Edward T. Linenthal identifies how victimhood is woven into narratives meant to bolster national identity and/or condemn a foreign other in “Anatomy of a Controversy." An early panel script for what would become the Smithsonian's controversial 1995 Enola Gay exhibit described how "The slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese in Nanking in 1937 shocked the world. Atrocities by Japanese troops included brutal mistreatment of civilians ... and biological experiments on human victims" (29). While such proclamations are true, we must emphasize who is conveying these facts. If this text appeared in a Japanese exhibit, curated by Japanese museum workers, the tone might be read as remorseful and self-critical. Given this text was likely penned by a white American curator, it reads more as a condemnation intended to promote American righteousness. How is victimhood (of a third party or of the self) objectifying? Think of how Americans frequently trot out the Nanjing massacre as an example of Japanese atrocity. Meanwhile, for Chinese people (my family included), it is the painful, central narrative of World War II.
David Lubin's "Labyrinths of Meaning" chapter from Picturing a Nation serves to illustrate how the canvas is a medium through which painters-cum-storytellers negotiate social and political conflict. Lubin describes the ways white male artists used white and indigenous women's bodies to forge collective self-conception – both personal and national identities (33-5). Exploring the mutability of the imagery's meanings helps us destabilize accepted identity constructs like white masculinity and nationalism. But how can we contextualize symbolism that inevitably carries different connotations for our present-day audiences? Lubin claims "Ariadne can be viewed as an updating of The Able Doctor," a 1774 political cartoon that was actually a part of the display I curated at the Historical Society. In contrast with Liberty Triumphant or the Downfall of Oppression, a political cartoon from the same year, and An Indian Squaw King Wampum Spies, circa 1764, I had hoped to interrogate white men's imagery of (dis)empowered American Indian women. How do we responsibly address the objectification of indigenous peoples in art? What will PAFA do to affirm indigenous perspectives in this project? Are there people of color involved in interpretation and curation, or will they be limited to "consultancy?"
In "The Battle over 'The West as America,'" Alan Wallach criticizes the 1991 exhibit for its heavy-handed discussion of colonial legacies. While I recognize the role of respectability politics in nudging our audiences towards cognizance of inequity, I'd urge a more explicit recognition of who our conceived audience is. In other words, for whose benefit do we avoid confrontational language? Wallach describes how the exhibit "adopted a self-righteous tone ... that could only inspire in the visitor powerful twinges of guilt – or as often happened angry rebellion" (109). Wallach speaks of white guilt and rebellion, when we might instead focus on POC grief, healing, and empowerment. We must recognize that institutions cater to white fragility with their resistance to using explicit language and more direct approaches to content. Likewise, we must recognize that the author of the label text was likely a white person, envisioning themselves speaking to ("educating") other white people. In "Reflections on the History Wars," Ken Yellis quotes consultant Randi Korn: "African American visitors [found] comfort in the thought that others will now know what they have known for years" (337). Therein lies the crux of the issue; museums are inherently white institutions, catering to white audiences, and occasionally telling POC stories. As Yellis concludes, museums hold the power of interpretation, and the least they could do is attempt more "self-reflexiveness" (345).