'Seeing' series: How do Vt. museums navigate problematic legacies?
How do institutions navigate their legacies? What is their responsibility to their communities and potential viewers?
This is part two of an exploration on the individual and institutional aspects of creative legacy. Find part one here.
VPR’s Shanta Lee Gander sat down with leaders from three Vermont museums:
- Martin Mahoney, executive director of the Bennington Museum
- Janie Cohen, director of the Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington
- Eva Garcelon-Hart, research center archivist for the Henry Sheldon Museum in downtown Middlebury
A transcript of part of the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, is below. You can also watch the full Zoom interview. A note for viewers/readers: Some may find the images shared in the Zoom interview and in the post below disturbing, given that they are illustrating racial stereotypes within the context of a history that we are all still grappling with in Vermont and across the country.
Shanta Lee Gander: Eva, what you all have been doing has culminated in a series called "Elephant in the Room," exploring and looking at what's in the collection, but also reflecting out to others to think about what's in the archives, and in the collection.
Can you tell us a little bit about how that started, and did that series start as a result of turning the light on yourselves and looking at what you all had from the history of your collection and archives?
Eva Garcelon-Hart, Henry Sheldon Museum: In many ways, yes. We are really tiny. At the moment, we have just three professional staff, some of us part-time. So really small, and the collection is quite overwhelming to handle and to deliver to the public, the richness of these collections.
And the idea began last year, we celebrated the bicentennial, Henry Sheldon’s birth from 1821 to 2021, and we were planning to show an overview of his collection. At first, we thought about inviting local people, local experts, commenting and giving talks about the collection. We did it. But we decided to go larger, because obviously museums across the country and globally are going through this huge transformation. We realized that we are dealing with similar questions, despite our sizes, location, as big museums. We decided to invite scholars across the country who would talk about subjects many of us are looking for answers to.
Every month since October, we have a talk about subjects from collecting habits of 19th century collecting ethics, through to early photography that was used as a tool of on one hand, giving opportunity people to pose for photographs, people often of no means, including people of color, but also as a tool of promoting racist stereotypes.
Shanta Lee Gander: Speaking of elephants in the room, I'll toss this either to Janie or Martin, can you talk about your collections? What's in it? Why and what are some of the questions you're facing yourself, and the ways that Eva has mentioned in terms of exploration?
Janie Cohen, Fleming Museum of Art: Eva, I love how you framed that, because I think all museums, large and small, are dealing with these issues. We are a collection of 25,000+ objects. It's not so much the kind of outwardly racist stereotype material that we're dealing with, but how the collections came together and the ongoing legacies of them.
I'll give you a couple examples. The first director of the Fleming Museum was Henry Perkins, who was the founder of the Eugenics Survey of Vermont. So for those of you familiar with eugenics, 19th and early 20th century efforts in the U.K. and America as they put it, "purify the gene pool." You really couldn't find a more racist lens through which to collect within.
What we are dealing with now, just to give you a sense of the range of issues, that piece you're looking at is an example of paintings that came that were purchased in the immediate post-war era in Europe. And so there is a process that is going on among museums with paintings from this era and sculpture from this era, whereby Nazi-era provenance research is being done to confirm whether any of these pieces were stolen from Jewish families in the war and post-war period. So we're involved in that.
The piece ... this Benin Bronze Head of an ancestor of a Queen Mother, was part of a group, of an enormous group of artifacts, that were stolen by British forces in the kingdom of Benin in 1897 during the, what's called the "punitive expedition," in which the British overtook the city of Benin, and killed residents, and overtook the palace, and stole most of the Bronzes.
This would have been on an ancestral podium. There's a hole in the back that you can't see, where an elephant tusk that had details of the history of the kingdom would have been inserted into it. These [Benin Bronzes] are owned by museums all over the western world at this point, and there is an enormous effort beginning now to document where they are and then ultimately to return them.
We are involved in that at this point, and it — the first step of that is deaccession from the collection. The second step is repatriating into the country, either to the new museum that is being built in Nigeria or to the royal family. There's a lot that's not clear about this yet, but it is early on in process.
The last thing I want to say is that even though we are larger than Sheldon, in order to do this work, which is becoming more central to a greater part of museum work, you really need dedicated positions for this, which we do not yet have.
