A Change of Heart: Fred Wilson’s Impact on Museums
Fred Wilson, Conceptual Artist, New York
Talk about ‘Drivers for change’, I never learnt how to drive but as I say I’ve been driving and making change in my own way recklessly or not without learning how to drive but anyway, being here with you is just great because the thing about thinking about ‘the margins and the core’ being here with you I feel very much at the core. Some of you have come up to me and told me in one way or another that you know about my work which in some ways was a little surprising, even though it probably shouldn’t be.
This is the Maryland Historical Society in case you don’t recognise it, the museum where I did my first project. I was invited by the Contemporary to do that. They had seen my other work and they invited me in to pick any museum in Baltimore to do this project. In fact the curator Lisa Curran had thought of a large vision that maybe I could do this in all the museums in Baltimore. It was the first time working with the museum in this capacity and I said ‘Well maybe not, lets not try to do that.’ However I did interview all the museums with the director of the Contemporary and they didn’t realise they were being interviewed. I just went around speaking to people and the Historical Society which this is (refers to slide) turned out to be the most important sight for me for many reasons.
One of the reasons was that it had all the great works of art that the Metropolitan borrowed and all the other museums borrowed, but how they had them on display, it was obvious they hadn’t thought about that in a very long time, and I thought that this was raw material for the kind of thing I’m interested in. In addition when I walked into the space on my own not with the director or curator, just walked in and I met the person at the desk and how should I say?, he wasn’t the friendliest person in the world. And so my whole experience as I went through the museum on my own, I felt very uncomfortable in the space. I felt like I wanted to run out of there screaming in fact. So that was a really large reason why I decided to do the project there because I wanted to understand what my feelings were about. This was a museum and I’d been in museums all my life and so why did I feel so uncomfortable there?
I should just backtrack, this was my first project and it couldn’t have been better because the Contemporary, George Sissel and Lisa Curran, Lisa was the curator and George was the director, since they were a museum without walls they had worked with artists for a very long time doing projects all around Baltimore, usually in vacant buildings or other businesses where ever artists wanted to do things. So in order to this in Baltimore which is not a huge city but is a fair size city they had to get communities and business leaders and politicians in line to support the effort of this project. They had huge numbers of volunteers that they always bought together for these projects. So while they had never worked in an art institution they had many, many incredible mechanisms to make things happen in the city. And so when I came along and my site was a museum, they just used all their techniques and systems of doing projects for my project. And I have to say that since then I have developed relationships with communities and the museum on my own I really have to say that George Sissel and Lisa Curran were the people who taught me how to do this. Bought me out of my shell, from a hermetic artist doing my own things in my studio, so I could speak to, because they forced me to in the first instance, to speak to groups I thought I would have nothing in common with. And of course I realised that there was a lot of common ground. And I have to say that as Contemporary didn’t get as much visibility from this project as the Historical Society did because the project was sighted there and the Historic Society had a lot to loose with this project but the Contemporary really were the driving force, talking about drivers for change, they were the driving force behind this project who had been working with communities for a long time.
So with that said to do my project there I looked at everything on view that was in the galleries and everything that was in storage. Old museums and this was not old for the UK but was old for the United States, what’s on display tells you a lot about the museum but what’s in storage tells you even more. So it was the combination of seeing what was on view and what was in storage that created this exhibition. In addition I jumped into it by really speaking to everyone who was involved with the museum. The registrars, the curators of course, the conservators, the staff, the maintenance staff, the guards and the trustees. Largely because I wanted to get a sense of all their roles, of the aspects they were involved with. I needed all the help I could get at that point. From that I began to cull ideas about the exhibition. But largely my practice is the practice of looking and looking at the things in the collections and the things in the collections told me what to do and why I was feeling uncomfortable in the museum. And as an artist this whole aspect of looking and seeing is very important to the outcome of the exhibition because that’s what the viewers see. They don’t know all the conversations I have but what they see is what they get.
This is not my installation; this is how it looked (shows slide of golden globe with ‘TRUTH’ written on it). I had the entire third floor to do my exhibition and to get to that gallery you had to go up though the whole museum and the first thing you saw off the elevator was this globe from within their collection and I was looking for unusual things and in there amongst them there was a tea service and such and there was this globe which I though was a wholly contemporary object and I thought this was a great way to start up my exhibition with this globe that said ‘TRUTH’ across it. It was made in the late eighteen hundreds for a trophy for truth in advertising. It was used until 1938 and then it was bought to the museum. Maybe that’s when they realised there’s no truth in advertising in 1938. I don’t know but there it is. So I brought it out again and I thought it was the perfect way to start my exhibition. Whose truth when you’re talking about art history? Where’s the truth in museums? And so this was the first object you saw. Not the title of the exhibition, not my name, just this.
