Saturday, April 25, 2009

By any other name exhibition

I was delighted Thursday evening by the opening of the exhibition, "By any other name: A social and cultural history of the Rose Art Museum," organized by eight of my students in the Museums and Public Memory class (Anth 159a). The show, tracing the history of the Museum from 1961 to the present moment, is cleverly organized around a large graph of the Dow Jones Industrial average, showing its upticks and downticks over nearly five decades. Interspersed along the way are documentary materials and commentaries on the museum's successive directors, exhibitions, and moments of triumph and peril. In contrast to the common tendency in the art world to relegate matters of finance to the shadowy background, this show puts economic matters front and center; when the market was bullish, we see, art prices were elevated and accession funds soared; in turn, in bear markets university administrations have looked covetously at their collections and pursued, with various degrees of success, deaccession policies. The Museum lent the students catalogues of diverse Museum shows over the decades, which hover above and below the stock market graph line.

Drawing on their archival research, the organizers frame this timeline in terms of student protests: the October 1961 opening of the Rose Museum building, they show, was occassioned by student complaints that the funds expended on it could better have been spent on scholarships or faculty salaries; in the past three months of course the campus has seen multiple student protests calling for the preservation of the museum in the face of administration attempts to close it. A monitor plays looped videos of protests by students, faculty, staff and others calling for the museum's preservation. The red line of the stock market culminates in a splotch of red splashed across a "Save the Rose" T-shirt.

At the opening reception, Cultural Production grad student Claire Mauro provocatively suggested that the red line of the Dow Jones could be read as a "blood line," tracing out the varied forms of symbolic kinship and descent associated with the museum, from the founding bequest by Edward and Bertha Rose, to the labor of successive directors, curators, artists, donors, and art lovers over these many years. I was put in mind of Francis Perket's extraordinary commentary at the recent Museum symposium, "Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum amidst Financial Crisis." Francis, a Rose family member, noted that Edward and Bertha did not have children of their own, that the paintings were in a sense their offspring and that each moment of artistic revelation within the museum could be understood as their "Jahrzeit" celebrating Kaddish, a prayer of life. [Her commentary is available on YouTube.] Claire's reading perhaps helps account for the deep sense of anguish felt by so many in face of the Museum's current predicament; the Museum is more than the sum of the contents of its extraordinary collection; it has emerged as the embodiment of a vast extended family, and its current crisis can be interpreted as a life or death struggle for lineage and for its posterity. (One student compared the jagged ups and downs of the red stock market line to the sputtering EKG lines of a patient on life support.)

The show is also framed by students' artistic responses to the current crisis, including a large painting by graduating senior Danielle Friedman based on multiple iterations of the word "Rose." Students energetically mined, as well, the university archives and the public record to chronicle, in displayed materials, the twists and turns of the Museum's fate over the years, with particular attention to media coverage since January 26 of this year.

The exhibition concludes with a lovely children's book, "Beatrice visits the Rose Art Museum," created by Gail Goldspiel in happier times, when she took Robin Dash's course, "Looking with the Learner." The book chronicles the visit to the Rose by Stanley School elementary school students in the company of Brandeis undergraduates, pondering contemporary art and engaging in art making of their own. (One of the joys of the Rose under Michael Rush's leadership has been the Museum's willingness to allow visitors of all ages, on special occassions to make art in the Foster wing and the Museum's stairwell.) The children are accompanied by "Beatrice the Butterfly" who delicately floats above the proceedings and tries her hand (wings?) at making art as well. I was put in mind of the daemons in Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass, the animal avatars of the human characters, who embody their human's dreams and anxieties; Beatrice registers the children's excitement and fear over engaging with the art and in that respects is a stand in for the children themselves; but I also read the butterfly as an embodiment of the museum itself which similarly seems to float and flitter delicately over the campus: beautiful, playful, intensely curious, and terribly vulnerable.

Exhibition organizers: Ronya Gordon, Yarden Abukasis. Brian Friedberg, Emily Leifer, Sarah Stephenson. Penelope Taylor, Igor Zhukovsky, Will Burnett/

The exhibition is in the Shapiro campus center student art gallery (third floor) through Wednesday, April 28 I believe.

Please share your comments in the space below, and please follow the exhibition Twitter at

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Slavery and Universities: Possible Conference?

We had a fascinating roundtable panel at the Organization of American Historians annual meetings in Seattle on March 28 on legacies of slavery and the slave trade at American universities.

Jim Campbell (Stanford) discussed the project he'd headed at Brown University, exploring the university's complex historical relationship to the trans Atlantic slave trade. See his presentation on line on the History News Network at:

nb. The Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which Jim chaired, has a fascinating website at:

Al Brophy (UNC) talked about the historical role of American colleges and universities in providing intellectual legtimation for slavery, especially in law and theology, with particular reference to the University of Alabama case. See his videoed presentation:

Leslie Harris (Emory) discussed the Transforming Community Project, a multiyear project of racial, ethnic and class based initiative of reconciliation at Emory, which emerged largely in response to a disturbinging racial incident at Emory several years ago. See her presentation at:

My presentation, on the work my students and I did "excavating" memories and histories of slavery at Emory University, primarily in Oxford, Georgia(the original site of Emory College) is also on line on the History News Network at:
Among other things, I talked about the obelisk (pictured above) in the Oxford, GA City Cemetery to Bishop James O. Andrew (first president of the Emory College Board of Trustees) whose slaveowning status in 1844 catalyzed the great national schism in the Methodist Church; and about my students' work developing exhibitions on slavery in Emory's history.

We then moved into a lively discussion with audience members about the many tangled ways in which the historical legacies of enslavement continute to structure (or perhaps haunt) the "buried lives" of American institutions of higher education. The conversation among other things touched on:
  • Dr. Felix Armfield (Buffalo State College) mentioned his work with colleagues on a "slaves on campus" project, tracing the experiences of enslaved persons brought as "servants" to American colleges and universities by slaveowning students: what impact did the experience of being on college campuses have on these enslaved individuals?
  • Possible forms of restorative justice being explored by some schools; about the impact of such projects of historical research and reflection on faculty, students, staff and community members;
  • ways of sharing documentary histories of slavery and the slave trade (something the Brown University Committee in particular has done on its repository website);
  • the at times banal nature of non-specific blanket apologies for slavery(as at the University of Viriginia and the University of Alabama several years ago); the politics of apology is the topic of a recent book by Melissa Nobles, one of the roundtable's organizers.
  • the challenges of integrating materials on on-campus slavery into the curriculum
  • Jim Crow era loyal slave memorials
  • the difficult cultural politics of "postcolonial" monuments and memorials around slavery and Jim Crow on campus.

Of course, numerous colleagues elsewhere have worked with their students to unearth histories of slavery at their respective institutions. This semester, for instance, Ira Berlin and his students have worked to document slaveowning patterns among founding figures in the history of the University of Maryland. Julie Richter has done comparable work with her students on slavery in the history the College of William and Mary. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Library in 2005 developed on exhibition on the roles of enslaved persons in the making of the school.
We're interested in learning of the many other teaching and research projects along these lines that are surely going on.

It has occured to us that it would be worthwhile holding an academic conference on the topic of slavery and universities. (As Jim notes, this wouldn't necessarily be limited to the United States.) One of the many fascinating problems to explore is the way in which universities have so long been imagined as utopian spaces, yet these spaces (like many other institutions and discursive undertakings associated with early modern, Enlightenment, and Romantic progressivist thought) rested in so many respects upon the structurally invisible labor of the enslaved and the vast profits of the global slave trade.

We're not sure yet who might host the conference. It would be interesting to bring together a wide range of participants, including faculty, students, and college staff members, as well as community partners and family members (descended both from slaveowners and enslaved persons) for critical conversations about research strategies, community engaged learning, and restorative justice on a great range of campuses as we all grapple with the legacies of enslavement, the slave trade, and related forms of racial injustice.

If you have ideas about the conference, or care to share reports on work that has been done at other schools around remembering enslavement on campus, please post a comment in the space below!