Visual Culture

A museum in New England is adding wall labels next to portraits of individuals who profited from the slave trade.

Eli Hill
Jun 12, 2018 2:16PM, via New England Public Radio

The Worcester Art Museum has appended additional labels to portraits in their early American portrait gallery to identify the individuals who benefited from slavery and how. Elizabeth Athens, a former curator of American art at the Worcester Art Museum, who led the effort, which began last fall, said the previous wall labels relayed only one side of their subject’s history and that of the region. “We tend to think of New England and Massachusetts in particular as an abolitionist state, which it was, of course, but there's this kind of flattening of the discussion of slavery and its history in the states,” Athens told New England Public Radio.

Printed in a slightly grayer shade than the original wall label, and hung directly above it, the new signage is a gentle reminder for viewers to consider the full history of the individual before them and the time in which she or he lived. For example, a painting of Russell Sturgis, wrapped in fur and seated in a luxurious green chair, is accompanied with two labels; the original sign informs us that the work was painted by portraitist Gilbert Stuart, the second, notes that Sturgis’s family set up a business trafficking flour, horses, and enslaved persons in present-day Haiti. Athens said she wanted to represent in some way that the predominantly white and male subjects in the gallery are only part of that era’s history and provide some space for people of color. “We were missing a whole swath of humanity that was part of American history. And I really wanted to correct that,” she said.

Eli Hill
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