The following is excerpted from the essay "Making SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD" by Barbara Thompson, Curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. The essay is included in the Hood's Fred Wilson installation catalogue, forthcoming in early 2006.
When Dartmouth College was founded in 1769, ideas about its museum had already begun to take form. In its youth, the remote location of Dartmouth College inspired a rigorous commitment to providing its students with classifiable examples of the "natural and moral world" through the establishment of the Dartmouth College Museum in 1772. Renamed the Hood Museum of Art in 1985, it is now one of the oldest and largest college museums in the country. Its expansive collection of arts, artifacts, and "curiosities" offers an installation artist such as Fred Wilson a wealth of materials with which he can scrutinize museum history—both at Dartmouth and beyond.
Throughout the various stages of working with Fred Wilson at the Hood for his site-specific installation SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD—Believe It or Not! we engaged in various conversations about the museum's collections, his expectations of what he would find, and his methods of working. Ultimately, Wilson's process of conceptualizing, preparing, and installing the exhibition revealed itself in myriad ways that tell us both about the history of museum collecting at Dartmouth College and about Fred Wilson himself. After spending a few weeks developing a sense of what the project might encompass, Wilson commented on the Hood's collection:
Each museum, not to mention region of the country and the world, has a very specific "personality" and viewpoint. This always affects what art and artifacts I choose to use in an installation and what I do with them. The collection at the Hood represents uniquely an American history that reflects events at Dartmouth, but also the Northeast in general. In addition to this, the collections at the Hood mirror our national identity, both past and present. It gives me a sense of what was important to the founding fathers before our country was born. The collecting habits of the museum over the last centuries also create an image of what the museum—and by extension the society—believes should be important today.
The Hood Museum of Art, with its heritage in the Age of Enlightenment, is inextricably linked to the early development of museums in Europe and America. Consequently, a large portion of its permanent collection was amassed during a time period deeply entrenched in racial and cultural oppression; a time when "religion," "science," and "technology" together became the foundation for colonialism and its conquering fulcrum. Both the installation's title and the objects in it recall this era's problematic and at times painful histories of oppression, "cultural" display, and mythmaking. And yet, Wilson's installation is hauntingly contemporary as well, in its association with current world events and the politics of power.
Ripley's Meets Wilson's Believe It or Not!
Wilson's installation begins with an array of unconventional objects that prepares viewers to contemplate museum history and the deconstruction of cultural mythmaking within museum walls. The title wall features a large wooden plank labeled "Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium," an old Dartmouth College Museum sign, a selection of unusual object labels, and other relics from the Hood's eclectic past—the kinds of objects one would not expect to find in an art museum. The tenor of Wilson's installation thus immediately takes center stage as a candid statement about the peculiarities of two hundred years of collecting at Dartmouth.
Wilson's reference to Ripley's Believe It or Not! is anything but whimsical, as it directly relates to Dartmouth's own history of collecting. Robert Leroy Ripley was a self-taught artist who worked first as an illustrator in San Francisco and then as a sports cartoonist at the New York Globe. In 1918, Ripley created his first series of sketches, called "Champs or Chumps," featuring odd facts and unusual athletic feats. He later expanded the series to include oddities of any sort, renaming it Ripley's Believe It or Not!, and it gained instant international success. An avid collector of unusual objects, the soon famous Ripley first displayed his collection at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, calling the spectacle the Odditorium. The attraction received nearly two million visitors during the run of the fair and opened the way for other exhibits and shows that continue to be popular to this day.
Ripley, a high school dropout, was given an honorary degree from Dartmouth College in 1939 through the aid of Douglas Storer, Dartmouth Class of 1921 and the producer of Ripley's radio program. Storer orchestrated Ripley's relationship with Dartmouth to boost the celebrity's reputation as a discriminating, scholarly collector. In turn, Ripley contributed over one hundred "oddities" to Dartmouth's ethnographic collection, which were displayed in the "Robert Ripley Room" in Wilson Hall from 1940 to 1960.
The reference to Ripley's collection mode communicates a broader metanarrative about truth, mythmaking, and cultural representation in museums. As Wilson explains,
I was really interested in the relationship between real museums and pseudo-museums like Ripley's—a museum that presents modified and verified information and a museum that is based on sensationalism and the idea that to see something, you don't necessarily need to know the truth [about it]. Museums can tell you something about an object that may or may not be true; it is the idea that possibly we are creating meaning for this thing. If you look back over time, often museums begin to look like Ripley's Believe It or Not! Although they may be using the best [methods] at that time, they may have biases and misinformation that they are not aware of.
