JACKSON, Miss. — What’s at risk when an art museum tells the story of a place? Typically, in telling the story of an artist, or an art historical movement, an art institution attempts to establish familial, cultural, or intellectual genealogy (often through didactic wall texts and captions), displays objects created by the artist or artists concerned, and frequently attaches all this information to a chronological layout showing a developing sophistication of facture, or an elaboration of key ideas and principles. (Sometimes the accounts of friends, fellow artists are also added.) Any aspect of this may be inaptly conveyed or later shown to be inaccurate or biased, and subsequently art historians and researchers may endeavor to make corrections in print, online, and social media. But in conveying the narrative of a community, or a territory containing several communities linked by political and administrative fiat, the stakes are higher. Questions such as the veracity and accuracy of representations of community inhabitants in the eyes of those inhabitants, the scope of the story told, faithfulness to historical records, who is represented all come into play.
Indeed, in this generation, for curators and exhibition designers, thinking through these questions has become a basic requirement as museum professionals, researchers, patrons, and the public (what some like to term “stakeholders”) have come to intimately realize that museums are not neutral spaces. With the strategic layout and innovative deployment of objects within its bicentennial exhibition, Picturing Mississippi, 1817–2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise, the Mississippi Museum of Art indicates that it understands what is at stake in this major rehang of works from its permanent collection. (The exhibition consists not only of the MMA’s collection but also features many works from private collections and public institutions.) As Betsy Bradley, director of the Mississippi Museum of Art, told me when I visited a few weeks ago: “If we had done this badly, it would have caused harm.”
In creating Picturing Mississippi, which opened on December 9 last year (the day before the 200-year anniversary of Mississippi’s statehood), the MMA sought to, in the words of Bradley, tell the story of the “charged part of our past.” If, according to her, the curatorial team had used the excuse of not being able to find objects to represent those charged moments and, “put on blinders, it would have caused harm to those whose stories would have been excluded.” Bradley related that realizing this, she became much more involved in the design of Picturing Mississippi than she had been in previous exhibitions — working with the curatorial team, led by former chief curator, Roger Ward, and interim chief curator Jochen Wierich.
Though Bradley is careful not to use the word “transformative” in conversation with me (and thus avoid overselling the show), the overarching concern I gather from both conversations with her and Julian Rankin, the director of the Center for Art & Public Exchange housed within the museum, and experiencing the exhibition for myself, is to change public perceptions of the MMA. Rankin says that part of what they are doing is responding to the recent “call to arms” for museums to be more socially and personally relevant to their constituencies. Bradley tells me that she hoped that this exhibition could demonstrate “this institution [is] a place that is honest … that is not afraid to call a false narrative a false narrative.” In the service of these ambitions, the MMA utilizes innovative ways of storytelling by including contemporary art as interventions and interruptions of the narrative track; using what they term “engagement spaces” to encourage the visitor to become more absorbed by particular ideas related to the objects; and by using wall texts and captions to shape a story that could have easily been benignly supportive of white supremacist versions of history, or ignored the pressing issue of racial equity.
A visitor can see where they are headed in the first wall text encountered at the beginning of the (new) Mississippi story. The text states:
Natchez was the capital of Mississippi until 1822 when the seat of government was moved to Jackson. After statehood, the cotton economy boomed, generating enormous wealth among the planter class and fueling demand for an increasing number of slaves. The wealthy class in Natchez, which often had roots in the Northeast, developed a refined taste for arts and culture that matched their prosperity. For the antebellum mansions, they bought fine furniture, silver, porcelain, shipped from New York or Philadelphia … in short they transformed Natchez into one of the most sophisticated cities in the South. African enslaved people were the labor force that enabled the reign of King Cotton.
That last sentence is key. This same gallery room, which shows off examples of that “fine furniture,” could have been designed to be a congenially ahistorical showroom subtly venerating the planter class and privileging visitors’ aspirational desires for these objects that represent elevated social status. It could have used the anodyne model of describing the objects and placing them in taxonomies of form or period of make. But it does neither of these things. There is a reckoning with the labor and social policies that undergirded the creation of these pieces and the creation of the planter class that benefited from slave labor. More than this, there is a recognition of the indigenous population who were here before the onset of white descendants of the Pilgrims. Acknowledging the connections to the manufacturing prowess of the North and the tendency of art and culture to get roped into affirming social status is also key. (Turns out that artwashing is an old game.) All the elements begin to convey a comprehensive story of what sacrifices the state of Mississippi made to be what it is today.
