“Mining the Museum              Revisited”: A              Conversation with Fred              Wilson, Paula Marincola,   ...
Paula: Some people in the          focused on that.museum field believe that Mining            As you know, I’m a visual a...
the racial dimension of this. I’m a             mine.                black man, and I went to an institu-                 ...
Tktktktktknuanced view.                              research assistants are important,      I usually look in the archive...
od I look at what I have, and see if            mission to follow your informed                my early ideas for the fina...
tor’s complete and undivided sup-         museum’s collecting and selectiveport. MTM was great because the           displ...
Tktktktktk                   more specific as I go. For MTM, the          entrance. In one sequence I had my220           ...
tunately, I should have designed it.     you may not realize that your ques-I should have controlled everything,     tions...
or have an experience with it, but              Before I got them to other issues,                you really don’t know. I...
can grasp something from that lan-      preparation in exhibition planningguage. I just want engagement.          and muse...
Tktktktktk                   they realized that the museum was                Paula: Did you have any idea?               ...
at because they are institutions, justlike the government. That’s whythere are all the checks and bal-ances of the governm...
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A Conversation with Fred Wilson, Paula Marincola and Marjorie Schwarzer


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This article appears in the wonderful book Letting Go, edited by Benjamin Filene, Bill Adair and Laura Kolkoski (2011: Pew Charitable Trust).

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A Conversation with Fred Wilson, Paula Marincola and Marjorie Schwarzer

  1. 1. “Mining the Museum Revisited”: A Conversation with Fred Wilson, Paula Marincola, and Marjorie Schwarzer Rusty slave shackles frame a silver 19th-century teapot. Ornate parlor chairs surround a crude whipping post. A Ku Klux Klan hood lies in an elegant pram.214 These are enduring images from Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum installa- tion, presented at the Maryland Historical Society (MHS) in Baltimore from April 1992 to February 1993. Wilson, a New York-based artist of African American and Caribbean descent, was commissioned by curator Lisa G. Corrin and director George Ciscle of The Contemporary (now Contemporary Museum) in Baltimore to work with an institution of his choice to develop a site-specific work of art. He selected MHS because, as he recalls, “I felt really uncomfortable there.” By unearthing and juxtaposing artifacts from one historical society’s col- lection, Wilson exposed how museums frame a community’s history by what they choose to display and what they omit. Mining the Museum (MTM) rocked the museum field. As Randi Korn observed, “museum professionals who visited said it was a landmark exhibit; it made them feel humble and lost; they were dazed by the heartfelt questions it raised about history, truth, values, ownership, interpretative perspective.”1 MTM “stimulated so much enthusiasm within the profession,” wrote Corrin, that all types of museums “suddenly wanted ‘Fred Wilsons’ of their own; they were encouraged to look at their own collections with a renewed sense of purpose and possibility.”2 To this day, MTM remains a touchstone for how artists can challenge curatorial and institutional authority. In May 2010, Paula Marincola, executive cirector of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and Marjorie Schwarzer, professor of Museum Studies at John F. Kennedy University, sat down with Fred Wilson in his Brooklyn studio to discuss MTM’s legacy and explore Wilson’s thoughts on how his artistic process intersects with history museum practices. The following is excerpted from that conversation. Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority
  2. 2. Paula: Some people in the focused on that.museum field believe that Mining As you know, I’m a visual artist,the Museum (MTM) has been a and I came to this from both direc-model of how history organizations tions, from the museum field, butcan become more comfortable with also as an artist. So what I’m look-the problematic potential of shared ing to do is not wholly prescribedauthority. Others feel it has made by the mission of the institutionhistory museums more anxious or the reason why they bring mebecause of its provocative stance, in. I’m interested in expandingand, I think, because of the license my understanding of things, andthat you, as an artist, felt free to uncovering whatever kind of denialtake with conventional museologi- the institution has or the percep-cal techniques. What do you think tions that maybe I have a differentthe impact of MTM has been on view; and not doing the same thinghistory museum practice? Are you over and over. I’ve done thingsaware of that? Do