Return of the Whipping Post: Mining the Museum
(This is the second part of a two part series – The first part of the story was posted on October 3, 2013 and can be read here.)
When a museum acquires an artifact, it often goes directly into some dark storage area never to see the light of day again. This was the case when the Baltimore City jail donated its whipping post—used for over fifty years as a punishment for wife-beaters—to the Maryland Historical Society in 1963. The post remained largely forgotten in the depths of the Historical Society’s vast basement storage for nearly three decades. Then in 1992, New York artist Fred Wilson unearthed it for his celebrated and controversial exhibit, Mining the Museum.
A joint collaboration of the Contemporary Museum and the Maryland Historical Society, Mining the Museum ran from April 4, 1992 to February 28, 1993. While most museum exhibits come and go, educating, enlightening, and perhaps entertaining patrons for the weeks, months, or years they are on display, few resonate as powerfully as Wilson’s landmark exhibit has. Twenty years later, Mining the Museum continues to be discussed and is remembered as a benchmark in the history of museum exhibits.
The idea for the exhibit came about when Charles Lyle, then director of the Historical Society, suggested in an informal meeting with staff from the Contemporary Museum, that he was seeking new ways to up-date the way history was being presented at MdHS, while at the same time developing “an audience that reflected the cultural diversity of the community.”(1) Prior to the exhibit, the Maryland Historical Society had a history of ignoring or under representing the contributions of African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and other groups, to Maryland’s rich history.
Though he had never worked in an actual museum setting, The Contemporary enlisted New York artist Fred Wilson, who was known for creating “mock museum” installations during the 1980s. Wilson was given full and total access to the Maryland Historical Society’s huge collection of manuscripts, prints, paintings, and objects. He proceeded to create an emotionally charged exhibit that raised awareness of the way cultural institutions suppress, consciously or unconsciously, aspects of history that don’t fit into a specific narrative.
Wilson took the traditional methods of presenting objects in a museum setting and turned them on their head. In Wilson’s hands, the actual history of an object became less important than its symbolic potential. Using juxtaposition, redirection, irony, and his own idiosyncratic brand of humor, he confronted viewers with powerful symbolic uses of historical artifacts that put them in entirely new contexts: Nineteenth century silver repousse vessels displayed alongside iron slave shackles; Prints retitled to provide identities to previously anonymous figures – Benjamin Latrobe’s 1797 drawing, Preparations of the Enjoyment of a Fine Sunday among the Blacks, Norfolk, becomes Richard, Ned and their Brothers; a stark, white Ku Klux Klan hood—discovered in a house in Towson and donated anonymously—placed as the passenger in an early 20th century baby carriage.
The whipping post formed probably the most dramatic and visually arresting portion of the entire exhibit. When Wilson was “mining” objects from museum storage, he discovered the more than a century old instrument of punishment tucked away among a number of antique cabinets. This incongruous storage arrangement provided the artist with his ironic title for the installation “Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960.” Arranging antique Victorian chairs, dating from circa 1820 – 1896, around the post, Wilson created an effect that was jarring, laden with emotion, and provocative.
Although the post was built around 1885, and had never been used on slaves, many of those who saw the exhibit left the museum certain that it had been employed for that very purpose. This notion has only persisted with time. A 2001 Baltimore City Paper article noted that those attending the exhibit expected to see the exquisite antique chairs, fine silver, and artfully rendered portraits in the gallery, “but it’s shocking to realize that the same institution even owns a post where slaves were whipped.”(2) Another publication referred to the artifact as “a crude whipping post used to hold slaves for beating.”(3) One reviewer in 2003—aside from getting many of installation’s details wrong—seemingly implies that the institution of slavery in the United States continued well into the 20th century:
“In ‘Cabinet Making,’ his iconic exhibit, Wilson positioned period chairs at an observational distance from an actual whipping post used to tie up American slaves while they were being flogged. The title refers to craft—it’s all woodwork—but what Wilson tweaks are display conventions: why show the chairs of an era and not the torture devices? What are we trying to hide? The vinyl label on the wall above the chairs features the dates 1820-1960, which refers to the century and a half of the punishment’s shockingly lengthy life span.”(4)
Other patrons saw the cross shaped post and the surrounding chairs in religious terms. One visitor was startled when he entered the space, and encountered a “crucifix which turned out to be a whipping post.”(5) Wilson did nothing to counter the varied interpretations his work elicited and in fact encouraged them. The exhibit was, in his words, “charged by what you bring to it.”(6) He wanted viewers to have a visceral reaction, to analyze what they were seeing, hearing and feeling, and interpret for themselves what was being represented. Labels throughout the exhibit were few or had sparse information explaining the historical background of the objects on display. The caption for the whipping post read simply: WHIPPING POST, Platform and post, Gift of the Baltimore City Jail. Upon entering the exhibit, visitors were handed a sheet of paper with 17 questions designed to inspire them to think critically about their experience.
