The Hector Pieterson Museum & Memorial

On June 16, 1976, some 20,000 students in Soweto (a township southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa) gathered to march in peaceful protest against the implementation of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. The decree represented a significant attack from the apartheid regime on the already struggling education system available to students labeled “non-white.” Unlike white students, who received a free and mandatory education, parents of children classified as “non-white” had to pay tuition and for books send their children to non-compulsory schools where they were taught by teachers who were paid a pittance in appallingly poor conditions. The majority of students did not speak Afrikaans, nor did many of the teachers, so the transition to this new language would make it virtually impossible for many students to learn.

to hell with afrikaans
Reproduction of a sign from the June 16, 1976 protest. (via http://www.gutenberg-e.org/pohlandt-mccormick/archive/detail/DSCN2081.jpg.html)

The students planned to march from the Orlando West suburb of Soweto to Shap Stadium for a rally, but they encountered police led by Colonel Kleingeld. Kleingeld fired the first shot, and violence erupted as students fled or threw rocks at police, who in turn loosed dogs and fired tear gas canister and bullets at the students. A young man, Hector Pieterson, was shot, and photographer Sam Nzima snapped what would become the iconic image of the uprising, in which Hector’s body is carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo as his sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs alongside.** The violence led to more than 150 deaths, and in the following days students across the city and notably from the University of Witswatersrand joined in the protest. The decree was eventually repealed in 1979, but the student uprising is credited with reinvigorating the anti-apartheid campaign by organizing youth against the regime. If you want to know more, Helena Pohldant-McCormick has an amazing digital book project on the student uprising that is well worth checking out.

Hector Pieterson Museum (author's image)
Hector Pieterson Museum (author’s image)

I went to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial twice during my visit to Johannesburg, both times as part of township tours of Soweto. I had no idea what to expect because the museum does not have a website or much of an online presence, at least not that I’ve been able to find beyond a few short blurbs on wikipedia and travel websites. I was impressed with the museum, which interprets the events of 1976 and contextualizes against both what happened before and after, and most impressively, includes discussion of lasting impact of the events and their interpretation and commemoration.

Memorial to fallen students in the courtyard at the Hector Pieterson Museum.
Memorial to fallen students in the courtyard at the Hector Pieterson Museum. (author’s image)

The museum constructs its narrative using extensive oral history testimony from many sides of the conflict; students, parents, and police. One of the things that stood out most to me was that there was a real effort to convey what happened in all its confusion and nuance. Contrasting interpretations are offered, as is testimony that complicated ideas about innocence in guilt. In particular, I was struck by the inclusion of the story of a young man who took part in the looting of a shop, probably because of how such reports in the US have been used to discredit the acts of rioters in Ferguson. The museum presents the participants as human beings with agency, and there is no effort to cast them as passive victims in order to make it clear that the violence committed against them was criminal.

For me, this was the most important aspect of the museum. In the US, we have a tendency to want to paint our conflicts in the most black and white terms possible; we like our heroes to be paragons of virtue and our villains to be flawed and malevolent. The problem is that history is made up of the acts of human beings who are inherently flawed and rarely all good or all evil. When we perpetuate these ideas in our presentations of history, we encourage the spread of these ideas in our larger culture. It perpetuates the idea that the only real victim is one who is totally innocent, not just in the context of the crime committed against him or her, but of anything ever. It’s why Trayvon Martin was labeled a thug. It’s why the Ferguson Police felt the need to inform the public that Michael Brown was suspected in the theft of a box of cigars on the day he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. It’s the reason people wonder what rape victims were wearing.

Our cultural institutions are often reflections of the values we hold as a society. While they cannot single-handedly reform attitudes, they are uniquely placed to encourage dialogue about the past and the issues of race, class, gender, and justice that we still deal with today. When we visit these types of sites, we bring with us values and ideas that can be upheld or challenged by what we see. These sites should be places where we are encouraged to embrace complicated ideas and stories, and then carry that willingness to be uncomfortable and uncertain into the rest of our lives.

*South Africa had a number of racial classifications under apartheid, each of which conveyed a different level of privilege (all subordinate to white, of course). I place “non-white” in quotations because it is the language of the regime; I only use it here to refer to the laws of that period, as I recognize that it is no longer acceptable, and to convey the arbitrary nature of racial classification under apartheid.

**This photograph is widely available online, but I have chosen not to show it here because I do not have the permission of Sam Nzima. The image has a long history of incorrect attribution and appropriation of which I do not want to be a part. You can easily find it by clicking the link above or simply typing “Hector Pieterson” into the search engine of your choice.

Same Song, Different Verse

If you’ve been keeping up with the bankruptcy situation in Detroit, you’re probably aware that the situation is pretty dire. The city is home to thousands of abandoned buildings, ranging from grand industrial and commercial buildings to private homes. The sprawling metropolis’ population has steadily declined since the mid-20th century, but it was laid particularly low by the Great Recession. In 2013, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, arguing that its debts far exceeded anything the city could afford to pay. After a series of court cases, the bankruptcy was allowed. Since the decision at the end of 2013, the city has been in negotiation with its creditors over the terms of its bankruptcy, to be decided by a federal judge this year.

William Livingstone House in Detroit, as photographed by Yves Marchand & Roland Meffre: http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/
William Livingstone House in Detroit, as photographed by Yves Marchand & Roland Meffre: http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/

One of the key pieces in the debate is the fate of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA is home to an extraordinary collection, ranked as one of the top six in the United States. It holds the a Van Gogh self-portrait, the first Van Gogh painting to become part of an American museum’s collections, along with extensive collections of art from around the world. The DIA offers free admission to local residents (those who live in Detroit and three surrounding counties), something that is sadly increasingly rare.

The LA Times does a much better job unpacking the legal and political aspects of bankruptcy case than I am equipped to do, but the crux of the situation is that the city has been working on a “grand bargain” which involves the state, several private foundations, and the museum raising some $820 million to fund the municipal pensions that are on the chopping block. In exchange, the city will give the collection and the building to the affiliated nonprofit that runs the museum. This bargain allows the art collection to remain local and available while rescuing the pensions and benefits of city workers.

Detroit’s creditors, however, are less than pleased. Financial Guaranty Insurance Company has insisted that the collection is worth far more than $800 million, and want the entire collection to go on the auction block to repay Detroit’s debt. The infamous Koch brothers have weighed in, with their PAC Americans for Prosperity threatening to “make life difficult” in the next election for any Republicans who vote for the grand bargain, despite its popularity with Michigan residents on both sides of the political aisle.

Edgar Degas' The Violinist and the Young Woman, part of the DIA's permanent collection. Via wikimedia commons.
Edgar Degas’ The Violinist and the Young Woman, part of the DIA’s permanent collection. Via wikimedia commons.

It’s hard to see this story and not be reminded of all of the art and museum collections currently and previously under threat. The Maier Museum situation of course comes to mind, along with the Fisk University’s sale of its Georgia O’Keeffe collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum (founded by a Wal-Mart heiress). It’s also hard not to be frustrated by this trend of putting price tags on cultural heritage.

For me, access to cultural heritage is a key part of the democratic experience. There was a time when people believed that fine art was the exclusive purview of the wealthy and aristocratic, and that ordinary people could not appreciate such things. Museums like the DIA are the opposite of this notion. Those collections belong in a very real sense to every visitor who walks through its doors to visit them. For locals especially, the chance to see a collection like that of the DIA in their hometown is a chance to visit far away places practically for free. As globalization has contributed to a sense of same-ness, museums offer a place to experience the truly unique in person.

Detroit has suffered in the last ten years or so. The population has declined, and the built environment has suffered tremendously. To further gut the city’s cultural heritage by auctioning off its signature art collection would be a devastating blow, and to what end? So that wealthy creditors won’t have a bad quarter? To appease a pair of billionaires? Detroit has taken extraordinary measures to rebuild itself, with local businesses and government going to great lengths to encourage people to return to the city and revitalize it. In a way, it would be poetic if a city built on capitalist enterprise was destroyed by it, but there would be no beauty in that poetry, only a landscape whose abandoned buildings reflect the barrenness of its soul, and the first bleak signpost on a road many cities may shortly follow.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“It’s Complicated”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about interpreting uncomfortable history. It’s something I’m engaging with in my dissertation, and it’s something that seems to be popping up a lot.

