Saturday, December 26, 2015

Artifacts of Racist History

The Minnesota State Capitol is being renovated, and while the work is going on all of the artwork has been removed from the walls and put into storage. As the building changes near completion, the question becomes, Which art do we put back?

See, the historical paintings on our walls mostly showed Minnesota's troops in the Civil War, Native Americans signing over their land, or battle between natives and European settlers. I've pretty much been in the camp of people who think it's time for a bit more range in our civic artwork, and that the paintings, including some of the Civil Wars ones, can go to museums instead.

A letter from the Sunday paper makes the argument better than I can:

Paintings don’t fully reflect our history and need to come down

Although the Brown County Historical Society’s president and director (Anne Earl and Bob Burgess) acknowledge in their Dec. 20 commentary that the paintings “The First Battle of New Ulm” and “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” are “disturbing to some viewers,” they advocate for these works to remain on public display in the Minnesota State Capitol (“In Brown County, we prefer to keep our history in view”). To bolster their case, Earl and Burgess point to their 497 museum members, 7,000 visitors and the “careful research” that “has proven that these pieces were created with great care to detail and accurately depict the events portrayed.”

What Earl and Burgess fail to acknowledge is that the specific events selected and the way they are represented reflect white settler experience, privilege and understanding; they never address the specific arguments against the images, the very reason why “some” find the paintings disturbing. Their logic is much like that of confederate flag supporters — the whole it’s-part-of-‘our’-history-and-therefore-should-remain line of persuasion. This is particularly critical, as the State Capitol should be a welcoming place for all, not just the European-ancestry demographic. While walls of the Minnesota Capitol feature art, the building is not a standalone museum, a place where people go and expect to encounter controversial images. Add to this the facts that racial inequality remains very much a part of Minnesota culture and that the vast majority of state lawmakers remain white men.

Here’s hoping in 2016 Minnesota welcomes more perspectives to our State Capitol. It’s time to be more inclusive; it’s time for these paintings to come down. Besides, the works have had quite a bit of display time — few perspectives get that much play in our nation’s Capitol. Think of all the other viewpoints that have yet to be presented through visual imagery.

Julie Risser, Edina
Coincidentally, another story in the same edition of the paper told of South Carolina's recent discussions about how to display the Confederate battle flag they removed from their state capitol. The chosen museum thinks it needs $5.3 million to do the flag justice. What's it worth to a state to display these artifacts of racist history?

The painting Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, commemorating the treaty signing that handed over half of Minnesota and almost all of what became North and South Dakota to the U.S. This was the context, according to an article from MinnPost: "The Dakota were in a very weak bargaining position because they believed that if they did not sell their land, the United States would take it. Negotiations took several days, and some Dakota chiefs initially resisted the demands made by the commissioners because they asked for so much. Ultimately however, the chiefs gave in." A true moment of glory in the history of our state.

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