebuttal against the accessible, but often inaccurate, use of social media pages for disseminating quick history. Not only that, but the article details the detriment that these easy-peasy forms of historical consumption have on the public’s curiosity. When a fast fact is packaged in front of you, without sources or further reading, its audience is unlikely to desire or chase personal inquiry. I’d like to end on this topic, and ask you all—what effect does the “simplification” of interaction with history for the masses have on public consumption of history? Do we prioritize accessibility for all or accuracy, provenance, and context for all? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

Hi, I’m Sarah (F!)

I’m a first year Public History MA student here, like many of my peers! Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I learned from a young age to love history (specifically, the Gettysburg Address). In 2019, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, where I studied history, theatre arts, and French. While I was there, I worked at the historic house museum of Henry Clay Frick– you’ll quickly learn that I am a house museums girl. 😉 In addition, I completed my undergraduate thesis, titled “‘Our Happy Domestic Home’: Queen Victoria, Separate Spheres, and the British Sovereign’s Popularity in America.” My research focus at AU continues to be Victorian England and Gilded Age America.

#YasQueen

I chose to start the program at AU because of its amazing proximity to Washington, D.C. and the world-class museums and historic sites in the area. Last summer, I interned at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the Education Department, where I was introduced to many cool, digital techniques for learning history that can be used in the classroom!

Now, I work at White House Historical Association as a History Fellow, and my job is to coordinate social media posts, as well as conduct research for their Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood Initiative (launching next month!) I hope that this course in digital history methods will improve my work performance and strengthen my understanding of the theory behind the practice!