Beneath the trophy are these plastic mounts and a label that said ‘plastic mounts made in 1960’s, maker unknown’ because I really wanted people to understand from this exhibition that everything there, was going to say something about the museum, something about history, something about us. I really wanted to look at everything, kind of like the twilight zone, that I was in complete control of this environment. That was another thing that was a new experience for the curators. I really designed the whole environment including the objects and there was nothing they could do. Sometimes they tried to tweak it but whenever they tweaked it, it looked like something I had done and not for their own purposes. So it was clear that I was completely in control of this environment and the meanings of the environment.
What I normally don’t say since most of you know what this project ended up being about, what I normally don’t show is that, I was also concerned, even though I was speaking to rotary clubs and school groups and other museum professionals in the area over the year that I worked on this project, because I just wanted to understand where I was and get support for what I was doing, I was still not sure that in this museum where people normally go to see the expected, and I knew this was going to be a very unusual environment for them, new subject for them, whatever I ended up doing that I wanted to sort of help them along with this. So I made a video of myself walking through the museum. A very sort of imagistic, dreamlike video basically saying “I came into this space and I felt very uncomfortable and everything looked familiar but now everything seems to be speaking to me and saying different things”.
I wanted them to get a sense that this was not going to be your average museum experience in this historical society. And so that was what I had in the entrance to this museum. And this was a museum where one day I would go in and there were costume characters, sort of re-enactment things and I was constantly looking for my free papers when I was going into this museum. But just to give you a sense of the museum, I talked to other people, artists, professors, local people and the museum, the majority of them had never been to the historical society except when they were little. So it was the sort of place that certain people had been to and others had not.
Here the trophy is surrounded by busts. I found these three busts of so called ‘great men’, I put that in quotes, and since everything in the museum was supposed to be from Baltimore or Maryland I put them on view. Here we have a bust of Henry Clay – famous American, Andrew Jackson – not one of my most favourite Americans actually and in the centre was Napoleon. Now how he got to Maryland, I hadn’t heard that, but anyway he’s bust was there so I put in on view. But then I asked for three other pedestals and put them on view but without any busts and their labels said Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker - three African American’s very important to the United States. All had lived or were form Maryland but there was nothing about them in the Historical Society. So my project was really not about creating an African American exhibition which I think was what the director thought I might do. I could have done that pulling objects from certain collections around Baltimore, but I decided I really wanted to understand the museums understanding of their history along the lines of race was and it wouldn’t be the contemporary curators who would be able to discuss that. Really I would understand that from the collecting patterns over the years which of course pre-dated any of the curators there. And of course the absence said as much as what they had and I really wanted the public to have this experience that I was having as they went through the museum as opposed to laying it out for them.
I asked them for three other pedestals and I should say, I didn’t pick those pedestals. The curator picked those pedestals, all dark pedestals. And by the time I was actually setting up this exhibition, while I wasn’t telling anyone exactly what it was about, eventually they kind of caught on. There was something fishy going on because of the things I was actually pulling out and so the curator who described herself as a cross between Nancy Reagan & Barbara Bush and she was, although she wasn’t actually that much older than me, eventually we got to know each other very well and she told me, ‘Well you know I actually went to high school with Jim Morrison’, she sort of whispered that to me.
But anyway they eventually began to understand and get a notion of what I was doing and so she bought those black pedestals out. And I wanted to say that the project while it was never a collaboration, because of the relationships I had built within the museum and outside the museum, there’s a lot of involvement in what actually comes out. And what actually comes out is very important to me as I don’t want to make an exhibition that’s for a few curators and critics and artists in New York City when I’m doing it in another country or city. I want it to be for the people that are actually going to see it. It’s those dialogues that I have, those conversations and interactions that really show me how far I can go for people to deal with the things I bring up without shutting down and turning off and not wanting to see anything more and that’s another important thing to me. We got along really well and so a lot of things occurred because of that. If they didn’t want me to know that there were certain things in the collection then they would say ‘well, it’s fragile’ or things like that. So we get along famously and I get to do pretty much the things I want to do
[Slide of Native American Indian Sculpture Exhibit]
There are these cigar store Indians. Now most American museums, older museums, have these cigar store Indians. They don’t know what to say about them. They’d like to put them on view and they’re very problematic sculptures. These don’t look like any Indians I’ve ever known. In fact this one over here was made by a German immigrant and his daughter was the model.