Museum staff were not exempt from Wilson’s approach—docents received little indication of the details of the exhibit prior to the opening and were essentially left to interpret and improvise tours on their own. This reflected Wilson’s own method of creation: “I go in with no script, nothing whatsoever in my head. I try to get to know the community that the museum is in, the institution, the structure of the museum, the people in the museum from maintenance crew to the executive director. I ask them about the world, the museum, and their jobs, as well as the objects themselves. I look at the relationship between what is on view and what is not on view. I never know where that process will lead me, but it often leads me back to myself, to my own experiences.”(7)
As an exhibit that attempted to subvert how one of the country’s oldest cultural institutions traditionally presented history, Mining the Museum was extremely controversial and divisive. Many were powerfully affected emotionally and intellectually and applauded Wilson’s unique and fresh approach to presenting history. Others saw Wilson’s methods as manipulative, disrespectful, or just incomprehensible. One patron wondered “How can the person responsible for this be stopped or redirected.” Another called it “the worst and most racist display I have ever seen in a museum!”(8) By the end of it’s run over 55,000 people had walked through the exhibit, making it the most popular exhibit in the history of the Maryland Historical Society.
Mining the Museum inspired other cultural institutions to examine the way they presented history. Following the success of the exhibit, Wilson continued mining museums around the world, producing similar exhibits at the Seattle Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In the summer of 1992, he traveled to Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw Poland, for an exhibit he titled Muzeum Impossible. With Poland’s transition from a Communist to a Democratic government barely a year old, Wilson again proved provocative – he.brought up “Social Realist paintings from the basement that they didn’t want to think about and put sculptures of Lenin with dinosaur bones.”(9) At the 2003 Venice Biennale, Wilson enlisted a tourist to pose as an African street vendor hawking designer handbags—actually pieces created by Wilson. Italian police quickly accosted the vendor, becoming unwitting and unplanned accomplices in Wilson’s performance art piece.
As for the the whipping post, after Mining the Museum ended its run, it returned to it’s place among the cabinetry, where it’s since been joined by a number of grandfather clocks, antique furniture, a life size replica of a horse, and an Arabber’s horse drawn cart. It may be another 30 years before it is exhumed again.(Damon Talbot)
(1) Corrin, Lisa G., ed., Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson (The Contemporary Baltimore in cooperation with the New Press: New York, 1994), p. 10.
(2) Giuliano, Mike, “The Installment Plan: Museum Mining Pioneer Fred Wilson gets a Museum Show of his own,” Baltimore City Paper, November 28, 2001.
(3) Hoban, Phoebe, “The Shock of the Familiar,” New York Magazine, July 27, 2003.
(4) Helfand, Glen, “Fred Wilson – The Art of War,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, January 22-28, 2003, Volume 37, No. 17.
(5) Corrin, Lisa G., ed., Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, p. 72.
(6) Hoban, Phoebe, “The Shock of the Familiar”
(7) Garfield, Donald, “Making the Museum Mine: An Interview with Fred Wilson, Museum News,” May/June 1993.
(8) Corrin, Lisa G., ed., Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, p. 69, 61.
(9) Garfield, Donald, “Making the Museum Mine: An Interview with Fred Wilson”
Sources and further reading:
Buskirk, Martha, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 2005)
Corrin, Lisa G., ed., Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson (The Contemporary Baltimore in cooperation with the New Press: New York, 1994)
Harris, Jonathan, ed., Globalization and Contemporary Art (Wiley-Blackwell: 2001)