Educators, Museums, and Racism

by Shereka Mosley

Much of the conversation over the last few months about the role educators and museums play in racism has made me reflect on the many questions and inspirations I had when researching and writing my thesis, Person, Object, and Aesthetic: Black Africans in European Art, 1300-1700.

Educators, Museums, and Racism
Titian, Portrait of Laura dei Dianti, ca. 1523. Oil on canvas,  Collection Heinz Kisters, Kreuzlingen, Switzerland.
Educators, Museums, and Racism
Anton Domenico Gabbiani, Portrait of Three Musicians of the Medici Court, c. 1687. Oil on canvas, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence.

Often, history is a study in “whiteness,” white people, white view, white history, and white influence. I noticed the figures in these paintings were often overlooked and weren’t mentioned during classroom discussions or acknowledged in museum dialogue. 

Educators, Museums, and Racism
Johannes Mijtens, Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst, 1668. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum.
Educators, Museums, and Racism
Frans Hals, Family Group in a Landscape, 1645-48. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Artists of the era would often position Black and PoC at the edges and corners of canvasses, treating them as ornaments rather than people. Their role in the painting is then to reinforce the white supremacist hierarchy, often gazing in wonderment at their masters/mistresses. 

I felt the responsibility as a Black woman to honor the untold stories of the Black African in these works of art. 

Educators, Museums, and Racism
Paul van Somer, Anne of Denmark, 1617. Oil on canvas.Royal Collection, LondonRoyal Collection Trust.
Educators, Museums, and Racism
Cristóvão de Morais, Portrait of Juana of Austria with her Black Slave Girl, 1553. Oil on canvas. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

Although it is important to teach and learn about specific people in history, it is also our responsibility as scholars and educators to openly discuss our problematic past and the mistreatment of Black Africans and the descendants in works of art. 

Shereka Mosley is a recent MA Art History graduate from American University and has BA in Art History from Old Dominion University. She specializes in Italian and Northern European Renaissance Art, with a focus in race, sex, and gender. Read her thesis for more on this topic. @canvasblaq 

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