In his groundbreaking 1993 installation Mining the Museum, Fred Wilson gathered four stately antique chairs from the holdings of the Maryland Historical Society and placed them about an actual period whipping post. The effect was instantaneous -- delectably bitter and, more, simply true.
"Cabinetmaking 1820-1960" was one of several exhibits consisting of rearranged art and artifact pointing up the inequities of America past and present and, more specifically, humorously and profoundly implicating the museum as a tacit apologist for race-based cruelties.
Wilson has garnered plenty of attention for his installations, which often slyly manipulate found art and objects to make gallery gazers think twice about the politics of viewing art. One Web site devoted to his work characterizes the institution of the museum, especially the history museum, as "Eurocentric" and "a transmitter of visual colonialism."
The Bronx-born Wilson has also inflamed the art world with such installation work as a dark baby carriage bearing a bright white Klansman's hood propped up within (two objects from same period); "Metalwork 1793-1880," featuring plutocratic silver goblets and pitchers positioned about rusted iron slave shackles; a display of 18th-century bourgeois family portraits with the gallery spotlights reset to focus on the servants and slaves at the periphery; and a cabal of formidable cigar-store Indians facing antique portraits of a cigar-store owner and his ilk at close range, seemingly threatening them with the objects of smokiana.
Though some might find it easy to classify Wilson as an angry young black man, his points are unassailable. A history museum cannot glory in the treasures of decorative art created at the expense of slaves, or celebrate the ingenuity of the Native Americans while ignoring the genocidal path chosen by white settlers just after the Thanksgiving feast. The museum tells many stories, and, rightfully, it should not omit parties necessary to the full telling of the tales. A little rearranging is all it takes.
Fred Wilson speaks at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, as part of Washington University's School of Art Lecture Series in the Steinberg Hall Auditorium. Admission is free. Call 935-6500 for more information.