you see that? about slavery several times, and Fred: I can’t say I have knowl- unless there’s a real different takeedge of that because history muse- on it, I don’t want to go down thatums are not where I usually go. I road again.wish I had a grant to go around I don’t like to do what I’ve doneto museums around the country, before. So often I’m invited by a 215around the world, and see what particular museum because theythe impact has been, but I have not know what I’ve done in the past,had the time or the opportunity, to and they think that I’m some kindreally understand, even to know, of a museum consultant. I knowwhat happened in Baltimore. I get that’s harsh, but I do think muse-snippets from people, but I really ums are looking for something newdon’t know. I’ve been back once in and different and somebody torecent years, and it was interesting look at the collections. If I’m notto see the data, what had changed. really jazzed by some way to get atI was only involved in two other it that is new to me, I’m not goinghistorical sites. One was a site in to go there.Old Salem, North Carolina, which Marjorie: Let’s talk about whathad a huge impact, and the other an artist brings to the table whenwas The Museums of History and working with a history museum.Ethnography and the National Traditional historians analyze pastGallery of Jamaica. I have some events in order to tell stories so thatidea of the immediate impact, but we may bear witness, commemo-I don’t know what the long-term rate, and perhaps in the best ofimpact is. I’m always involved cases, re-imagine the present andin the next project, and I really future. How do artists connect tohaven’t gone back to a historical this practice?site besides Jamaica and Old Salem. Fred: Before I get to that what ISo that’s also why I haven’t really have to say that you cannot ignore Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World
  3. 3. the racial dimension of this. I’m a mine. black man, and I went to an institu- Paula: —as opposed to factual tion about the 19th century where recapitulation. they had basically nothing [on dis- Fred: Factual yes, recapitulation play] about black people in a city no. Context determines everything that was majority African American. for me. Projects are different from You can’t ignore that what I saw one another because of it. Perhaps was not being seen for more than that gets lost when people try to one reason, not only conservatism. unpack what I do to find a system. It was obvious to me because it It changes from place to place was germane to my existence. because of the environment I’m in. So perhaps part of this conun- I have to absorb where I am. drum that museums find them- Paula: In terms of your working selves in is that they can’t wrap methods, do you read traditional their minds around something that historical texts? perhaps they, no matter what they Fred: No. do, could not see, and I’m not Paula: Oral histories? talking about the slavery. Once it’s Fred: No. out of the bag, obviously, it’s com- Paula: So the research you do pletely visible, but what I’m talking is archival?216 about is how personal it is when Fred: Put “research” in artists make works, how extremely quotations. personal it is. The racial thing is not Marjorie: It sounds like your the most personal part of it, but “research” is to go somewhere and how artists go towards an extreme “absorb where you are.” personal thing. You are going deep Fred: That’s right. inside, and you’re letting whatever Marjorie: What does that look comes out, come out. You don’t like? hold back, and this is something Fred: I’ll first say it simply and that the larger population would then get more complex. I meet really rather not do. everybody, look at everything, and Paula: So you’re saying that then make it work. what artists do is investigate and Marjorie: Who’s everybody? express their own highly specific Fred: As many people as I can responses to given situations. Can in the museum top to bottom. I try you tell us a bit about how you go to include everybody, because in about doing this? the end it becomes real important. Fred: I talk to people and look I also try to speak to many people at everything. I try to find out about outside the museum, to get differ- the things that I’m interested in and ent perspectives of the museum. follow that path. This is particularly important when I am working outside of the U.S., but Paula: What you do as an artist as museum people do have similar then is look for truth that is yours— training in the U.S. it is important to Fred: I look for truth that’s speak to the locals for a different, Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority
  4. 4. Tktktktktknuanced view. research assistants are important, I usually look in the archives— no matter how tangential they are.but not deeply. I look through as I have one notebook for each 217many things as I can. I respond to project in which I write down“the visual” first and foremost. I everything that strikes me. I writelook at the collection, and then I down ideas, but also commentsalso look at files or whatever form that people make in conversation,it’s in. If it’s vast, it’s a process of just offhand comments. Things thatmeandering. I may not get a mas- interest me, I’ll write them down.ter narrative of what the place is In the archive, when I see thingsabout, but [I do get] a snapshot. that are interesting—I write themI’m not looking for anything in down. Things that I think I’ll need, Iparticular, at first. I do read bits and write down.pieces of texts, first-person docu- Then I speak to lots of peoplements, and oral histories once I outside the museum. I ask thehave questions or get excited about Public Relations or Educationan artifact or artwork. The art and Department, “Can I speak tothe objects drive the bus for me. I groups of people that might comecall it “research,” but it’s not what to the exhibition?” It is ethno-anyone else would call research. I graphic, but I don’t make bordersdo take liberties, poetic license, if between friendship and informa-you will, but it’s usually obviously tion gathering. In ethnography,so. I am very concerned that what I there are real issues about that, butend up with cannot be discounted I’m not in that dialogue, and don’ton factual grounds, so my research want to be. I’m both ethnographerand my conversations with cura- and native informant.tors, scholars, and graduate school By the end of the research peri- Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World
  5. 5. od I look at what I have, and see if mission to follow your informed my early ideas for the final project instinct. still seem germane. Sometimes they Fred: I try to inform myself as do because you come into a situ- much as I can. It’s the story of my ation and you’re so new that you life. My family moved every five see something no one else is see- years within New York City, and, ing. Other times you realize that, in order to exist in these different well, everybody knows that. You’re environments, I had to become just new to it. So the ideas are no a different person, realizing that longer of interest. That’s part of the people saw me in a particular way process. according to the environment. Of course, curators’ scholarship I had to fit in as a black child in influences me—I’m not doing deep an all-white school in suburban research, so I rely on them for what Westchester County. they know about their collection. I Then we moved into this black think a reason why museums don’t and Latino neighborhood in the mind my projects is because they Bronx. Looking like everybody else see a lot of what they know reflect- but not having the same experience ed in what I end up with. I may was another negotiation that I had have a different point of view, but to do. So, I’m always negotiating218 I take very seriously what curators environments, and context has have to say, the hard information, always been important to me as a their scholarship. So, I think they’re way to survive. When you are on not wholly upset about what I end the fringe of environments and up doing. not central to what they’re about, Paula: So you’re like an you hit the edges. You hit the hard ethnographer/historian? edges. Fred: Yeah, I don’t deny the I figured out how to negoti- ethnography aspect of it because I ate in life from a very young age, do talk to people and look at every- understanding that people are not thing, and try to find out about necessarily seeing you for who you the things that I’m interested in are, and you may not understand and follow that path. Of course, them entirely. That has completely just because I’m African American informed my exhibition-making and doesn’t mean that I knew what the my projects wherever I go. response of people in Baltimore Paula: When you do a project, would be to their own history. I how much active negotiation with learned later that there were things organizations takes place for you? that were more specifically mean- How do you arrive at the level of ingful than I thought when I ended trust that you need? up doing the project. It happens Fred: I make friends with the all the time, but luckily in my work people that I work with, the cura- there I realized how much I could tors and everyone. The other thing push that environment. is that I only do projects if I have Paula: You give yourself per- the director and/or the chief cura- Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority
  6. 6. tor’s complete and undivided sup- museum’s collecting and selectiveport. MTM was great because the display, how that effects the collec-directors and chief curators of the tions, the history, and the meaning;Contemporary Museum—George and what it is communicating toCiscle and Lisa Corrin—and of the the viewer, especially to me. Plus aMHS—Charles Lyle and Jennifer myriad of other questions that fanGoldsborough—made sure things out before me while I am makinghappened. I’ll say it again and the exhibition. The exhibition is theagain; I learned a huge amount vehicle for this investigation andfrom the Contemporary Museum the product, the art. But in the end,about dealing with communities, for me, the museum is the subject.dealing with museums, and I replay I try to come to each museum asa lot of what I took from the expe- a blank slate, because I won’t dis-rience of doing MTM in different cover anything new if I arrive withsituations. preconceived notions. So, no, I So, it’s a combination of talk- don’t have a theory.ing to everybody and having the Paula: You didn’t go tosupport of those in power so those Baltimore thinking, “I’m going toconversations happen. transgress the Historical Society.” Marjorie: Where else are you Fred: That’s right. I had nodrawing your inspiration from? You idea. Even after it was done I didn’t 219said your core idea and the core really realize how far I’d gone.reaction you had was visceral, emo- Marjorie: A historian’stional, very deep— approach is to tell a story. You say Fred: Yes. “I’m going to tell a story and if I’m Marjorie: – and you had to really good at it, I’m going to tell italmost mine yourself and your reac- in a new way.” How is that differ-tions to the pieces. ent from your practice? Fred: Right. Fred: I never would use the Marjorie: Where I’m going word “story.” I’m not trying to tellwith this is that historians will typi- a story. Obviously, each tableau incally be inspired by a nugget, an MTM had a particular organization.artifact, something they’ve read, a These things do kick in, but it’s notconversation. where I start. The project starts Fred: Those things are similar with the research; the more time Iin my case. But historians are deal- have to research better. Then I pulling with a particular time period out nuggets of interesting things,or subject and the nugget they and ask myself “what is the threadfind is within that. My focus is the for all this stuff?” What am I feel-museum. ing excited about, upset about? Is Paula: Maybe what you mean there an overarching relationshipis that you don’t have a theory between these things and the envi-beforehand that you’re looking to. ronment I’m in? Fred: What I mean is I am The third part is putting itlooking at the ramifications of the together as an exhibition. I get Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World
  7. 7. Tktktktktk more specific as I go. For MTM, the entrance. In one sequence I had my220 wall color of the rooms had a great shirt off and was walking through deal to do with what I wanted the galleries, saying things like, people to feel, and how I was feel- “I dreamt I was at the Maryland ing about the information as I laid Historical Society, and everything it out. I was particularly interested was the same but different.” in historical colors and how I could I did that because I wanted squeeze color for emotive mean- people to understand—well, some- ing. I think the first space was gray. thing’s going to be odd about this I can’t remember now. Isn’t that exhibition. Also, I put myself in funny? It was an orientation space. there. It’s me and not the institu- I wanted people first to understand tion, and of course, you see that how to read the exhibition. Nobody I’m not a white American. So that I met outside the museum there were lots of things I wanted had ever been to MHS or maybe people to, at some level, have in they went as a kid. It’s that kind of their thoughts as they went into place. So, the audience, as far as the exhibition. I didn’t tell them I knew, was going to be Historical what the exhibition was about. I Society people. And, here I was just made this impressionist video changing the form of display. because that’s basically what I even went to the lengths of the exhibition was going to be: making an impressionistic video impressionistic. of me going through the galler- The Historical Society made ies. This videotape was the first a big banner for me. I told them thing I had in the front downstairs, I wanted it to be red, black, and one of the few things I had in the green. So, they did that, and unfor- Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority
  8. 8. tunately, I should have designed it. you may not realize that your ques-I should have controlled everything, tions are what the whole thing isbut I didn’t. about, but you have these ques- Marjorie: This is what happens tions that are lingering. That waswhen you share authority, eh? my thought about that space and Fred: Exactly! the things I was finding. I thought Paula: So, you’re not for shared that the globe was just so unusual,authority. an amazing object. Fred: No, I’m not. I mean, as Marjorie: The globe?an artist you’re not really sharing. Fred: The silver truth trophy,I don’t think people should share a silver globe, with the wordauthority to the degree that you “truth” across it. Fascinating object,devalue your own scholarship, your bizarre, and so I thought it was aown knowledge. That’s not sharing great thing to start the exhibitionanything. You’re not giving what with because what I was doing wasyou have. That is highly problem- not anti-connoisseurship. It wasn’tatic. You have to be realistic about anti-visual. It wasn’t anti-beautyyour years of experience, what you because I think beauty is one ofcan give, and what others can give. these wonderful things that muse- That’s why I respect curators; ums and artists have in their arsenalthey have information that I don’t to engage people nonverbally. 