Notes on Art

May 2

Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum, 1992-1993, Maryland Historical Society

photos via

In this piece Fred Wilson reshuffled the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, a museum focused on celebrating the history of the state, to showcase a broader view of history than was currently being presented. The exhibitions at the museum tended to focus on one particular viewpoint, that of the white male.

After Wilson’s reassembling of the museum’s objects, the first room featured a silver globe that read “Truth” - an award given out by clubs in the early 20th century - sitting in between a row of three black pedestals and three white pedestals (pictured above). The white pedestals featured busts of Napoleon, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson - three white men who had never lived in Maryland. The black pedestals were empty but were labelled “Harriet Tubman”, “Benjamin Banneker”, and “Frederick Douglass” - three importan African Americans from Maryland that the historical society had overlooked.

Another installation within this piece, titled Metalwork 1793 - 1880 and pictured above, featured silver dishware displayed alongside a pair of iron slave shackles. Typically artisanal wares would be displayed separately from more traumatic artifacts, but by placing the two together Wilson made it impossible for the viewer to separate the romance and beauty of the time period from the horrors that made it possible. Without the wealth gained from slave labor such beautiful pitchers would not have been affordable to many of Maryland’s early residents.

These simple yet powerful visual displays manages to educate the viewer, making them think for themselves, without lecturing or criticizing. An obvious push in the right direction causes even the most unwilling audience member to reexamine their preexisting views of the colonial era. This alone turned the Maryland Historical Society into a far more educational tool than it ever was before Wilson’s reshuffling.

During an interview about the installation, Wilson stated “What they put on view says a lot about a museum, but what they don’t put on view says even more.”