Sunday, November 8, 2015

Considering Rewind at the Baltimore Museum of Art: Emotion and Learning

Shakia Gullette, Curator of Exhibitions at the Banneker-Douglass Museum,  is one of my 2015 mentees. We've had wide-ranging conversations, from career plans to meaningful exhibits to issues of inclusion within the museum field itself.  In this guest post she expands some of our conversations to share her reflections and analysis of Paul Rucker's exhibition, Rewind, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Please be aware that there are challenging and disturbing images included in this post.

 “Baltimore is America amplified—the good and the bad. It’s where the North meets the South, and has so much historical information. I couldn’t think of a better place to do this project”
Paul Rucker

In September, Linda shared her experience at the New Founde Lande pageant and she briefly mentioned Rebecca Herz’s blog post titled, Should Exhibits Tell Stories? Herz addresses three issues/advantages that may arise during storytelling, which include storytelling as kitsch, stories evoking emotion, and the anti-storytelling moment. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Paul Rucker’s highly anticipated exhibition Rewindat the Baltimore Museum of Art and immediately, I thought about Herz’s post. I knew this exhibit was designed to stir emotions and I wanted to truly examine how being led by emotions affected my experience.

As I was entering the exhibit, I wondered, how emotional is too emotional when you are already invested in the subject matter? How can you get past what you already think you know to learn something new? Rewind allowed me to explore both questions while confronting challenges we face each day as Americans.  

As I approached the entry of the Rewind exhibition, I was greeted by two people who appeared to be quite rattled. I asked them what they thought of the exhibit, the gentleman responded, “I didn’t like it and you should turn back around.” Initially, his response puzzled me, but then I knew this exhibition would challenge me to think differently. Yet, I wondered how this couple felt. Had their brief encounter with this exhibition scarred them? Where they so shocked by the content that they hadn’t learned anything? Even after I ran through these questions in my mind, I continued to pursue the exhibit.

Rewind focuses on race in America and how history repeats itself in different ways. Rucker uses a transmedia narrative, which created an immersive experience for the exhibition guest. He explains in his meticulously researched exhibition guide that his life’s work is meant to shock the attendee into thinking. Rucker began researching his exhibit content in 1992 after the LA Riots which were incited by police violence. He followed many of the outcomes and began to draw parallels with lynching. In the section titled Stories from the Trees we were able to see images from lynching’s magnified from their original postcard format and transferred onto throw blankets.  To honor the legacy of the story behind each slain individual, Rucker carefully placed the remaining throw blankets atop a safe which housed the artist’s Glock 22 semi-automatic gun which he used in another section of the exhibition. Stories from the Trees left me thinking about Baltimore native Billy Holiday’s song Strange Fruit and how 76 years after the songs release, the lyrics are still relevant. 

At this point in my visit it became apparent to me; there can be a balance of emotional investment and learning in exhibition storytelling. Sometimes, museum professionals take for granted the power we harness when we are able to bring a different layer to a past event in our history. Rucker was able to remove the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) from the confines of a text book and bring them to life with a very modern twist. Initially, the sight of 21 life sized mannequins dressed in KKK robes made my heart race. Rucker refers to this section as Birth of the Nation. Here, the artists recalls his experience as an onlooker at a Klan rally but through his creative lens, recast the KKK robes using camouflage, satin, and Kente.  After exploring each garment, I felt less threatened. I confronted my own definition of fear and white supremacy, and thought about how seeing these images in books as a child affected me. I then witnessed a father explaining to his three daughters that the KKK are “very bad people” and they are like terrorists. After overhearing his explanation, I tuned in as I had great expectation for the rest of their conversation. As the father began walking his girls through the exhibit, the mother came rushing in and demanded the children be taken out of the exhibit. Although the lesson had been cut short, I applauded the father for initiating the conversation and potentially changing the way the next generation will approach race relations.

The initial shock of the exhibition forced me outside of my own thoughts. In my mind, I thought I had a good handle on my knowledge base but I found myself deeply engaged in the exhibition guide—much like the artist intended. As I was engaged in the exhibition, I felt my perspective being challenged. I was no longer led by emotion because the artist armed me with a great deal of facts about lynching, unnecessary violence statistics, and how the number of prisons has increased since the 1940s.  I looked around to see if others were having the same revelation that I was experiencing. Sadly, I witnessed numerous people walk past the exhibition as if the art were non-existent. I considered that the content may have been too heavy and then it hit me. Rucker’s point was proven—we do not directly address the issues that plague the United States and this intentional silence means we constantly make the same mistakes again and again—hints the title Rewind.  

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