FBI poster of missing civil rights workers
FBI poster of missing civil rights workers

On Wednesday night, I made the trek up to Nashville to see a documentary, Freedom Summer, being shown as part of the Nashville Film Festival. As you might have guessed from the title, the film focuses on the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project of 1964, during which hundreds of college students from around the country poured into Mississippi under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to assist and encourage black Mississippians in attempting to register to vote. The registration effort led to the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative integrated delegation of Mississippians who unsuccessfully attempted to replace the all-white official delegation. Freedom Summer gained national attention when three civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) disappeared while investigating a church burning in Neshoba County. Their bodies were later found buried 12 feet beneath an earthen dam. The story was dramatized for the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.*

Thursday night, I went up to Nashville again for a curator-led tour and roundtable discussion of the Tennessee State Museum’s new exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation.** The exhibit, which was two years in the making, is a close study of life and relationships on a 13,000-acre Robertson County tobacco plantation. It’s a great (and free) exhibit, and if you find yourself in Nashville before August 31, you should make a point of visiting. The event was organized by the Inter-museum Council of Nashville, so attendees included museum professionals, historians, and people in related fields, and we had a great conversation about the evolution of the exhibit and some of the challenges of interpreting the painful past. The Wessyngton Plantation story is unique in that nearly all of the plantation’s records from the antebellum period survive, including farm records that detail the involvement of the plantation mistress in both industry and punishment of slaves. The exhibit also features a math workbook that belonged to one of the Washington men, which includes word problems that talk about dividing workloads among overseers and slaves, showing how the institution of slavery shaped every aspect of the antebellum plantation world.

The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via tnmuseum.org)
The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via tnmuseum.org)

At the same time that these conversations were taking place, a friend sent me a link to this great video describing what’s going on in the Central African Republic. I love the vlogbrothers, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should remedy that maybe right now. Anyway, aside from the content, what really grabbed me about the video was the point John makes about how as Americans, we’re very attached to good vs. evil in our narratives, and that this is something that we both deliberately and subconsciously project onto our history. I also came across a good piece on History@Work (NCPH’s blog) about finding a balance between the need to tell a story that won’t put visitors off without backing away from hard truths.

The thread that pulled these various moments/experiences together for me was that tension between the need to be good historians who confront the truth in all its ugliness and good storytellers who can engage and entertain visitors. Sometimes we do this well, and other times we do it less well. For me, the success of the Wessyngton Plantation exhibit in presenting the lives of the enslaved people is that alongside accounts of punishments and a display case with neck shackles is the story of individuals who created their own lives and families within bondage. The exhibit does not fetishize the violence and brutality of slavery, nor does it try to paint a picture of happy slaves under a “good” master. It simply describes what was and leaves it to the visitor to make what he or she will of it.

I had more mixed feelings about Freedom Summer. While it was an excellent documentary, I found myself a little frustrated by the ending, which on the one hand connected rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the rise of black separatism (yes!), but then on the other hand tied it to the success of the Voting Rights Act. Now, I agree that the Freedom Summer Project had an important impact on that legislation, but the connection with the material presented in the film felt like an afterthought–a need to tie a bow and put a “happily ever after” on a story that frankly didn’t need one. So much of the film focused on how the experience of Freedom Summer changed the way both the civil rights workers and the black Mississippians thought about themselves that tacking that connection on at the end felt awkward in an otherwise beautifully made film. The film would have been stronger overall if the creators had simply let the work speak for itself and left viewers to decide for themselves whether the ending was happy or not.

Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.
Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.

