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Milwaukee Art Museum's 'American Memory' Exhibit Explores The Roles & Life Of Their Collection

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Photo by John R. Glembin © Kerry James Marshall
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Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum
Kerry James Marshall (American, b. 1955) Memento, 1996–97. Color lithograph with gold powder on paper image. Gift in memory of Robert D. and Eleanore A. Hesselbrock by their children M2000.5

Images can have a big impact on our memory and understanding of past events — especially if they’re on display at a museum. A new exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) aims to relate their existing collection to historical events while also reflecting on the institution’s own practices of collecting history.

"American Memory: Commemoration, Nostalgia, and Revision is a three-part exhibit that exposes the selective editing of history through art and invites people to talk about these difficult subjects.

"I think one of the key interpretive strategies for 'American Memory' is to move away from a purely aesthetic examination or interpretation of the object ... to dive deeper into the role and the life of the object," says Brandon Ruud, the Abert Family Curator of American Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

He says the exhibit branched off from previous research and planned implementation of The Citizenship Project — a curriculum used with historic American art collections to teach American history to help people prepare for the US citizenship test.

Phoenix Brown, the Abert Family Curatorial Fellow, was originally brought on at the MAM to explore this project when the coronavirus pandemic forced the museum to close. However, they decided to use the research and their existing collection to explore the same ideas in American history.

"Whether through portraiture, through abstraction, through historical paintings and objects — what does this tell us about the people, the creators and makers, the events?," notes Ruud. "And we started posing a lot more questions than answers."

Brown says that one thing that stood out to her in researching this project was the "weird gaps" the MAM has in its collecting practices, and the objects and cultures that aren't represented.

"These holes kind of present the opportunity to expand American Memory throughout the museum, so the first three chapters may not be the last chapters," she notes.

The chapters include, Chapter 1: People and Identity, Chapter 2: Activism and Terrorism, and Chapter 3: Responses and Revisions. Parts one and two are open now. The third installment will open in October 2021.

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Photo credit: John R. Glembin © Danny Lyon
Danny Lyon (American, b. 1942) Untitled (Albany, Georgia. Dr. Martin Luther King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy are escorted from the courthouse to the jailhouse), 1962–64, printed 1993. Gelatin silver. Gift of Emory E. Clark M1996.11.1.

Rudd says that many of the works featured in the exhibit are from the 1930s and were objects of great controversy and scandal when they were created.

"Once they enter a museum collection, there are so many people, stories, components behind them that they really do take on different meanings and you peel back the layers. And there's so many stories behind them — both positive and negative," he says.

Brown adds that "There are some troubling images ... but the museum felt it was important to touch on these things because it's part of our collecting practice and our collecting history."

Through shifting the audience's perspective on the artwork, Brown hopes that people coming to the museum can "see a reflection of themselves and that they have the agency to engage with the works and also contribute to how these works are interpreted."

"This is, in a way, very experimental for us and it allows us to keep adding to and including and incorporating other narratives, other voices," adds Ruud.

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