In Fred Wilson's installation "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society there is a colonial portrait by Justus Engelhardt Kuhn of "Henry Darnall" as a child. The little white boy obviously comes from a wealthy family because he's richly dressed and near him stands a little black boy, his servant. As you walk up to the portrait, a spotlight illuminates the black boy's face and a recorded voice says, "Am I your brother?"
Wilson has chosen to focus on the black boy rather than the white boy, and the question he asks makes the viewer think about this work in new ways. First, it refers to the fact that slave families were often cruelly wrenched apart -- the black boy may have no idea who his family is. Second, it reminds us of the biblical quotation "Am I my brother's keeper?" for the white boy "keeps" the black boy in the sense of owns, but the black boy "keeps" the white boy in the sense of takes care of. Third, we are reminded that these two may actually be half brothers, for many masters had sexual relations with their slaves. Fourth, in a contemporary context this asks whether blacks and whites have yet become brothers.
This is but one of many examples of Wilson's inventiveness in creating this fascinating, trailblazing work. A New York conceptual artist, he is known for his installations related to the museum experience, but had never before actually worked with a museum's collection. The project, presented jointly by the historical society and the Museum for Contemporary Arts, allowed Wilson to select from the historical society's entire collection to create an installation that covers a whole floor and employs everything from paintings and sculpture to slides and recordings.
It is about the African-American and the American Indian experience in Maryland. It is also about the historical society, but in a larger sense about museums in general and society as a whole. And it is, in most respects, a triumph. Creative, serious, sometimes startling and often challenging, it is the best project that the 2-year-old Contemporary has yet been involved with, and it may well be the most courageous project the 150-year-old historical society has ever undertaken.
A master of recontextualizing, Wilson repeatedly employs juxtaposition, labeling and other means to show objects in new contexts that jolt the viewer's consciousness. At one point, we come upon a painting of a family having a picnic out of doors. Everybody in the picture is white except for a black boy on the left obviously acting as a servant. Wilson has given the picture two labels. On the right is the "official" one: " 'Country Life' by Ernst Fischer." The label on the left reads " 'Frederick Serving Fruit' by Ernst Fischer." A revealing lesson in how labeling can change one's perception of a work of art.
A showcase containing a group of pieces of fancy 19th century Maryland repousse silver resembles cases of silver elsewhere in the museum, except that this case also contains, front and center, slave shackles,made in Baltimore. They remind us that the society which could afford such luxuries as this silver was built on slave labor.
At times, Wilson's work engages the historical society pointedly. At one point, one comes upon six pedestals. Three white pedestals, on the right, are labeled "Henry Clay," "Napoleon Bonaparte" and "Andrew Jackson," and on the pedestals are the busts of those three white men, none of them a Marylander.
On the left are three black pedestals, labeled "Harriet Tubman," "Frederick Douglass" and "Benjamin Banneker." But there's nothing on these pedestals, because the historical society doesn't own busts of those three famous black Americans, all of them Marylanders.
If this juxtaposition points a finger at the historical society, it's also pointing a finger at society in general. The historical society's collection is by and large made up of what people have given it, and it is not alone to blame for the fact that nobody has given busts of Tubman, Douglass and Banneker.
These are but a few examples of the points "Mining the Museum" has to make. Its cumulative effect is to shed light on the importance of the African-American contribution to Maryland (and America) and on how that contribution has been ignored. The work does have a flaw: the part devoted to American Indians is small, confusing and inadequate. Otherwise, this project is a major credit to all concerned.
The installation continues through May 30 at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Call (410) 685-3750.