As the viewer progresses through the installation, the politics of representation—of people, cultures, and historical perspectives—thus becomes the common thread that ties one gallery's themes into another.
"Many, Many Daniel Websters and Only One Pair of His Socks"
You'd think an artwork would be the [unique] object and something that is not "art" would probably not necessarily be unique, when, in fact, many times the inverse occurs in this collection.
—Fred Wilson, 2005
After Wilson's initial work with the Hood's permanent collection in May 2005, I asked him what opportunities the museum's history as an academic institution in New England offered him.
In the other college museums that I have "mined" there was very little in the collection that got at the heart of the college and its history. This is not the case with the Hood and Dartmouth. So while I won't be specifically doing a project about Dartmouth, because their histories are intertwined and the collections reflect that, my work at the Hood will undoubtedly contain aspects of Dartmouth history as well. Whether I get at some Dartmouth "truths" remains to be seen. It is the first time I have worked with a quintessential Northeast American collection in the northeastern museum. Even though it is not a history museum, aspects of place and history run through the collection and local environs.
To find just the right bricolage of objects for his installation, Wilson scoured the museum's storage racks, drawers, mobile units, and boxes of art and artifacts while perusing the museum's archival database and object files for further inspiration. Wilson explained that he chooses objects for his installations in a variety of ways:
Sometimes a particular image or object sticks with me for a long time. Sometimes I see an object and it just screams at me. Sometimes it even tells me exactly what I am to do with it. In some instances, a particular strength in the collection says that I can't ignore it—like all the Daniel Websters. I try not to ignore that because too often the obvious gets ignored, especially if you are in or from a place. The obvious just becomes the background noise, but it may actually be that really important thing screaming at you all the time. I like the obvious things that are just not thought about.
The next section of Wilson's installation challenges fine art's accepted valuation of the "unique" object over the "multiple" as well as the relative importance of specific people or objects over time. For example, the numerous representations of Daniel Webster from the Hood's permanent collections are both unique and multiple. While the unique portraits of Daniel Webster would certainly include Francis Alexander's dashing and dramatic rendition of "Black Dan," among others, multiples would be represented by the frequently copied portraits of Webster by Chester Harding in a variety of media or the sculpture of Thomas Ball, which epitomizes the widely, at times commercially, reproduced Webster in bronze, marble, parianware, iron, wood, or plaster, depending mostly upon the collector's resources. And looking beyond unique versus multiple, Wilson also notes the peculiar manner in which "other things that you think are average, ordinary things turn out to be very specific things, like talismans in some way," such as Webster's silk socks and well-worn felt top hat, made to order in 1852. The issue of fetishizing historical figures through objects becomes very apparent in this installation, in fact, encouraging the viewer to think about collecting habits of today that might in turn seem unusual in the future. Seeing such a number of Webster portrayals, one is forced to wonder what Webster's relationship has been to Dartmouth and why he is so prominently represented in the Hood's collection today.
Born a farmer's son in Salisbury, New Hampshire, Daniel Webster (1782-1852) graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801 and eventually became one of the nation's foremost statesmen, lawyers, and orators. Webster is nationally celebrated for winning major constitutional cases before the Supreme Court, particularly the Dartmouth College Case of 1815, in which he passionately argued for the validity of Dartmouth's charter and the college's right to continue as a private educational institution free from state interference. His success with the case secured the statesman's eternal association with his alma mater, inseparably merging his name with Dartmouth's. Consequently, the college became a veritable depository for Daniel Webster materials, paraphernalia, and images, many of which were widely produced and reproduced from about the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
Wilsons's gallery of Daniel Websters clearly revolves around issues of power and representation at Dartmouth, but it also ruminates upon general histories that are more "emblematic of America" and that become magnified via Daniel Webster and his posthumous presence at the Hood. For example, what about the presence and representation of people of color in the Hood's collections? As Wilson notes,
You can look at it in terms of the history of how people were treated in the world and so these objects are images that people can use to relate to that [history]. . . . If you look at [portrait] paintings that were done for Dartmouth, at least what has been saved, it definitely tells a different story about trying to represent or trying to acknowledge [people of color's] importance at or relationship to Dartmouth.
