Art and the Black Body: The Reckoning of Museums

It is by no means a new revelation that so much of Western art history was built and founded on the backs of Black and enslaved bodies. Whether it is in the way artists and patrons utilized their slaves’ bodies as accessories in paintings, the enslaved labor that provided profit for wealthy slave owners to fund museums and commission art, or how the materials and aesthetic categories so central to the art world have shaped or have been shaped by the slave trade, Black bodies have been simultaneously exploited and rejected by the art world. Calls for change and criticism of this has existed for centuries: in 1851, abolitionist activists William Wells Brown, Ellen Craft, and William Craft staged a protest at the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace. Their presence at the Exhibition as formerly enslaved people aimed to highlight the central role slave labor and the wealth from slavery had in formin the art and industrial progress the exhibition was praising. To highlight this further, Brown placed the British illustrator John Tenniel’s satirical illustration of a “Virginian slave”—which depicted a Black woman shackled to a pedestal inscribed with the phrase “E Pluribus Unum”—at the base of the American sculptor Hiram Powers’s white marble statue The Greek Slave (1841-43).

Tennial’s illustration
Hiram Power’s sculpture

It’s only been in recent years that museums have begun to attempt to make amends for this by recognizing the role the enslaved and the slave trade played in the history of their institution and collection. At the end of 2021, the National Gallery in London released their initial findings about the museum’s close ties to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in collaboration with the University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. Naming specific individuals in the museum’s history, the findings hopes to shine a light on a part of their history ignored for too long. Similar initiatives are taking place around Europe and the United States, including the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandthuis, both in Amsterdam, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

While acknowledging this history uncovers a dark part of their history, how do these museums plan to make amends for the role they played in the slave trade and honor the lives enslaved, lost, and exploited for their existence?

Many grassroots organizations, such as Decolonize This Place and Museums Are Not Neutral, are putting pressure on museums to expose their ties to slavery and colonialism. As museums advertise themselves as spaces of neutrality, these organizations are taking action to illustrate the inherent bias built into the foundation of museums because of their beginnings tied to slavery and colonialism and demand museums and cultural institutions take responsibility for them.

Admitting to these beginnings and accepting the responsibility to right them must be central to the continued work of museums – we can not change the past, but we can change the present and the future.

How do you think museums, and the art world, can reckon with their institutional foundation in slavery and the exploitation of Black bodies? And what can they do to address this history and make amends?

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