PAFA Permanent Collection Work
"There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat, or in
this Case a Painting and it's Museum"
Benjamin West, Penn’s Treaty Indians, 1771-72 o/c. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1878.1.10.
How can curators activate permanent collections through methodologies that directly address the realities of systemic racism and create new pathways forward? The answer is to illuminate the absences in the artworks and to vocalize the silences in the interpretation. I began that process with PAFA’s Benjamin West painting Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, an allegorical painting that depicts the moment when the Lenni Lenape Indians entered the agreement with William Penn and other white colonial settlers that established Penn’s Woods, which later became the city of Philadelphia.
West’s painting was primed for a CRT analysis for several reasons: 1.) Although it is an allegorical painting, it is well known throughout Philadelphia as a work that represents the genesis of the city; 2.) William Penn is seen as the heroic founder of not just the city of Philadelphia but more importantly in the area’s history, he’s the founder of the state of Pennsylvania; 3.) Benjamin West, who was born in the Philadelphia region was the official history painter of King George III and an original founder of the Royal academy, the European art institution PAFA modeled itself after; lastly the painting was commissioned by Thomas Penn, William Penn’s son. To be frank, the painting was dripping with white men, their families, and their histories. However, there are at least twenty-five Lenni Lenape depicted in the painting. Not only did the interpretative label basically ignore these figures, but I also don’t think visitors or students even noticed because the prominence of PAFA’s Penn/West narrative is a representation of how art museum didactics and overall gallery presentation often tells viewers that white men are the only people associated with historic American artwork who truly matter, thus they are able to be seen. All other figures, particularly those of color, represented in the work are what art historian Adrienne Child rightfully terms “ornamental.”
As I began sharing this information with more and more PAFA students I soon approached Theodore Harris, a Philadelphia based contemporary artist, who’s book Thesentür: Conscientious Objector to Formalism uses poetry to confront mainstream art criticism and art history to excavate the exclusionary politics of aesthetics and formalism. I wanted Harris to work with me in PAFA’s colonial galleries as I expanded my CRT tours. Yet, once he agreed PAFA’s leadership would not allow us to tour the galleries on days that the museum was open to the public. Again, as Black woman who knows a thing or two about how to get around institutional “rules,” first I asked all my students around the city to blast the tour dates on all social media platforms through direct messaging. Next, because I had such a lovely rapport with the guest services and security staffs, I also gave them the tour dates and asked if they’d be willing to grant entrance to whoever showed up, and they agreed. By December of that year, my tours were garnering hundreds of visitors on the very days that the museum was closed.