What Happened When Fred Wilson Dug Beneath a Museum’s Floorboards

The book Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson published in 1994 has particular insights that go beyond institutional critique and into our individual complicities that are crucial to consider now.

Flipping through Mining the Museum (photos and GIF by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

A few weeks ago I reorganized my art books, monographs, and exhibition catalogues. Happy for any distraction from re-alphabetizing, I sat down with the book produced for artist Fred Wilson’s 1994 project Mining the Museum, commissioned by The Contemporary (a peripatetic institution currently on hiatus) and the Maryland Historical Society. I never saw the show in person but at some point acquired the accompanying book to which I’ve periodically returned for its ingenuity about knowledge production and presentation, and the fierceness with which it examines the brutality often traced in the shadows of “official histories.” What is most startling and compelling, even 25 years later, are the juxtapositions Fred Wilson highlights between historical facts and alternate mappings — simultaneous realities, one of which is accepted as “history” and the other which ultimately remains “other” even if it is seen. Mining the Museum uses the collections of one museum to catapult publics into realities too often marginalized, sidelined, or outright repressed.

To me, Wilson’s project went beyond institutional critique into another zone, which makes it crucially relevant today. His observations and provocations focus beyond institutional problematics to encompass our own individual complicities as members of society, especially in our ways of seeing and thinking. One vivid example, addressed by the project’s curator in her essay, is Wilson’s inclusion of rough slave manacles, noted as having been made in Baltimore circa 1793–1872, in a case also displaying elaborately worked repoussé silver vessels, dated from a similar period of 1830–80. The very materiality of these objects in proximity to one another, each object identified with its museological data, trace back to the same geography, and the brutal conditions of enslavement that enabled the acquisition of wealth represented by the silver.

What follows are excerpts from Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, edited by Lisa G. Corrin, curator of the exhibition, that are particularly useful from the perspective of 2019. The first set of selections come from Corrin’s essay. They call out the disruptions in museological storytelling of accepted histories that Wilson achieves, and address the resulting tensions these moves incur for viewers of the exhibition. Corrin writes about the objects selected and installed by Wilson:

Wilson illustrates how museum classification, by hygienically separating history into clean compartments, creates a tidy structure of institutional denial. “Metalwork” juxtaposes Baltimore repose silver with iron slave chuckles, making the point that a luxury economy was built on the system of slavery …


Wilson also uses labels to reveal the strange historical coincidences between objects that are assumed to be unrelated. The rhetorical similarities between language used to describe tolling for ducks and tracking runaways seem hardly coincidental when placed beside a broadside that tells how one escaped slave “decoyed” another … (p. 15)


[B]y questioning how omissions from cultural and historical narratives occur, Wilson provides a strategy for the audience to reclaim the terrain of the museum for itself. Often the admission of a dysfunctional past is used to disarm adversarial criticism. If reform is only skin deep, it can be easily co-opted by a recalcitrant establishment. If this should happen, what does it imply for real reform of museum practice, for real ideological change? (p. 18)

Herein lies the relevance to today’s pressing questions about how museums operate: If audiences are implicated in the unfolding of history, and in its telling, they become, through Wilson’s project, participants in creating the expertise of the museum and in the ways in which histories are represented. They can add to them, revise them, remake them. If Wilson’s strategies compel viewers of the work, those operating both inside and outside the museum structure itself, to see how reorganizing objects and labeling them intentionally might communicate something radically different than the previous displays of those objects, then the power harnessed in such decision making is laid bare. And once Wilson interrupts the presented narrative using the very vocabularies of established museum methods, he cracks open the “artificial boundaries” typically governing museum work. Indeed Corrin notes, “The project dealt with the power of objects to speak when the “laws” governing museum practices are expanded and the artificial boundaries museums build are removed (p. 8).

The book ends, remarkably, with two sections of feedback on the exhibition, the first by docents charged with its interpretation, followed by responses from museum visitors. The range and thoughtfulness of these rejoinders, alongside the idiosyncrasies of their handwriting on the survey forms, are a museum wonk’s dream of the potential for public engagement including reactions that are positive, negative, and everything in between. Mining the Museum does what it sets out to do: including its publics in the stories society tells of history, reintroducing the messiness that invariably gets edited out, embedding both museum workers and audiences between the storylines, and revealing the potential for public participation in the expertise of the museum, which is surely a radical act.

Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson was published by The New Press in 1994. It is now out of print. It was edited by Lisa G. Corrin, the curator of the exhibition on which the book is based.

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