Martin Mahoney, Bennington Museum: We should start with the object that's in front of the museum, which is The Lincoln Trilogy.
People that live in Bennington are very used to the sculpture, and they see it as part of their cultural fabric that's interwoven within the museum, but many visitors were commenting on this piece, because to our 21st-century eyes, it's really off-putting in the composition, and in the way that it seems to reinforce a patriarchal notion of society.
This piece was done in 1928 for the Paris Salon by a Vermont artist, Clyde du Vernet Hunt. And instead of coming up with the wholly original composition, he took three separate pieces and combined them. At the time, it fit right into what the art world was expecting, you know, living figures or living historical figures would be clothed, and like these ideas of faith, hope, charity, they would be nude.
The statue that we're talking about, the “American Spirit,” which sits in the front entrance of the Bennington Museum’s courtyard, is a large bronze sculpture of three figures. And when I say large, it's probably 18 feet high, from base to the top. And the central figure is Abraham Lincoln, and he's clothed, standing up. He's got his hand on a kneeling woman that is on his right, and another hand on the head of a boy that is on his left, and it looks like he's blessing them, or he's being very benevolent. And it's a composition that is very awkward.
Shanta Lee Gander: Awkward too, right, because the woman is not wearing a shirt. She's partially clothed, and the boy is completely nude.
Martin Mahoney, Bennington Museum: That's right, the two figures, the boy and the woman representing faith and hope, are nude, and that was a classical motif that the sculpture was utilizing.
This piece was spray-painted in the fall of last year, with a number 38 spray-painted on the chest of Lincoln, and the face of Lincoln spray-painted as well as the hands. And that is in reference to a Native American uprising that happened during the Civil War, and the end result was that 38 people, 38 Native Americans were hung.
There's a lot going on with that history. While we do hate to see objects vandalized, it did give us an opportunity to explore that history. And it was an impetus for the museum to take a step much like Eva mentioned, which is to engage the community and to really talk about difficult conversations that we have to have in history, art and culture.
And that's why we came up with our critical connection series, which we are kicking off this year, talking about the Lincoln statue and talking about public sculpture. Who gets to put public sculpture up? What does it mean? What does it say to the people that walk by it? And why is it important? And that's a conversation that the entire country has been having for the the last decade, and you see statues coming down, statues going up. You see statues being protected in Ukraine right now. Why is it so important? Why do these public monuments, why do they touch people in so many ways? And why are they controversial?
Shanta Lee Gander: And speaking of the controversial, there are a couple of other images in terms of what's in your archive. Why don't you describe what we're seeing here?
Martin Mahoney, Bennington Museum: We have photography from the era when the museum was founded and before. The piece that we're looking at right now is a photograph of a bunch of children around a campfire, and this is a Campfire Girls Club, photograph dates around 1912.
What's really striking is that the campfire girls are all dressed up in Native American garb, and they're doing an appropriation of Native American culture. It promotes the racist idea that Native Americans were homogeneous, that they were all the same, and an extinct group of people.
The campfire girls in Bennington, which you see here, have absolutely nothing to do with the tribes that were in the area, the Abenaki and the Mohican people who historically occupied the area of Bennington. It is all too common to see these kinds of photographs in historical archives.
I think they are very useful, because they help put things into context when people think of Vermont as being a very welcoming state where racial tensions don't exist. It’s simply not true.
Shanta Lee Gander: Eva, you've shared some some images from the archives and a collection of the Henry Sheldon Museum.
Eva Garcelon-Hart, Henry Sheldon Museum: Thank you and I think what Martin said is what I would like to continue. I have mentioned the ephemera collection, which is basically these everyday objects, posters ... advertisements, and things which kind of are produced for daily use.
As you can even see on this image, it also bears a stamp of “Sheldon and Company,” a store, boots, shoes, and rubber. And it basically makes use of these stereotypical extremely racist images, kind of like a joke about this person in the picture. And in reference to shoes they're wearing, and promoting merchandise through this incredibly disturbing image.
We have posters and advertisements in local newspapers of various performances across Middlebury in late 19th and beginning 20th century. And there are so many of them that it's kind of shocking, that this was happening on an everyday basis. Minstrel shows, circuses, sporting events, and these images were commonplace. And we have to confront the truth that that was everyday reality for everybody in town and probably across many other places.
