Statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History. Image via Flickr.
Before it received the art collection of its namesake patron Walter P. Chrysler Jr., the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, was a repository for all kinds of historical objects. Among its acquisitions in the early 20th century: taxidermied animals and relics of the Confederacy.
Long gone are the mounted creatures, but still in storage are dozens of symbols of the white supremacist, pro-slavery cause, like fragments of Confederate battle flags, medals from veteran reunions, and Confederate currency. For years, the Chrysler’s curators have considered the appropriateness of these objects—which have not been displayed in decades—in an art museum. So in 2018, the museum revised its collection policy to develop criteria for removing or deaccessioning objects that do not align with its current mission.
But as statues of men including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis come down, and debates intensify over other racist public monuments across America, this need to address contested histories in institutional collections has become even more acute. “The renewed focus on the appropriateness of Confederate monuments in the public square has sharpened our focus to deal with these historical objects more efficiently or quickly,” said Corey Piper, the museum’s curator of American art. “They have moved to the head of the queue.”
The Chrysler Museum is among many cultural institutions in America that are confronting the ways in which they tell early histories of the United States with new urgency, in the wake of protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd. While it is uncommon that art museums own Confederate memorabilia, many are reassessing artistically and historically significant objects that also reinforce pernicious narratives about slavery and colonialism. But as institutions shaped by colonial legacies—whose very amassing of objects and display methods have perpetuated racism and sexism—these reassessments are just one step towards dismantling their pervasive cultures of white supremacy………………………..