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Silenced Stories

The Message of a Museum:

Continuing to Silence Stories of Violence in the Colonial Past



I (Creighton) propose to study the creation and exhibition of artifacts in museums as a contact zone.  A museum functions as a visually beautiful and deliberately constructed form of a contact zone. The artifacts they collect and show can be bound to histories of oppression and asymmetrical power relations, depending on their cultural significance and the “economics and ethics of acquisition” (About the Backtalk Exhibit). Museums are special places, since they are purveyors of a specific kind of educational experience. They are the site of confrontation between cultures and have the power to influence the way history is interpreted and the degree to which certain stories are preserved. In addition, they can be prohibitive depending on what impressions their curators are trying to convey.

The acquisition of objects is also a reservoir of inequalities. Objects can be unethically purchased and obtained. Their histories can be edited and erased as the curator sees fit. This withholding of information can deny the audience a fuller, more dimensional experience.

In my project, I will examine the Backtalk: Exposures, Erasures, and Elisions of the Bryn Mawr College African Art Collection exhibit that was on display last year. It had on display “35 artworks keyed to various aspects of family, political and spiritual life” (About the Backtalk Exhibit). This exhibit is particularly relevant to my proposal since it deals with the respect for, ownership of, and display of objects that had ties to African culture. The exhibit, a highly manipulable medium of discovery, is a prepared way of learning that has the power to imply exclusionary messages.

I will include in my project the idea that silence is an integral and understated part of the museum experience, which will be supplemented by Maryam’s project. The encounter within this space, creates a consciousness for the audience that alters the way artifacts are perceived and interpreted. It induces a spatial awareness in observers, and this effect is integral to the museum experience.



I (Creighton) would like to find out:

  • if the exhibition of such objects in any way diminished their importance, after having been extracted from their original contexts

  • if the selection process for the artifacts was done in a way that particularly exoticized the culture (what is interesting and what is exotic?)

  • furthermore, how a curator would go about choosing objects

  • if the process of obtaining the objects was respectful

  • if the environment of a highbrow, intellectual space (such as a museum) causes onlookers to perceive the exhibit in a patronizing way

  • how white privilege affects the presentation and reception of an exhibit

  • what interactions between viewer and object optimize the museum experience


How I will get answers

  • contacting archivists through emails and interviews

    • talking to Alice Lesnick, chair of education program and Africana Studies at Bryn Mawr

    • Alicia walker of the History of Art department, who spoke at the panel of africana exhibit, could contribute background information

    • Possibly contact Whitney Lopez, student who put Backtalk together, who graduated as a McBride

    • Talking to the archivist Brian Wallace to find out if the objects can be accessed, examined, and their histories investigated

  • archival work about how the collection was acquired

    • Try to find out more about the alumna who donated them

  • more about the exhibit and how the objects were chosen

  • detailing my own observations and experiences


The ways we see art in the 21st century, as nobody before: why is this so?


The Role of Colonialism:


People seem to think we are in this postcolonial era of art, that we have transcended the exclusionary aspects of composing and displaying a collection of works. Creighton and I (Maryam) intend to explore the hidden parts of this contact zone- and the possibilities of enriching it, as well as the contact zones that never came/come to fruition. We hope to delve deeper into the stories that are/were silenced, and discover why certain parts are hidden from us as consumers of art.


In discovering how we perceive art, we discover something about ourselves, and the situation in which we are living. The process of seeing is much less spontaneous and natural than we tend to believe – it depends upon habit and convention. I intend to explore the process and ways of seeing within an encounter with art.


  • Role of museums in educating

  • Why the mere inclusion of a race or culture in a museum is not enough

  • Importance of the audience

  • Role as consumers

  • Relation: artists as producers and audience as consumers


In my oblivion regarding the acquisition of artwork and unethicality, histories are rewritten, and stories are lost. Recovering these stories would change how I perceive art, and I think it would change the perception of others as well. To prove this, I intend to research the influence of the hidden stories on people’s  perceptions of art by making a survey; I will show people a picture without any or very little context, and they will tell me what they see and how they feel; then I will tell then the hidden aspects of the artwork, and see how that perception changes. In my conclusion I will discuss the importance of ethical consumer guides and their relation to our consumption of art. 

Silence promotes and spurs the contact zone with oneself, allowing for a space of self-confrontation and growth. Within the space between verbal communication, I pause to reflect and process more deeply what has occurred. I intend to apply this viewing of silence as a place to discover oneself, and how this notion can be applied to an experience with art. 

Silence as part of the experience of art:

Question - The sensory experience of art and the effect of silence in that space.

  • Effects of noise in our perception of art

    • Show people a piece of artwork with music, and without, see how perception changes

Works Cited
"About the Backtalk Exhibit." Serendip Studio's One World. Backtalk: Exposures, Erasures, and Elisions of the Bryn Mawr College African Art Collection February-May 2015 Bryn Mawr College, Canaday Library, Coombe Suite, 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.


Anne Dalke's picture

Creighton and Maryam--
what resonances this project has! It’s huge!

So, turning first to the practical: it looks as though Brian Wallace as moved to Keene State: --and as you note, Whitney Lopez has graduated. But I still think you can get a very good start on this project by interviewing both Alicia Walker and Alice Lesnick (also please ask Alice about the possibility of contacting Whitney, who may still be living in the area…). I’m also wondering if you also want to ask to see some of the objects yourselves—even if not within the context of the exhibit, this experiential dimension might be very important in answering some of the questions you are asking.

As you dig through the “Backtalk” site on Serendip, you’ll come across a link to a rather astonishing post that Grace Pusey did @
--which gets @ (among other things) the Western denial of the very possibility of indigenous knowledge. I’m thinking now that your shared exploration of the archives of the Backtalk exhibit might function as an interesting extension of both /oneworld/changing-our-story-2015/your-history-my-history and “Slippage in the Bahamas 2015” (and/but Creighton:  why can’t I now find this latter essay on-line…?)

Maryam, I’m wondering if you might focus your project --of “showing people a picture without any or very little context,” and then again with music, and then again with context--around the images from the Backtalk Exhibit, as a way of joining your research more tightly with Creighton’s? And also thereby anchoring it in a very concrete and actual event? Or could you get permission to have one of the objects used in the exhibit available for folks to look @? So that they’re not just viewing something on a screen, but actually experiencing it more viscerally, with more senses in play…?

Also, Jody and I heard from Monique Scott, the new director of Museum Studies @ BMC, who just saw this proposal, and is eager to contribute or advise on your project, which she reports is a great fit for her research and interests....!