And this was one of the small cards, anybody can take with them, it’s sort of like a three-by-four little piece, and I assume they were available to be picked from the store in order to sell merchandise.
Other items I would like to mention, and for me, it was particularly disturbing, we have some wills and bills of sale, which Henry collected. History of early settlers, he was very much focused [on] because he was coming from this kind of group. And so we have a couple of these documents, which indicates the trading of slaves, which when you will see this document, and obviously, early settlers brought it with them, and it somehow survived, among the papers about their family members engaging in this activity.
Henry, as many collectors of the 19th century, purchased also an Egyptian mummy. It was a mummy of a small boy, which eventually deteriorated and is buried here at the local cemetery. And it's a local attraction. He bought it from some dealer in New York for $10, literally. And so that's the fact, that we have great documentation about that.
“Petrified Indian Boy,” it’s a life-size figure of a boy made out of clay, which was dug out in Massachusetts, or what they "discovered" in 1870, I believe. And then it was immediately pronounced that is a fossilized Indian boy, and that's how it is still labeled. "Petrified Indian Boy."
It became instantaneous attraction. It was paraded through the entirety of New England, from Boston to Canada, as this “fossilized Indian incredible attraction.” Eventually, it was found to be a hoax, but before that, the governor of Vermont, Gov. John Wolcott Stewart confirmed, based on I don't know what sort of knowledge, that this boy’s skull bares all the prominent marks of genuine Indian extraction. And that was confirmed by another Middlebury College professor, and that added to sort of like, confirm the genuinity of this particular body.
Eventually it ended up in Henry Sheldon Museum. It was already a hoax, but still it was on display on a number of occasions. In the 19th century and well into the 20th century, human remains were displayed often for public viewing. And this is a great example. But whether it is genuine or not, people came and gawked at this person and usually, the people on display were people of color, Native Americans. Or if they were white people, they were either criminals or people with deformities and disabilities.
It was basically a crowd attraction, making money like PT Barnum used to do. And to me that it also shows that we have to learn from these ... different ethical standards. When we look at so-called “the other,” when it's not us, because I cannot imagine that a young boy of Christian, a white person, would be also shown with such easiness.
Shanta Lee Gander: And what you're grappling with, how does this impact your collection policy? Does it impact your collection policy? Do you think about, for example, if a family were to say, “We want to gift this,” and whether or not you accept it or not accept it based on some of this awareness?
The other part of this question is, what is the responsibility or relationship to communities, to viewers, and how do you parse that?
Janie Cohen, Fleming Museum of Art: Before I answer those questions, I want to respond to both Eva and Martin, because the Fleming is dealing with these things in a different way, which also responds to our sense of our responsibility to our communities.
We have a program, a project called "The Absences Project," analogous to what you two are doing, but very different in one specific way, which is that we have made a decision to remove some things from view. So when you walk into our European American Gallery and the gallery that used to be our African — an ancient Egyptian gallery, we have very straightforward first person statements by me, our curatorial team, our head of education, about why we took down painting X, or why we made the determination to close the African gallery after 30 years. Our audiences are both the community and the UVM student and faculty community.
With the Native American gallery [not yet up], they are objects of cultural significance and they were collected by a UVM alum who went out of his way to document in a way that was very unusual for the late 19th century. At the same time, he was working for the government forcing Native Americans off the reservations, and so he documented what was gifted to him, what was made for him, what he stole in violent situations. So what is the responsibility there? And there are pieces we do want to return, because they were taken through violent means, so there are so many levels.
Our next steps are to go further into creating real relationships over long periods of time, with descendants of source communities. With current Indigenous groups, with contemporary BIPOC artists who have views on this. At the same time, we are dealing with the history, we're dealing more with the future. How do we show these? Do we show these?
With regard to collection policy, we are changing ours. We are now sharing with our collectors a set of questions that need to be answered. And if they can't be answered or reflect objects that were taken, illegally, et cetera, we will not accept them.
What do we do with things that had been accepted in the past? We probably keep them for now. There's so many Southeast Asian objects that were clearly broken off of buildings. They're called fragments, what are fragments? Fragments are stolen sculptures? It's never ending.