What museums do, they just put them out and hopefully no one asks any questions. So I basically bought them all out and had them facing the wall, because they are actually wonderful sculptures, I had them facing the wall so you couldn’t take it in necessarily. There’s something about them but they’re facing away from you and they’re facing some photographs. I asked the curator coz I wanted to meet some native American Indians in Baltimore and she said “Well there are no Indians in Baltimore” and I said “Oh really”. I know lots of native people around the United States, artists and curators and just lots of people so I went and found the native community and told them I was doing this project and I borrowed photographs. So those photographs on the wall that they’re facing are one of the few things I bought in from outside of the museum. Family photographs and historic photographs from their family. So you have these fake Indians looking at the real Indians, these cigar store characters with labels that say ‘portrait of cigar store owners’.
There’s a map there as well, a map of ‘Chesapeak Bay’ near Baltimore, and it was there from the previous exhibition which was a duck hunting/duck decoy exhibition, and the curators themselves groaned about that exhibition. It was something one of the trustees put them up to and so they did this exhibition of duck decoy. So I decided to keep even recent history in my exhibition and kept that map of Chesapeak Bay which had the duck hunting clubs on it and I just added the native tribes onto that map.
This was an old museum and it wasn’t even a museum when it first started it was a men’s club. The next exhibit is called ‘collection of numbers’. [Fred Wilson shows slide but does not explain it due to time
[Slide showing gallery of paintings]
And in this room with these paintings there was something really odd about the paintings that I saw when they were on view and I moved them to the gallery. There’s one painting that I saw that had a rip in it and I asked them for this painting with the rip in it and so they actually let me put it on view and I made a video tape of one of the maintenance men and we talked about the painting and about my exhibition and this is the painting (it’s hard to see). I did a video tape with him and his face is behind the image and he says things to the viewer, the eyes line up and he speaks and he says 'Nobody knows I’m inside of you except mamma'.
Anyway it goes on from there and then these other paintings were also very beautiful paintings from other areas of the museum but oddly there was some black children in them and these are 19th century paintings and they are slave children. Nothing about them existed in the museum’s labelling. I did some research and found out the names of these children, it wasn’t difficult to do and decided to light the children as you stood in front of them so you could see them a little better and made audio tapes of black children and they would speak to you and say things like 'Where’s my mother?' and 'Who calms me when I’m afraid?', 'Who watches my back?', things like that. And as you walked around the room all these paintings started to speak to you, and this one, the child said 'Am I your friend, am I your brother, am I your pet?'. Clearly in the arms of slavery he could have been all three.
The museum director talked to the maintenance man in the men’s room at the opening and said he was really moved by this exhibition and had never been in an exhibition before where he was emotionally moved in a museum, and I think that’s pretty sad, and he was really surprised that the maintenance man had so much to say about the exhibition. The director asked the maintenance man what he thought of the exhibition because he’s an African American maintenance man and a white director, and he said the maintenance man talked about it for a very long time and was surprised that the maintenance man had all these ideas about it.
But in fact for the time my exhibition was up, there was a shift in power as it were. The margin and the core shifted, switched, where the professional staff new less about the real issues of this exhibition than the non professional staff and it was palpable in the museum that for the run of this exhibition there was a very different relationship between and a closer one I should say between the not professional staff and the professional staff because of the subject matter of this exhibition
[Slide of silver objects and shackles]
When I do projects I try and do them the way other museums do. In this particular museum they would compare objects and so I don’t do the same strategy in different museums, actually I don’t do things about slavery. That was the last thing I thought I’d ever do as an artist. It just wasn’t a topic I was interested in but here this seemed to scream out of me and so the silver in storage, but in the ledger books it said ‘shackles’ and so I placed them together just because I was fascinated that objects, separate objects… You’ll have a museum for the beauty of the art world and then you’ll have museums for the horrors of our world and never will you have them in the same museum. Certainly never would you have them in the same case but the two of them are so embedded in their histories. Who served the silver and who could have made the silver objects in apprenticeship situations, and certainly who’s labour could produce the wealth that produced the silver?
And so under the heading ‘Metal work 18?- 1880’ I had this one case. You have to understand that right before I got there and the curators are very proud of this, that they had their civil war room put up. They used to have two of them. One for the north and one for the south and it took 100 years to put both sides in the same room. So when I came along and did this, you know they were a little nervous. But it turned out that all the things I did turned out to be extremely positive. We had visitors coming back again and again and again getting more out of the exhibition
[Slide of exhibit showing two children’s prams, a Sudan chair and a model ship]
Here under the heading of ‘Modes of transport’ we have a Sudan chair of the last Royal Governor of Maryland which was in the basement and of which no one was really thinking about too much, and a painting of who had to carry the Sudan chair around. A model ship that was in America, the war of 1812 was an important little war there and beneath it were logs of live stock that was on the ship and also slaves. There’s a full scale version in Baltimore harbour called ‘The Pride of Baltimore’ and somehow this other history is kind of lost.
