Unusual alliance produces artistic tour de force MEMORABLE MOMENTS

December 27, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

"Mining the Museum" is unquestionably the most significant art event in Baltimore in 1992 because it has so much meaning on so many levels. It's like a splash of cold water, opening our eyes to possibilities we had not even thought of.

Museums have collaborated before, but this is a collaboration between the oldest and, at least formerly, the most conservative museum in Baltimore, the Maryland Historical Society, and the newest and most radical, the Museum for Contemporary Arts. If they can collaborate successfully, who can't?

The historical society was also willing to break with tradition and allow a non-curator -- an artist, actually -- to come in and use its collections in any way he wanted. He asked for carte blanche and got it, and it paid off for all concerned.

The artist is Fred Wilson, who had become known in New York for his installations related to the museum experience but who had not worked with a museum collection. It was a coup for Baltimore to get him, and an opportunity that pleased him -- a perfect match.

The installation he put together is important for what it is -- it deals with the African-American and American-Indian experience in Maryland. The Indian part isn't very good. But the African-American part (which is almost all of the exhibition) is dramatic and exciting at the same time that it is a sobering indictment of the treatment of blacks in Maryland.

The installation is also important for where it is because it indicts cultural institutions for neglecting black history, and it does that in part at the historical society's expense. Example: Wilson labeled a row of pedestals -- with nothing on them -- Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, to show that the Maryland Historical Society does not have busts of those famous Marylanders. By enthusiastically participating in the project, and in the process taking its lumps in public, so to speak, the historical society went a long way toward changing the image of an institution that has not been regarded as a champion of black history in the past.

That row of bustless pedestals is one example among many of the striking ways Wilson used and juxtaposed museum objects; he wasn't afraid to flout accepted museum practice, and thereby may have helped point the way toward less tradition-bound shows in the future. He put together objects of different periods and functions, such as a late 20th-century computer on a mid-18th-century dining table. He covered up nine-tenths of the surface of a picture to force the viewer to concentrate on the one-tenth that was left uncovered. He used objects in less-than-exhibit condition -- you could almost see the ghosts of curators past shrinking in horror as he put on view the portrait with a rip through its face.

These things weren't done merely to violate convention, however; they were -- or were made -- pertinent to the subject at hand. Wilson put slave shackles in a case with fancy silver to show that the society that could afford the silver was built on slave labor. He put a row of 19th-century chairs in front of a whipping post, and one could easily picture proper ladies and gentlemen complacently watching blacks being beaten.

As we, the viewers, proceeded through Wilson's creation, we found ourselves re-examining not only the objects, but ourselves and our values. Whites, for instance, may have noticed blacks for the first time in pictures seen repeatedly. Maybe we were brought face to face with our snobbishness about what kinds of objects are important and why, as we recognized that slave shackles and a whipping post say as much about us as repousse silver and formal portraits.

Finally, this is, in part, an unabashed attempt by the historical society to broaden its audience -- and it has, by 30 percent so far -- but it's not a gimmick. It is a serious project on a serious subject done in such a way that you can't wait to get into it and don't want to leave. And, in a time when budgets are tightening and loan shows are consequently harder to do, this is a project that shows how to use a museum's own collection in original ways. And how!

You can still see "Mining the Museum," by the way, because it will be at the historical society until Feb. 27.

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