Clark Mills, John Caldwell Calhoun, , Plaster. Deposited by Benjamin J. Howland, 1846.
How should cultural institutions contextualize, interpret, and facilitate meaningful dialogue around controversial objects? On September 15th, Lizzie Barker and David Dearinger initiated a public conversation about a difficult object in our own collection: a plaster bust of John C. Calhoun, the United States Senator and Vice President who famously argued that slavery was “a positive good” for the country. After inviting attendees to examine the bust closely, David discussed the career of its creator, the sculptor Clark Mills (American, 1815-1883), and noted the artist’s use of slave labor in the casting of large equestrian monuments. Explaining that the bust had only recently been removed from a niche in the fifth floor reading room, Lizzie shared her research into the construction of that space, and the influence of the Colonial Revival upon the Athenæum's expansion and remodeling in 1913-1914. Both presenters posed the question of whether the bust should remain within the niche, given the troubling nature of Calhoun’s legacy—and if it should not, what should happen next? A lively conversation with the audience generated a number of points for consideration:
What would happen to the bust once it is permanently removed from the niche?
What should take its place?
If it goes back, what can we do to reinterpret it or reframe it for viewers?
What other problematic portraits or objects appear in the spaces of the Athenæum?
How can we use our portraiture to signal our awareness of the complexity of each person’s legacy?
How can we help to make the spaces of the Athenæum more welcoming to diverse members and visitors?
Can we invite artists, historians, performers, and others to intervene within the space of the Athenæum, both materially and intellectually?
Athenæum staff invite you to respond to these questions. We’ve put the bust on the table outside the fifth floor elevator so that everyone can look at it more closely and think creatively about its future. We’re compiling a bibliography of up-to-date, relevant resources—editorials, journal articles, and other materials—to share with our members, and we welcome your contributions and recommendations. And we’ll be hosting another conversation about the bust of Calhoun, among other objects, in December. Stay tuned for that date…we look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Monument Wars 2017: Selected Bibliography
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