And we have these two baby carriages under ‘Modes of transport’, and I found this Ku Klux Klan hood in textile storage, anonymously donated. I mean wouldn’t you? I can just hear the curator say ‘Oh he found the Klan Hood’. Anyway, they put it out. People are really friendly and wonderful in museums. They just put it out. Elaine Gurrion whose name was bought up the other day has said, and I quote her a lot because I think it’s so true, 'Museums are safe places for unsafe ideas'. This work, this piece here was up for the entire show and when the show ended they bought it back because the staff asked to bring the show back and I bought it back in a smaller version that stayed up for another eight years and they particularly wanted this. The staff wanted this to be back in the show and I put it back in the show.
This is Baltimore, this is Maryland. I stayed in touch with the museum because they wanted the exhibition back and this is the Historical Society, so for them to have this in their mist I figured if they would continue with this then I would continue with them along the way. And they called me from time to time to discuss things that were going on in the museum and one of the educators called me and said, 'We have a school group coming in and some of the children are in the Klan. What should we do?'. So in case you thought this is just historic, well no. And so we had a great conversation about the piece and discussion of the piece and this sort of thing and I basically said 'Don’t give out my telephone number'. But this was a really proactive gesture to bring this exhibition back to this museum who you would never in a million years expect to want to do that.
[Slide of chairs positioned in a semi circle facing a whipping post]
Then under the heading of the title ‘Cabinet making’, sorry this is a very abbreviated description of the whole exhibition, it was a very large exhibition, were these chairs that I felt represented members of society. And when I was in storage I found this big wooden thing lying on the ground and I asked the curator “What’s this?” and she said “Oh that’s the public whipping post. That was used in front of the city jail until 1958 and then we got it. But you don’t have to do deal with that thing.” “Don’t have to deal with that thing” is the worst thing you can tell me and it seemed like a huge crucifix so I kind of created this scene
[Slide of dolls house]
I could have just left it with the victimisation of African Americans and it was getting kind of depressing but I found this dolls house in the children’s galleries and I moved it and so everybody including the volunteers were kind of getting the idea of what I was doing at that point. One of the volunteers who attended to this doll house said to me, 'Not the dolls house! Is nothing sacred?'. That’s what she said. And I was thinking 'Give me that dolls house, just give me the dolls house'.
No really, because when you looked in the dolls house, the male dolls were in the parlour, the female dolls were in the bedroom, the black male doll was standing by the door and the black female doll was in the kitchen. And for all these stereotypes for children to take in uncritically, so I figured let me just move this around a little bit, and I’m sorry if my slides are not good but there is overturned furniture and there are bodies lying around and I found this larger doll. And there was a diary that I found there which was by a women who remembered as a child, and that in turn developed into ‘Rebellion’. So I created this whole diorama around this diary and one child said to me 'Oh that’s Super Slave', and that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind but anyway
[Slide of final gallery]
The last gallery with things that I found in the children’s area and in storage that looked fairly familiar to me, and they were very simple objects like ceramic earns and baskets, and I made a whole display of them. And actually they were familiar because I studied art in West Africa as well and many of them were from West Africa and Museum professionals would see them and they’d ask the curators do they know anything about them and they’d say 'No we don’t know anything about them' and they’d say 'How long have you had them?' and they said 'We’ve had them since 1850'. There were things that were definitely not being looked at and I put them on view just to show production of things after all this abuse, the production of things still being made in the United States during the early part of slavery
And here is a book on the table which was by Benjamin Banneker who was a free black man of the 1700 who surveyed Washington DC for Thomas Jefferson, and he made a book of these astronomy charts of the eclipses of the sun and the moon and he gave it to Thomas Jefferson to prove that blacks had the same intellect as whites, and above, I sort of made images of the eclipses on the wall above her head [referring to female visitor in slide]. Then there are dreams that he wrote in the book and diary entries about who tried to kill him.
The last image was the first line in the book to Thomas Jefferson and said 'Dear Sir, I freely, cheerfully acknowledge I’m a member of the African race'. And that was the end of the exhibition and I figured that was quite a great statement for a black man to make in the1700’s to the president.
This project really occurred because of all the interactions that I had with different people inside the museum, outside the museum, all strata of people and all that went into the exhibition either physically in volunteers or mentally of where I was in Baltimore. This project was really popular, it changed the museum and I always feel like it takes a village to raise a museum, and so I’ll leave you with that.