I think that sometimes as public historians we can fall victim to that desire to create a neat, tidy narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and in particular, we want to end on an optimistic note. There’s nothing wrong with at impulse, and a huge part of our job is presenting content in accessible ways that encourage people to think critically. While I don’t have any great magic trick for solving that problem, I think it’s worth looking at pop culture for ideas. I think we’re at a really good moment in pop culture for engaging with complicated stories that go beyond the epic good vs. evil grand narrative of say, Lord of the Rings.*** There are popular shows with much more complicated stories that engage in much more complex narratives, shows like Mad Men where the characters do terrible things to each other and themselves and yet we still care about them, or Game of Thrones where good guys die, bad guys live, and it’s hard to find a hero(ine). While I’m not suggesting we pattern the history we present after these programs (both of those shows have serious issues with representations of people of color, for one thing, and we have enough trouble with that already), they point to a willingness of the public, or at least parts of it, to be entertained by and engaged with complicated stories and multidimensional characters. If people can (and do) follow along and be fascinated by complex characters like Don Draper and Varys, surely they can do the same for figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

The way we think about and understand the past has a tremendous impact on how we think about and understand the present. Is emancipation a happy ending for enslaved people? Does the civil rights movement have a happy ending? Does it have an ending at all?

 

*Mississippi Burning is a problematic film in a lot of ways, not least of which is the passivity that characterizes all of its African American characters and the heroic role it assigns the FBI.

**Much of the research for this exhibit is based on the work of John F. Baker, Jr., who has published a book on the topic. Full disclosure: I have purchased the book, but not yet read it.

***I love LOTR, please don’t send me hate mail.

Men of the Docks, Revisited: Part II

So, in my last post I discussed the context for the sale of George Bellows’ Men of the Docks and three other paintings from the Maier Museum at Randolph College. In this post, I want to talk about Men of the Docks in particular and the response to the sale.

Men of the Docks by George Bellows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Men of the Docks by George Bellows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Part of why there has been such an uproar over the Bellows painting in particular is its place in the Maier collection. Men of the Docks was a key piece of the collection. The painting was selected by Louise Jordan Smith, R-MWC’s first art professor who later left her valuable art collection to the college. She and a German professor established “The Randolph-Macon Art Association of Lynchburg,” a coalition of students, faculty, alumnae, and local townspeople who raised the $2,500 to purchase the painting from Bellows in 1920. It was the first masterpiece in the collection. Men of the Docks was not simply another valuable piece in a large collection; it was one of the first, and it had special meaning attached to it due to the circumstances of its acquisition.

Deaccessioning is the process of transferring ownership of a museum piece to another institution or individual through sale or exchange. The deaccessioning of collections is a tricky topic, and several museum organizations who offer guidelines on the topic, including the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. In general, pieces are considered for eligible deaccessioning if they do not contribute to collection; for example, if a museum specializes in 20th century abstract expressionism, and had a few pieces of American folk art, they might consider deaccessioning the folk art in order to acquire more abstract expressionist work. This is the other side of deaccessioning; any proceeds from the sale of collections should only be used to expand the collection, rather then put toward building maintenance or the general endowment.

Edward Hicks' A Peaceable Kingdom (image via cultureGRRL blog)
Edward Hicks’ A Peaceable Kingdom, one of the two paintings still on the auction block. (image via cultureGRRL blog)

Museums are stewards of heritage and art with tremendous cultural significance and often great monetary value. In order to protect their role as stewards, museums cannot treat their collections as financial assets to be cashed in on a rainy day. Donors who give their art or collections to museums usually do so in order to ensure that the pieces will be cared for and appreciated by future generations, otherwise they would simply sell the items themselves and keep or donate the profits. The concept of a museum piece is is that it has a cultural value that far exceeds whatever price could be put on it. I’ve talked about this idea in earlier posts, so I won’t dwell on it here.

This is why the sale of Men of the Docks and the other three paintings has raised so much attention. Men of the Docks is a foundational piece in the college’s museum collection. According to the Maier’s own website, the collection features “works by outstanding American artists of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries”; a description that the Bellows painting clearly exemplifies. Beyond the fact that the painting should not have even been considered for deaccessioning, the proceeds from the sale are being used to bolster Randolph College’s general fund, not further the museum collections. The money from the sale of Rufino Tamayo’s Trovador went into the general fund. When questioned, current president Bradley Bateman indicated that the Trustees intend to go forward with the sale of both Edward Hicks’ A Peaceable Kingdom and Ernest Hennings’ Through the Arroyo. There is no reason to believe these sale proceeds will go anywhere but the general fund.