This rigorous examination and truth telling from the perspectives of those other than white settlers can be seen in the captions, too. In one associated with the 1843 painting “De Soto Discovering the Mississippi River” by Peter Frederick Rothermel, the curators acknowledge that European explorers and conquerors were turned into “legendary heroes” by history painters like Rothermel. The caption writers place the term “discovery” in the description of the depicted event within quotation marks to call its use into question.
In a nearby display of historic maps, the final sentence of the caption reads: “These maps were not simply graphic outlines; they supported European efforts to order the New World according to colonial interests.” This critique of the map re-politicizes a tool that is too often de-politicized in museum displays.
And beyond recognizing the ways and means of European colonization through the records and art objects that functioned as tools of that colonization, the exhibition also recognizes the work of indigenous people who lived there before the European incursion. One caption that is linked to a display of effigy bowls has it: “These effigy bowls are a unique and beautiful reminder of the flourishing Mississippi society that lived in the Delta before the arrival of Europeans.” This clear-eyed view of the multicultural history of the territory prods residents to grasp that the very land they walk on is a politicized terrain.
This sort of historical analysis places the MMA in line with the practices of other institutions that are lately taking steps to reach more diverse audiences, become more inclusive, and acknowledge the sometimes sordid pasts of objects in their collections, thus moving the art museum toward the goal of making their visitors more representative of the general population. Also in line with current trends in exhibition design that look to deepen visitor participation, the MMA features several engagement alcoves — three “family corners” and one “closer look gallery.” In these spaces one can examine a group of maps with a magnifying glass to appreciate how subjective a function mapping can be, or draw one’s own map of the surrounding gallery space, or dress up in provided props to imagine oneself as a character in one of the paintings on display. I was especially impressed by the installation next to a Radcliffe Bailey work, “Haitian Postcard” (1999), which challenges the visitor to look at the painting for a full minute (measured by an hourglass) and then make a visual inventory. It’s a clever way to encourage people to take more time looking and render the rewards of this looking in quantifiable terms. All these design elements encourage the visitor to be more of an active participant.
The most exciting part of Picturing Mississippi for me is the innovative interspersing of contemporary art throughout the exhibition’s narrative structure. For example, in one corner two 1990 pieces by Melvin Edwards (“Redemption” and “Good Word from Cayenne”) that look like iron chains and odds and ends, broken but welded together lie between two portraits of black men. On one side is Charles White’s 1959 “Untitled” — a drawing of a man in repose with his eyes closed. On the other side is George Morland’s circa 1790 painting “Slave Trade,” in which a shackled black man is being handed from one white man to the other. The two-dimensional works are lightly sentimental, but the intervention of Edwards’s sculptures evokes the sense of binding and thereby is further evocative of how freedom looks to someone who has been literally fettered. The juxtaposition clarifies the key distinction between freedom as an ideal and freedom as a lived experience that profoundly changes the scope of one’s life.
Similarly, Jeffrey Gibson’s heavy bag sculpture “Sharecropper” (2015) is installed in a room with several photographic portraits of native, black Mississippians. In other alcoves, pieces by Hank Willis Thomas, McArthur Binion, and Kara Walker (some of them recently acquired with funds made available to the museum through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation) extend and complicate the story of the state. In this brilliantly strategic hang, as I move further into the exhibition, I encounter more artists who were either born in Mississippi, such as Sam Gilliam and Binion, or are linked to the state by family, such as Gibson, while also moving toward more contemporary work. This makes it possible for the museum visitor who is initially seduced by the story structure of the exhibition to be slowly moved toward abstract and non-literal forms that nevertheless are produced by way of intimate connections with the state.
This is how Picturing Mississippi comes to a close: with non-narrative, lyrical work that gestures toward a future that the MMA staff imagine for the institution and perhaps for the state as well. It leaves the visitor with a mental picture of a place that is truly multicultural, inclusive, imaginative, and rooted in the conviction that at some point its history — and the way that history should be understood — needed to change.
Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise continues at the Mississippi Museum of Art (380 South Lamar Street, Jackson, Mississippi) through July 8.
Editor’s note: the author’s travel expenses to Jackson and his accommodations and meals there were provided by the Mississippi Museum of Art.