Sunday, July 5, 2020

Erasing and Excluding: Public History and Public Art in Salem

The Sunday paper has a nice bundle of commentary on public history. Disggregated online, it might get lost, but in print it has more weight and together they have even a kind of dialog with each other. The paper's worth reading!

Too much "empire," not enough democracy
Before the vandalism, Library of Congress
The commentary may seem academic, and at the Capitol in particular just about dumb and wanton vandalism, to which the only proper response is repudiation and condemnation, but public art also reflects the ways we see ourselves and instantiates our values, and these have on-going consequences for current policy and politics. In the vandalism, in addition to the vulgar and gratuitous marks, the words "empire takes" were sprayed over in the motto, and there is a real critique in that gesture.

Laments about vandalism at the Capitol
erase costs of "Empire building"
On a different sculpture celebrating pioneer heritage, back a lifetime ago when we were selecting a statue in place of the rejected nude, the sculptor himself put exclusionary definitions behind "real Westerners" and "true Americans."

The selection of "Guidance of Youth" in Bush Park involved
explicitly an exclusionary determination
about "true Americans" and "real Westerners"
And it's not just individuals. Pioneer Trust Bank was behind the statue selection. Institutions enact and reproduce bias and preference. There are systems.

In a separate history column, we lose sight of Asahel Bush, his newspaper, and other institutional voices. Because of the way Bush is lionized here, one of our biggest challenges is to see his full legacy and the ways he shaped Salem institutions, in some important ways for worse rather than for better. If we celebrate Rev. Obed, as we should, we should also note the racist politics of Asahel Bush and in his newspapering, which contributed to Dickinson's removal. The racism wasn't just some mysterious process, but was fomented by our founder figure.

The passive "issues came to a head" erases Asahel Bush's agitation
(See "Obed Dickinson and the 'Negro Question' in Salem,"
Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 1991)
In our Public Art and in our notions about Salem Founders, we have a good bit of myth-making, and part of our current political reorientation and reassessment should include reframing those myths and telling better histories.

See recent posts also:

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