'Mining' exhibit shatters records, opens eyes at Historical Society

March 01, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Long before it closed yesterday, the revolutionary installation "Mining the Museum" had set all-time records the Maryland Historical Society will not soon or easily surpass.

From April, when the exhibit opened, to mid-February, attendance at the society was 53,759 compared with 40,393 during the same period the previous year. In January and again in February, more than 4,000 people took group tours of the exhibit -- another record. Attendance the last weekend, including a Saturday night celebration attended by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, totaled 871.

But numbers alone don't begin to tell the story of this project, in which Fred Wilson, a New York installation artist, used the historical society's collection in highly unusual ways to recount the African-American (and to a lesser extent the American Indian) experience in Maryland. And to tell how that experience is -- and more to the point how it is not -- reflected in the society's collections.

By putting slave shackles in a case with a fancy silver service and placing Victorian chairs in front of a whipping post, Wilson made his audiences rethink their history and their attitudes.

By showing busts of white heroes such as Andrew Jackson in company with pedestals labeled with the names of black heroes such as Frederick Douglass -- but no busts -- Wilson showed how institutions and collectors have neglected black history.

A ground-breaking and creative collaboration between the society, one of the state's oldest and most traditional museums, and the Contemporary, a young and radically innovative museum without walls, the project made the art world sit up and take notice.

The New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as The Sun, called "Mining" one of the best art events of the year.

The Economist of London wrote: "In the visitors' book both people descended from slave owners and people descended from slaves say they have been able to share the artist's vision of history."

Sarah Tanguy in Sculpture magazine wrote: "Wilson's entire exhibit turns the society's collection on its ear, launching a multisensory attack at the cultural, social and political assumptions underlying the museum, its collecting patterns and its display techniques."

As all acknowledge, "Mining" was of major benefit to everyone involved. Aside from record attendance, the society benefited from exposure to Wilson's innovative ideas and techniques, including video and audio. It also benefited from a widening of its audience, especially among the black community. In fact, the society considers "Mining" so important that it's seeking funds to bring Wilson back this year to do a permanent "Mini-Mining" installation.

"It's one of the things that probably happens to institutions very rarely," says society director Charles Lyle, "a blockbuster that's the antithesis of a blockbuster -- a $30,000 show using the museum's collection."

For the Contemporary, it has meant increased national attention. It was a stroke of genius to open it just before the American Association of Museums met here in April.

"There were 4,000 museum professionals in town, and because of word of mouth probably a couple more thousand museum professionals saw it during its run," says Lisa Corrin, assistant director of the Contemporary and curator of the show.

Susannah Cassidy, writing in Museum News, the magazine of the museum profession, stated: "The exhibit urges museum professionals and everyday visitors to investigate their perceptions of race, history, and the role [of] cultural institutions in shaping our views."

"One goal of this institution is to redefine the notion of museums and what they do," Corrin says. "It was an opportunity to illustrate concepts of a new and different museum and what its practices might be." She plans to publish a book on "Mining."

As for Fred Wilson, he has had invitations to do similar work from Cairo to Seattle, and his work will be in the biennial of contemporary art opening at New York's Whitney Museum this week.

At Saturday night's party he acknowledged the boost to his career but also cited the deeper satisfactions of the project. "It made my faith and trust in others bloom -- and my faith that art can make a difference in people's lives, museums can make TC difference in society and I can make a difference as an artist."

And he called the Contemporary and the historical society "the two most daring and open-minded, risk-taking and intelligent museums I have worked with in the past year."

Perhaps the highest praise for Wilson's work came from Ann B. Stoddard in the New Art Examiner:

"Wilson's genius lies in exposing the subjective racist bias underlying official American history while challenging the audience to reinterpret that history and inserting his own independent, African-American vision. In the end, instead of 'merely' deconstructing a historical collection, Wilson politicizes the entire context of mainstream history."

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