Daniel Webster is just one of Dartmouth's many icons in the Hood's vast portrait collection. Although people of color are rare in Dartmouth's pre-twentieth-century history, a few prominent individuals have occupied places of importance there and in the Hood's collections. Though not nearly as omnipresent as Daniel Webster, the name of Samson Occom is as closely associated with Dartmouth's beginnings as its founder, the Reverend Eleazor Wheelock. Occom, a Mohegan born near New London, Connecticut, was one of Wheelock's first students, from 1743 until 1747. At the end of 1765, Occom, by then an ordained minister, traveled to England to raise funds for Wheelock's Indian Charity School and to serve as an example of what type of student Wheelock's school was to produce. Having secured the financial backing of George Whitefield and the Second Earl of Dartmouth, Occom returned to the Connecticut Colony in 1768 with over £12,000. However, Wheelock decided against an educational institution exclusively for Native Americans, fearing that they would only squander the opportunity and return to their old ways. He therefore used the Indian Charity School funds to establish Dartmouth College, for the education of "youth of the Indian Tribes . . . English Youth and any others." Occom soon ceased all contact with Wheelock and Dartmouth College, thereafter preaching alone, itinerant, and poor among the various tribes of New England.
Wilson's lineup of portraits representing people of color includes almost all such existing paintings in the Hood's collection. He complements these paintings with a single engraving of a European American woman, the abolitionist and writer Margaret Beecher Stowe—who was not a Dartmouth graduate—to point out that until 1972 women were also excluded from Dartmouth's longstanding legacy of educational power.
Louisiana Purchase Exposition
Things that are very important one moment may seem absolutely silly in another. Things that we may find really important now were not even considered at all important in another moment. So by mixing things up in an art museum, I can make people question why things are important.
—Fred Wilson, 2005
On April 30, 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World's Fair, officially opened in nearly fifteen hundred buildings across twelve hundred acres of the newly redesigned Forest Park. The fairgrounds symbolized America's latest achievements in science, art, and industry, aided by the westward expansion from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. The exposition's global component—the largest ever in a world's fair to that time—likewise celebrated Western expansion into the non-industrialized nations of the world through its "University of Man" display, the centerpiece of the fair's Anthropology Department. Reflecting the blatant racism of the day, cultural representatives from the Americas, Africa, and the Far East were gathered into reconstructed villages as "living displays." The gathering of these men, women, and children in one place enabled Western scientists and pseudo-scientists to measure and document the diverse physical characteristics of these global representatives, which were used as an index of their intelligence and evolutionary development.
As part of this "scientific" process, life-cast models were taken of the "primitives" displayed at the fair. The models were then shared with other anthropological departments and museums around the country, including the Dartmouth College Museum, to help teach about the "races of man." In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries anthropologists not only measured live humans but in one case severed the head of a deceased Apache man from his body and boiled it down to the skull. Believing skull size to be an index of intelligence, the Western scientists were amazed to find that the Apache man's skull was larger than Daniel Webster's, whose skull and brain sizes were commonly known to be among the largest of the world's most celebrated intellectuals.
In SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD Wilson lines up a dense row of life-cast busts taken at the 1904 World's Fair. Wrapping the base of each with white cloth, Wilson covers their ethnic labels—Onondaga, Sioux, Kongo, Bakuba, Pygmy, Negrito, Tagalog, and so on—to obliterate any references to cultural identity. The only individually identified bust represents a Bachichi man called Ota Benga, whose separate handling in the installation of life-cast busts also hints at his special status in history. In 1904 Samuel Verner, an American collector, explorer, and missionary, purchased a group of "pygmies" in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), among them the twenty-three-year-old Ota Benga, to be exhibited in the Anthropology Department at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Ota Benga—along with the other representatives of "primitive" cultures—was juxtaposed at the world's fair to the heroes and technological feats of the Western industrialized nations. They thus literally became emblematic of Darwin's theories of evolution and its "inferior" races, with the newly developed discipline of anthropology and the pseudo-sciences of anthropometry, phrenology, and psychometry readily "proving" the scientists' theories that human evolution and intelligence were racially determined.
Two years after the fair, Ota Benga was given into the care of the Bronx Zoo and displayed in a cage with an orangutan. However, a committee of the Colored Baptist Ministers' Conference profoundly protested and demanded Ota Benga's removal from the zoo. A few months later he was transferred to an orphanage in Brooklyn, then to a seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he was eventually employed in a tobacco factory. Growing ever more homesick, hostile, and despondent in Virginia, Ota Benga committed suicide in 1916 by shooting himself in the heart.
Metaphorical Moments: So Much Trouble in the World
War is just a continuum of human history, and we are all a part of it, even the horrible parts. This situation in the world is not particularly worse than other moments. It just depends on who you are. . . . It helps to diffuse the anxiety knowing that you're in this continuum.
