Who writes history? How much of our view of the past is shaped by the conventions and expectations of a day at the museum? These questions are posed by "Mining the Museum," a provocative installation currently on display at the Maryland Historical Society. It is worth seeing.
At the entrance to the show stands an imposing display case flanked by pedestals and marble busts. On one side, pillars support a trio of white European males enshrined in stone -- none of whom, it turns out, ever lived in Maryland. The pedestals to the left, by contrast, are empty except for small brass plates inscribed with the names of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Benjamin Banneker -- three native Marylanders for whom the museum lacks likenesses. Evoking the disparity between history and its representation, the display forms the first of many sardonic commentaries on our skewed views of the past.
Another display juxtaposes the delicate craftsmanship of 18th-century Maryland silversmiths with the coarse ironwork of a set of slave shackles. Still another suggests the voyeuristic complacency of a caste-bound society by contrasting fine period chairs and a whipping post once used to flog prisoners at the Baltimore City Jail. Although all the objects are drawn from the museum's permanent collection, they have never before been displayed in such unorthodox fashion.