J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, May 01, 2018

New Light from Museum Labels

Last month the Hyperallergic site published an interesting essay by Sarah E. Bond titled “Can Art Museums Help Illuminate Early American Connections to Slavery?”

The essay describes how the Worcester Art Museum has added information about forced labor to its presentation of this 1763 portrait of Lucretia Murray:
While the older museum label for the portrait had underscored the characteristic style of 18th-century painter John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) and pointed to his allusion to styles adopted by the British nobility, a new label now caught my eye. It informed me that Lucretia’s father owned two enslaved persons whom he later left in his will to family members. One was named Sylvia and the other Worcester.
The mere mention of those people enslaved to John Chandler reminds us as we view the painting that the wealth evident in it—evident even in its existence—arose from a slave-owning economy.

Bond elaborates:
The economic benefits of slavery are now explicit on the labels at WAM. Beside a painting by John Wollaston of Charles Willing (1746), a newly added label notes that the Philadelphia merchant owned four slaves. Using a copy of Willing’s will and articles from the Philadelphia Gazette, WAM invites viewers to grapple with the fact that Willing owned: a “Negroe Wench Cloe,” a “Negroe Girl Venus,” a “Negro Man John,[”] and a “Negro Boy Litchfield.” These facts make it harder to deify eighteenth and nineteenth century New Englanders and profoundly alter how we view the portrait.
I’m not sure anyone was “deifying” those New Englanders before, but it was easier for visitors to look at them with unabashed nostalgia.

That said, labels that spotlight slavery may leave other fundamental injustices in shadow. In particular, the land under John Chandler’s home, and under the Worcester Art Museum, and under the house I’m typing in, and probably under the place where you’re reading this, was taken from indigenous peoples without fair compensation.

Highlighting slave ownership by people in portraits can remind us of how slavery was enforced in Massachusetts before 1783. But for decades after that date Massachusetts remained part of the U.S. of A.’s slavery economy. The textile industry that fueled industrialization depended on slave-raised cotton.  And some of the other big fortunes of nineteenth-century Massachusetts, and thus some of the other big philanthropic bequests, grew from trafficking opium into China.

Another set of questions involves the labels themselves. If I read Bond’s essay correctly, the Worcester Art Museum’s label for the Lucretia Murray simply notes two people enslaved to her father. Making those names visible is important; it’s the first step to recognizing them as individuals. But more digging produces more information about Sylvia and Worcester.

TOMORROW: Mother and son.

No comments: