The Henry Sheldon Museum Lecture Series to Shed Light on an Untold History – The Middlebury Campus
In October, as part of a wider movement among museums to address neglected or unexamined historical narratives and decolonize their exhibits, the Henry Sheldon Museum will launch its monthly virtual lecture series titled “The Elephant in the Room”. The lectures, which are funded by the granting body called the Vermont Humanities Council, will be presented by a group of academics and curators who are familiar with the untold stories behind the museum’s artifacts.
The museum’s goal of bringing suppressed historical narratives to the surface is particularly personal because of the relatively egalitarian goals of its founder, Henry Sheldon. The year 2021 marks its 200th anniversary, an event that has sparked reflection on the museum’s current goals.
“Sheldon had an interesting position in terms of privilege and class within museums: he was a collector in the 19th century … museum writer who was instrumental in the presentation and development of this series,” said.
To combat his status as an “outsider” and the financial constraints he faced, Sheldon turned to more everyday artifacts. Rather than importing ceramics from Europe, for example, Sheldon would pick up everything around him, including mundane things others didn’t think were worth saving, like local newspapers or heels. of tickets.
Due to the arrangement of Henry Sheldon, the museum he founded now has an almost encyclopedic collection of Middlebury and its environs in the 19th century.
“This year, we reflected on how our museum plays out in this larger conversation about how museums are these elite cultures, these repositories of incredibly valuable objects and how our museum does not fit into that mold.” , said Rossini. “It was not something that was made very clear.”
Yet despite the museum’s history of preserving artefacts of everyday life, it is still subject to the challenges of prejudice and prejudice that many museums face today. “The Elephant in the Room” is an attempt to further this recognition of the gaps in Sheldon’s collection. The January conference, for example, will address representation in 19th century photography. The photographs of people of color in the museum’s collection had previously not been labeled, without a thorough investigation into the identities of the individuals depicted there.
Rossini acknowledged that this was a sign of Sheldon’s own prejudices.
“As egalitarian as we like Henry to believe, he was not interested in the stories of his non-white, non-Christian contemporaries,” Rossini said. “So we have big holes in our collection where we have objects that give us a touchstone to tell these stories, but we don’t have information surrounding them to create these stories. “
The main objective of the series “The elephant in the room” will then be to approach and acquire new approaches to understand these objects which have not been contextualized, as the Sheldon strives to decolonize its collections. and to push conversations about race, gender, class, intersectionality and equity forward.
“We hope that these discussions will give us ideas, inspiration and, hopefully, new approaches that we can apply to our collection,” said Rossini.
The values at the forefront of the “Elephant in the Room” series are ideas that are gaining in importance in museums across America. Museums strive to create meaningful content for the 21st century that serves visitors rather than the objects on display.
“I think the goal with museums and among museum professionals is to move away as far as possible from the idea that museums are the ivory tower on the hill,” Rossini said.
If this movement is spreading around the world, its impact is also visible in another museum near us. The works of the Middlebury College Museum of Art have recently been rearranged to reflect the thematic arrangement rather than the design based on region or timeline.
Rossini wrote and presented the grant for the Sheldon Museum series alongside Eva Garcelon-Hart, the Sheldon Research Center archivist and originator of the series.
“In recent years, many museums, archives and other cultural heritage institutions have questioned their collection and conservation practices in response to social pressures that call for and demand wider inclusion, diversity and equity ”, said writes Garcelon-Hart in an email to The Campus. “When I was working on exhibitions and programs to commemorate [Sheldon’s 200th birthday], I realized that this was perhaps a perfect opportunity to reflect on our current practices to meet the needs and expectations of our increasingly diverse communities.
After the start of the pandemic, all of the museum’s exhibits were adapted to online formats, including web pages with photographs and video content. Rossini acknowledged that the change made it more difficult for the museum’s main audience to access museum content, namely older city dwellers.
Nonetheless, she remains optimistic about the transition to offering museum content online for the foreseeable future.
“A challenge has always been to expand our audience as much as possible, and going online has helped with that. Younger people, younger families, who are more comfortable with virtual content have come over to us and have stayed with us now, whether visiting or becoming members, even as we have reopened ” , said Rossini.
In July 2021, the museum reopened, but because the series – as part of its design to involve as many people as possible in the conversation – summons speakers from many different locations, the discussions will all take place online.
The first lecture in the series, “Living with Death,” discusses how to create meaning in times of loss. The conference will take place on Wednesday, October 6 at 7 p.m. and is open to everyone. It will be a conversation between artist and writer Dario Robleto, and college assistant professor of American studies Ellery Foutch. More information can be found at www.henrysheldonmusum.org/events.