—Fred Wilson, 2005
In recent years, Wilson has inserted more personal elements into his work. Residing in the quiet, rural, academic environment of Hanover, New Hampshire, in the summer and fall of 2005, Wilson became more aware of his own frame of mind—both in Hanover and elsewhere—which greatly influenced his Hood installation:
My personal life is all wrapped up into this work . . . because of the moment we're in and because I come from New York City. When things happen in the world like the recent bombings in Madrid and London (and of course 9/11), for New Yorkers we just always have in the back of our minds that something can happen, and that our connection to world events is very palpable and very personal. Living in New York, living with anxiety about war . . . for us it's not just a matter of "if" but a matter of "when."
Wilson's installation title is therefore telling. Although no works in the exhibition directly represent or were made in the twenty-first century, their connection to current events is unmistakable. As he explains, the groupings of objects in the installation
open up the kinds of connections between what we privilege today and what we ignore, what we think is important and what we think is truthful. The title for the exhibition came to me while I was sitting in my apartment in Hanover listening to a Bob Marley CD I had just bought. . . . While listening to Marley's song "So Much Trouble in the World," I realized that it was the perfect title for the exhibition. My connection to world events and this exhibition is metaphorical to our moment because it is always on my mind. The objects that I have found in the Hood's collection relate to other historical moments when the world was in a tumultuous state and there were problems in the world.
Wilson's concerns clearly manifest themselves in the last section of his installation, which features prints from Jacques Callot's series The Large Miseries of War (1633) and Goya's series The Disasters of War (1810-20), punctuated with individual works by Jusepe de Ribera, John Henry Bufford, Kathe Kollwitz, George Wesley Bellows, and Andy Warhol, among others. Goya's and Callot's prints especially remind us of the shock and terror of world events currently being entered into the annals of human history.
Wilson's installation of prints represents the terrifying forfeits that war and duress have extracted from humanity over time. His intentional arrangement of the prints in a much darker, moodier manner provokes the observer's attraction to and repulsion from the horrifying spectacles of war, oppression, and human suffering, whether they are in the artistic renditions of the past or in the instantaneous news flashes of today's mass media. Wilson invites the viewer to peer under the mournful veiling of some images, and he obscures others with a sheet of glassine that exposes only a tiny detail—as though one is looking through a magnifying glass. Wilson's methods of blocking the full event and the emotional immediacy of these prints call the viewer's attention to details of history that are often overlooked, distorted, misrepresented, or ignored. Wilson's lamentation is clearly echoed by the imagery in this most somber part of the installation.
There is no anger or sadness in this installation; however, dread is a new feeling that comes out in this work. There's always been so much trouble in the world, and art museums can reveal that it's nothing new. In some ways, [knowing this] can be a relief; in other ways it just makes you more aware that conflict is part of humanity. There is a kind of relief that this is not the end of the world. However, you then realize the seriousness of how the world works. It's sobering more than calming.
Throughout Wilson's installation, the questions that continually arise are "What is considered important at what point and why?" As the artist notes, "The kind of inquiry, the era [people] lived in, and the intellectual dialogue of the time circled around certain ideas. Some of these ideas stayed strong, others dissipated and disappeared. And so, by extension, we can begin to think about our own world."
Wilson created his installation at the Hood Museum of Art with the hope that his audience will ponder the role and presence of all kinds of objects in the museum's collection— "art" as well as "non-art"—and ask themselves, "What are we saving today? What are we thinking is important, and will it always be? Are we placing too much importance on some things when maybe we do not need to emphasize them as much?"
Wilson does not claim to have the answers. As he notes, "Since the collection is as varied as it is deep, I feel a freedom to create a complex image devoid of answers. I hope instead that it will open up a myriad of questions." His intense researching of the objects, their collectors, and the social or political context within which they were created reveals the unexpected connections among them while questioning their relative importance within local, national, or international contexts at different points in time. As he explains,
Today, we are about opening up questions, not being so sure of ourselves, not pretending that we've got everything right. It's about staying open, knowing that something could change to push our culture forward, push intellectual inquiry forward, and also get closer to understanding other peoples' cultures.
SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD—Believe It or Not! does exactly what the artist set out to do: it pushes us forward. It encourages our intellectual and personal inquiries into power, truth, and mythmaking. And it challenges us to better understand ourselves and, by extension, other people and their struggles, both in the past and in the present.
1. W. Wedgewood Bowen, A Pioneer Museum in the Wilderness. (Hanover: Dartmouth College Museum, 1958), 1.2. This essay is largely based on conversations, interviews, and staff discussions with Wilson during his work at the Hood Museum of Art from May to October 2005. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are derived from these exchanges.3. Dartmouth College charter, 1769.4. Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, Ota: The Pygmy in the Zoo (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 16.
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