221know and I could never know and You either got it or you didn’tI don’t necessarily want to know. get it. Basically, the whole exhibi-(Laughter) I respect that. Anyway, I tion was like that. It’s what I’m giv-gave up authority completely about ing up, what I’m trusting. What I’mthe design of the banner, and giving up is that there are peopleas I think about it, I should have who will not get it, scratch theirdesigned it myself. I thought I was head, and keep on going. As anclear, but the way it was designed, artist, that’s the way it works, youif you don’t have the colors in a know.certain way, it’s just three colors. It’s an internal experience thatSo, I was disappointed with the you can take or leave, and that’sbanner, but I had so much happen- fine for me. I think institutions reallying at that moment that I just let want a certain amount of informa-it go. tion to be understood by all– they The exhibition itself, the first have a certain goal, and they wantspace was really about these ques- this goal to be hit as best it can.tions, asking these questions, Exhibitions are not perfect vesselspeople asking themselves ques- for that, so I just go with that. It’stions. In the first gallery, there are a perfect vessel for art as far as I’ma lot of weird things, funny things concerned. Within that, I’m push-in that space with no explanation. ing these things and not knowingSo that, to me, was the introduc- if people are going to run outtion to how one might have to deal screaming (I’m joking, of course). Iwith this exhibition. At that point, assume that people would enjoy it Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World
  9. 9. or have an experience with it, but Before I got them to other issues, you really don’t know. It’s like any that they understood the language, artwork. I’ve done as much as I can like it or not, and that they were to sort of put all my feeling into this reading these things with that thing, and what happens, happens. language. I just put it all in there, and let Marjorie: I remember when the chips fall where they may. I went to see MTM. I walked in My artworks don’t change cold, meaning Let’s go for a nice museums; they change individuals. afternoon stroll, and I came up the This is what art does. If you have elevator, and there it was. I have a personal experience with the to say it knocked my world apart, artwork, and it’s safe because you honestly. I remember the lighting can have it inside you. Nobody has on the canvases. to know that you didn’t notice that Fred: Oh yes. That was very this museum you’ve been going to important. all these years said nothing about Marjorie: I’d seen antebellum slavery. paintings many times, and suddenly I really was thinking about the the lighting was turned to highlight people that were coming to the the slaves. institutions that I was used to see- Fred: Yes, yes.222 ing. When I came there one day Marjorie: That’s when I started people were all dressed in antebel- to shake, because, Fred, I grew up lum outfits. It was like— in Maryland and in the third grade, Paula: Re-enactors. we were explicitly taught that Fred: Yes, and I was looking for Maryland never had slaves. my free papers [from slavery] all the Fred: Oh, that’s bizarre. time. (Laughter) Anyway, that’s the Marjorie: I’m giving you my audience that I saw as coming to personal reaction to how meaning- the museum, and so I didn’t want ful that exhibition was to me. to lose them entirely. Fred: Wow. The historical Paula: So they were in your dimension is important for me, mind in part? the scholarship of others, but then Fred: They were totally in my there’s this whole personal thing, mind. I really wanted people to people’s experiences where I know walk a certain direction so they that I’m only touching the surface. experienced MTM in a certain Paula: Do you think that view- way. So, that’s as close to a story ers need to see themselves in the as I get. I wanted them to have museum? this experience in a linear fashion Fred: I don’t know. What I try because I had different areas of to do is . . . all artists like a conver- engagement with the subject, and sation with a person on whatever I wanted them to first try to grasp level they can grasp what you’re the language of this exhibition, putting out there. You are speaking how to negotiate it, how to read it. your language and hopefully they Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority
  10. 10. can grasp something from that lan- preparation in exhibition planningguage. I just want engagement. and museum interpretation.”3 Paula: But you know you can’t Fred: So first let me ask you:control that, right? what he’s saying is all about, Fred: I cannot control it. No “Dammit, we just thought we werecurator can control that. No educa- able to control everything again,tor can control it. I mean, history and now he’s telling me we can’t.museums are more concerned than We’re not in control.” To me it’s likeart museums about audience expe- that’s just so problematic, I can’trience. I think I am a little more in even—that direction, but I don’t want to Paula: Can’t even go there?lead anybody in any kind of didac- Fred: It would be lovely for onetic way. That’s kind of where I draw person to have this kind of impactthe line. I have a problem with edu- alone, but to me, it’s really aboutcators who want to lead it to the who has control.degree where they [visitors] are not Paula: Or who can let go ofhaving their own real experience. control. Paula: In an article that Fred: Yeah, letting go of con-Marjorie sent me this past weekend trol yet again.from Curator: The Museum Journal, Paula: Right.there was something apropos this Fred: Redoing the paradigm 223whole notion of shared authority seemed to be good for the public,that I thought was interesting. The but in happenstance, by accident,author, Ken Yellis, writes: The “dis- I’m revealing that there are stilltortion of museum time and related control issues even in museums’techniques in Wilson’s arsenal— refiguring out how to deal with theespecially his use of legerdemain, public.his counter intuitive juxtapositions Paula: I picked that quote outof objects and his satirical employ- because, for me, what artists do isment of curatorial nomencla- assume their own authority in theture—constitute, I think, the key to situation.MTM’s mind-altering power. The Fred: Exactly, but what istechniques are, however, it seems most freeing is that people toldto me, also directly linked to the me—museum directors told memuseum field’s equivocal response and other people at the Americanto his work. To accomplish what Association of Museums [confer-Wilson does, we would have to vio- ence held in 1992 in Baltimore]—late every rule we have learned in that they saw the whole museum,our entire experience. And those of and then they went to my exhibi-us who cut our teeth in the muse- tion. It was obviously so subjective,um education trade would have what I did, but because of the his-to forego one of our most hard- tory of slavery, MTM had meaningswon achievements: the increased beyond just me. But when theyemphasis on visitor orientation and went back through the museum, Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World
  11. 11. Tktktktktk they realized that the museum was Paula: Did you have any idea? not as objective as they thought, Fred: No. I had no idea. I was and that it was just as subjective as doing what I do.224 what I was doing. What I did with this project So that, to me, is the money within the art world, as you know, shot. That, to me, is the—you has been going on since the late know, that is what is important sixties. Clearly, the notion of insti- to me. Not the history of slavery, tutional critique and site specificity particularly because a lot has been and looking and revealing through written about slavery. It’s the visual terms was going on. I added museum’s framing of slavery and a racial scenario in museum exhibi- the narrative that one gets used tions in a more specific way than that is kind of curious to me. Also, other people may have done, but, in this particular institution, the you know, it was part of a con- total negation of a crucial part of tinuum. It was part of a continuum Maryland’s history that has impact- as an artwork, and like the Lone ed so many of its citizens was kind Ranger, you walk off into the sun- of outrageous to me, but I realized set after you’ve done your thing. that after I got the piece done. It Paula: (Laughter) was not what I was thinking about, Fred: I mean, I don’t want to and certainly doing the project, I be the Lone Ranger, but maybe had no concept that it would have Tonto. any far-reaching— Paula: What do you think is Paula: I was just going to ask left to do in terms of how institu- you that. tional narratives are overturned or Fred: I mean I didn’t do this undone or questioned? thing, “I’m gonna change the Fred: I think there will always world!” be another layer that can be looked Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority
  12. 12. at because they are institutions, justlike the government. That’s whythere are all the checks and bal-ances of the government, becausethere’s always something that canbe looked at and made better. It’sthe nature of these institutions tokind of control and cover. Paula: It’s power. Fred: That’s the nature ofpower. Condensed and edited byMarjorie Schwarzer with PaulaMarincola and Benjamin Filene1. Thanks for Mia Breitkopf, executive assistant at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, for her organizational and 225 technical skills in helping to realize this conversation.Quoted in K. Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” Curator: The Museum Journal 52, no. 4 (2009): 353.2. Lisa Corrin, “Mining the Museum: an Installation Confronting History,” Curator: The Museum Journal 36, no. 4 1994): 311.3. Yellis, “Fred Wilson, 337–38. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World