Down in the storage vaults of the Maryland Historical Society, Fred Wilson found a curious juxtaposition: an 18th century sedan chair belonging to the last governor of Maryland appointed by the King of England, and a whipping post.
What do they have to do with African-American history in Maryland? The role of the whipping post is obvious, that of the sedan chair a little less so, but it was no doubt carried by blacks.
Wilson was searching the society's collection for objects to include in "Mining the Museum," his just-opened installation resulting from what surely constitutes the most unusual art collaboration in Baltimore: a joint project of Baltimore's oldest, most traditional museum (the MHS), its youngest, most radical museum (the Museum for Contemporary Arts) and a New York conceptual artist (Wilson) whose specialty is exhibits relating to the museum experience.
Last year, for instance, he put on view in a New York art gallery four mannequins of blacks dressed in uniforms in the styles of four New York museums. The point was that that's pretty much all the black presence you ever see in museums: not art by blacks, or art with blacks in it, or blacks on the curatorial staffs, just blacks as guards. And you don't see them, because guards become part of the background, like the walls.
He tells the story of brunching last year at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York with a group of docents whom he was going to take on a tour of one of the museum's exhibits. "I told them it was going to be a little different because I'd be in costume. Then I excused myself and changed into a Whitney guard's uniform and went to where the tour was to begin. The group came in and were milling around, and not a single one of them recognized me."
At 37, Wilson has become celebrated for deconstructing the usual museum experience in order to analyze and criticize museums' traditional practices and attitudes, and especially how they reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes. Or, as he puts it, "I do something outrageous or absurd to break out of what we see in museums, and make people think a little more."
Until now, however, his installations have been in galleries, with reproductions of museum artifacts. Until now, the Museum for Contemporary Arts (or the Contemporary) has staged its exhibits in empty, abandoned spaces: a onetime ballroom, a closed bus terminal, the former home of a car dealership.
This time, Wilson, whom the Contemporary brought to the historical society, has been given carte blanche to use its collection, with which he has assembled an installation about the African-American and American Indian experience in Maryland and also about the historical society.
If that sounds like a bomb ready to blow up in the society's face, people there don't see it that way.
"We really have nothing to lose," says chief curator Jennifer Goldsborough. "As a collaboration it lets us a little off the hook." That is, even if the installation criticizes the historical society, the society gets credit for its broad-mindedness and daring in allowing itself to be criticized with its own collection. But, Goldsborough adds, "The more we've gotten to know Fred, the safer we feel. And besides, if it isn't a little challenge there's probably not much point in doing it."
And, says society director Charles Lyle, it offers an opportunity for the historical society to counter its own stereotype. "Our image is very conservative. We hope to break down the stereotypes of what this museum's collections are and bring in ++ people who normally wouldn't come here." He refers to the contemporary art community as well as the African-American and American Indian communities. And the meeting of the American Association of Museums in Baltimore later this month will bring in 4,000 museum professionals from all over the country, giving the project national exposure.
As for the Contemporary, it will get exposure to the historical society's regular audience, a group that probably hasn't been seen in significant numbers at its past shows. "Both [institutions] will have gained a very new kind of audience," says Lisa Corrin, the Contemporary's assistant director and curator of "Mining the Museum."
The whole idea began early last year, when the Contemporary had an exhibit of Soviet photography in one of the buildings of the empty Greyhound bus terminal on Centre Street just behind the society's buildings.
As Corrin remembers, "Charles Lyle called us up and acted as a sort of welcome wagon. We met with him, and he said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could work together?' "