Maier Museum of Art
Maier Museum of Art (image via cultureGRRL blog)

Essentially, what’s happened is that the Trustees of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College mismanaged the college’s finances so badly that the only recourse was to open the college to men and sell off a portion of the art collection, the proceeds from which will go back to a fund managed by the people responsible for the crisis in the first place.

Randolph College’s response to the objections raised by those in the museum field has been somewhat disheartening. In addition to continuing on with the plan to sell the two remaining pieces, the college has gone so far as to claim that the Maier is not actually a museum.This should make for interesting discussions this fall in Randolph College’s Art History 261: Introduction to Museum Studies and Art History 315: Curatorial Seminar at the Maier Museum of Art.* Perhaps these courses would better be titled “Introduction to Asset Management” and “Commodities Seminar”?

It’s easy to see, then, why this action has drawn so much criticism from the museum field. While Randolph College had already been censured for its actions by the Association of Art Museum Directors, on March 12, 2014 the organization officially sanctioned Randolph College for its actions. (For commentary, see: this, this, and this.)

So then, what can be done? In the case of Trovador and Men of the Docks, nothing. There has been surprisingly little backlash against the National Gallery in London as the majority of articles focus on Randolph College’s poor practices. Randolph College has tried to focus on the fact that the Bellows’ painting will still be on public view, and alleges that this the start of a partnership the National Gallery. The college also claims that no other artwork will be sold; the college still owns a Georgia O’Keeffe (Yellow Cactus), an Edward Hopper (Mrs. Scott’s House), and a drawing by Mary Cassatt, so the remaining paintings are not insignificant (though quite valuable, which might put them in jeopardy). The problem here is that the college has already tried once to break the trust through which Louise Jordan Smith left her personal collection to the college.** Although the effort was abandoned, it is hardly reassuring to those interested in protecting the remaining collections or considering future donations.

The path in front of Main Hall at R-MWC. (author's image)
The path in front of Main Hall at R-MWC. (author’s image)

For many alumnae (though of course not all), the decision to admit men and sell the art has been a one-two punch, insult on top of injury. The Trustees have adopted a party line that brooks no opposition. More disturbing still, to me and the unscientific smattering of alumnae I’ve spoken to, is the way the Trustees and the college have dismissed the alumnae who feel betrayed by all of these actions as “bitter.” If it is true that some alumnae contacted SACS and put the college’s accreditation into question, that is not an action I agree with. At the same time, the Trustees have hardly shown themselves to have the best interest of the legacy of R-MWC at heart, nor have they made any effort to mend fences with the alumnae. During the year or so following the decision to admit men, I sent the college letters and emails asking them to reconsider or explain the situation. I never received a reply, though I did continue to receive requests for donations.

In the days following the announcement of the decision to go co-ed, many of my classmates and fellow alumnae were asked whether we would prefer that the college no longer exist. The question seems moot now. Randolph-Macon Woman’s College has become a footnote in the history of Randolph College. The sale of the art, especially Men of the Docks, has only underscored how fragile the legacy of my alma mater truly is, and by extension, how important and fragile all cultural heritage is.

The story of the “Maier Four” and Randolph College is not unique. In 2009, Brandeis University came very close to closing its Rose Art Museum or at least selling off part of its collections. Fisk University broke up a collection given by Georgia O’Keeffe and sold work to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. It’s too late for Men of the Docks and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, but it is not too late to take a serious look at how we value our cultural heritage and the institutions that safeguard it for the future.

*Course names based on Randolph College Catalog for 2013-2014.

**Incidentally, before deciding to sell the four paintings, the college first attempted to break the trust through which Miss Louise (as she was known) donated her collection. This is further elucidated in Meredith Minter Dixon’s And When I Go (pages 62-63).