We do have a responsibility to the widest kind of visitors from all kinds of culture groups who will be seeing material from their ancestors, from their heritage, and to present work in a respectful way that talks about its cultural significance and doesn't continue to present it in what are essentially still colonialist contexts.
Eva Garcelon-Hart, Henry Sheldon Museum: Obviously, we are all dealing with these tensions. What do we present? Especially as a small community museum, as we are very much supported by community, how do we work not to create some difficult backlash, because we don't want to be offensive. And I think we cannot be neutral and hide things and pretend they were not there. So what is the path to navigate it?
I just wanted to mention, obviously, displaying offensive objects or offensive imagery, it's a very difficult thing. How do we do it to open conversation that we can really learn from each other, not offend, but at the same time, not to hide? And to me, it's a question on the table.
Martin Mahoney, Bennington Museum: Great points. As far as collection policies, and I think my colleagues may agree with us, collections policies evolve, and they're constantly evolving. What we're doing in Bennington is looking at what we don't have. What are we missing? What voices haven't been given the chance to participate in our collections? Of course, there's a race component, a socioeconomic component, and there's a gender component that's glaring in many museum collections.
Traditionally, museums were founded by wealthy individuals to help celebrate the culture that they thought was important, predominantly white in the United States. We've seen that start to shift over the last couple decades, but in the past, that is a near universal truth. The way that we're approaching it, we want to enrich our collections. We want to fill those holes that we see that are glaring, Native American is one of them. The museum didn't collect Native American artifacts or art, so we are working with local Native American communities to tell their story. The same with people of color, and certainly the same with people who have different socioeconomic backgrounds. The people that could afford furniture, art, archive collections, high-end clothing, well, their work survived.
As far as the way we present the art, we've all been talking about, do we confront the viewer? Do we try to bring them gently down the road? And this is my opinion, personally, not the museum's opinion, but to quote Howard Zinn, "You can't be neutral on [a] moving train," you have to have those difficult conversations. And I think the three of us are having them in different ways based on our different collections.
Shanta Lee Gander: For your ideal, for your institutions, what would the creative legacy look like?
Janie Cohen, Fleming Museum of Art: With regards to collections, it would mean completely dismantling the colonialist structure, under which the collections were acquired. As I said, the legacies of them are frighteningly still embedded in how we show them, think about them, talk about them.
And even more importantly, I think, in terms of community over the years, to really have the staff of the Fleming be stewards of the people in our communities, and further afield across the country, who are attached to the kinds of materials that are in our collections, and find new ways for these collections to be meaningful.
And that remains to be seen what that means, it could take a million different shapes. I think a lot of the answers will come from communities, from the descendants of the communities from which the materials were taken.
Eva Garcelon-Hart, Henry Sheldon Museum: Sheldon is known as the oldest community museum, mainly because Henry really didn't collect for himself or his own edification, but for the community. And that was his goal, and it's a very noble, wonderful goal. However, "this community" always was a little bit of a disturbing term to me, what it really means when we call ourselves that way, when we should be really demonstrating it.
So this year, we are celebrating another anniversary, 50th anniversary of the Stewart Swift Research Center, and we decided to focus on the concept of community. I would like to reexamine this notion of the past community, present and who we want to become in the future. It is an evolving question, but without the engagement of many others, we cannot move forward.
I really want to fully understand so when I say we are the oldest community museum, I want to really feel strongly about it. I would like that our museums become some sort of true community hub, where people can come and openly discuss art history, and all other societal troubles and feel like that, this is a live organism and not some sort of dead people on the walls and some labels and we yawn and we leave.
Martin Mahoney, Bennington Museum: Eva, that's a great point, and it echoes exactly what I would hope that a museum, like all of ours, will be in the future. What used to be called a salon, but now it would be the community's living room, a place where people can come. You can have a drink, have some fun, listen to some music, see a concert, have an experience, look at some art, engage with culture, but it speaks to everyone and everyone feels comfortable, and is welcome.
And that's what I hope the future of museums becomes.
This story is part of "Seeing…the Unseen and In-Between within Vermont's Landscape," a new series dedicated to the exploration of culture, place, people, and the stories that run deep here in Vermont.