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Presented By: University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA)

Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism
Organized as a response to the Museum’s recent acquisition of Titus Kaphar’s Flay (James Madison), this upcoming reinstallation of one of our most prominent gallery spaces forces us to grapple with our collection of European and American art, 1650-1850.

In recent times, growing public awareness of the continued reverberations of the legacy of slavery and colonization has challenged museums to examine the uncomfortable histories contained in our collections, and challenged the public to probe the choices we make about those stories. Choices about which artists you see in our galleries, choices about what relevant facts we share about the works, and choices about what - out of an infinite number of options - we don’t say about them.

Pieces in this exhibition were made at a time when the world came to be shaped by the ideologies of colonial expansion and Western domination. And yet, that history and the stories of those marginalized do not readily appear in the still lives and portraits on display here. By grappling with what is visible and what remains hidden, we are forced to examine whose stories and histories are prioritized and why.  

In this online exhibition, you can explore our efforts to deeply question the Museum’s collection and our own past complicity in favoring colonial voices. In the Museum gallery, which will open in early 2021, you’ll be able to experience the changes we’re making to the physical space to highlight a more honest version of European and American history. 

By challenging our own practice, and continuing to add to what we know and what we write about the works we display, UMMA tells a more complex and more complete story of this nation - one that unsettles, and fails to settle for, simple narratives. 

“Invisible things are not necessarily ‘not there’.... Certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionality and purpose, like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held away from them.” 

— Toni Morrison

Lead support for this project is provided by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost and Arts Initiative and the Susan and Richard Gutow Endowed Fund.

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