On 22 May at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference in Baltimore I attended an unforgettable session commemorating twenty years since artist Fred Wilson’s precedent-setting intervention Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society.
Wilson’s 1993 exhibition critiqued museums’ traditional silences around issues of race by juxtaposing celebrated objects representing narratives of wealth and power, such as a silver tea service, with artefacts from hidden histories and long relegated to storage, such as a pair of slave shackles; multisensory components enhanced the juxtapositions by voicing the sentiments of marginalised parties.
The project was particularly impactful within the museum sector because many AAM members experienced it when they attended the 1993 conference which was, like last week’s event, held in Baltimore. Museum consultant Ken Yellis chaired the anniversary session, ‘What we talk about when we talk about race: “Mining the Museum” after 20 years’; speakers included museum professionals involved in the original project, scholars and practitioners shaped by it, and, of course, Fred Wilson.
The room was packed with AAM delegates who gathered to bear witness to the power of Wilson’s institutional critique. Spencer Crew, Professor of American, African American and Public History at George Mason University, gave a riveting talk, asserting that Mining the Museum’s chief contribution was in challenging the argument that the provenance of collections inhibits what stories museums can tell. Crew explained that in the twentieth century, when most museum collections did not represent the diversity of the communities they served, the concept of provenance was an all-too- convenient way for mainstream museums to avoid programming for wide audiences. According to Crew, Mining the Museum demonstrated that objects can convey many different stories and that provenance ‘is in the eye of the beholder’. ‘What gives an object authority,’ Crew asked? Fred Wilson showed that the person who cleans it at night has as much say as the curator, Crew responded. Wilson spoke, in his gentle, unassuming but insightful way, about how museums have changed over the last two decades. But he also made clear that museums need to deepen and complicate their understanding of and commitment to diversity in the twenty-first century.