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Someone's Grandmother

Artist Fred Wilson targets museums' use of human remains in a thought-provoking exhibit

In the summer of '92, I wandered into the Rassensaal of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, where I was dumbfounded to find myself in the middle of a permanent exhibition featuring skulls from different races. Rassensaal translates as Race Gallery, and beginning in the mid-19th century, the pseudoscience of phrenology was used by "racial anthropologists" to theorize that intelligence was based on race. Non-European skulls were compared with European ones, the gold standard of excellence.

Seeing elements of this antiquated view still presented at the end of the 20th century was unsettling, but given the eugenically inspired genocide the country had played host to, it was coldly horrific. Here was a racist agenda, presented with the authority of a state museum. I later learned the museum had purchased for the collection skulls and death masks of Jewish concentration camp victims during the war. The remains were not returned to the Austrian Jewish community until 1991. The Race Gallery was closed in the mid-'90s after public controversy, but two death busts of Jews and the skulls of two Polish victims still remain in the museum's collection.

It is an appalling story, but before your anger turns self-righteous, think back to your own visits to American natural history museums. America has its own history of genocide; just head to a reservation and ask one of the survivors. And we too have displayed, dehumanized and studied our victims.

Friendly Natives (1991), by Fred Wilson pointedly illustrates this fact. It is part of a retrospective of his works, "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations 1979-2000," at the Blaffer Gallery. The work was from a gallery exhibition in which Wilson mimicked the display styles of ethnographic museums. In the piece, antique museum display cases present four skeletons. (They are casts of originals.) Instead of a date or tribal identification, Wilson has labeled them "Someone's Grandmother," "Someone's Father" and "Someone's Sister."

In a parallel to Vienna, the repatriation of excavated and collected Native American remains is an issue for America's museums. America had its own fascination with phrenology. In 1868, the U.S. surgeon general asked army officers to collect the skulls of dead Indian soldiers for study. (Imagine a contemporaneous equivalent: Union soldiers collecting Confederate heads for scientific purposes.)

The old adage "History is written by the victors," as Wilson will tell you, doesn't stop with textbooks. Victors build museums, and Wilson's body of work raises questions about how peoples and cultures are presented in museum settings. Wilson has an intimate working knowledge of museums. During high school, he took classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and after receiving his BFA he worked in its educational department as well as that of the American Museum of Natural History. He understands the ways in which curatorial decisions shape the way in which objects are -- or aren't -- presented. Of African and Carib descent, Wilson is particularly aware of historical selectiveness.

"Mining the Museum," an installation Wilson created at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, is one of his best-known works. For the project Wilson was given free rein to dig through the museum's collections. What he did was use long-hidden objects in the collection to highlight a very different history of Maryland than that presented by the institution.

One of his most striking pieces, Metalwork 1793-1880, juxtaposed elaborate silver repoussé goblets and urns from the early 19th century with another period object: slave shackles. The delicate, decadent excesses of upper-class life sat side by side with the crude and the inhuman. Viewing the objects together poignantly illustrated the connection between slave labor and the lavish wealth accumulated from it.

The Blaffer retrospective has a re-creation of another grouping from that exhibition. Cabinetmaking 1820--1960 uses period woodworking to make a point. A gothic revival chair and other beautifully carved side- and armchairs rest on platforms facing a wooden post -- a whipping post. The post was in use in Maryland until 1960. It's a pretty safe assumption that the people who sat in these chairs were exempt from the indignities of a public beating. The oppression of slavery is evoked as well as the treatment of the poor and disenfranchised.

On the wall next to the elegant chairs is a selection of advertisements placed by Maryland's well-to-do, offering rewards of $50 to $150 for the return of their slaves. The slaves' physical characteristics and idiosyncrasies are described in the way someone would identify a lost pet. None of the information Wilson presents is new. But his jarring juxtapositions of objects cause viewers to viscerally feel injustices -- striking at a place much deeper than an intellectual acknowledgement of fact.

By inserting objects into existing displays and selectively combining others, Wilson revealed a hidden history that the museum had selectively chosen to exclude. His work is a critique of museums but extends to the culture at large. "Mining the Museum" was primarily created from Wilson's point of view as an African-American, and in an introductory video to the exhibition he pointed out that his view was not "objective." But in stating this, he was reminding viewers of the selectivity of the museum's own vision. According to Wilson, he "could have done other histories in that exhibition, such as women's history, Jewish history, immigrant history, and that became clear to the curators."

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