What Race is Your Stroller?

What is a stroller?  Is there really nothing more to a stroller than a mode of transportation?  It is just something our mom’s and dad’s used to get us from one place to another.

It is silly to say the choice of one’s automobile doesn’t have any meaning.  Cars and trucks tell us about people’s aspirations and needs.

Cars help us understand how people see themselves within society.  A stroller, or pram, or baby carriage must also have meaning and a story to tell.  The name we give to an object has meaning in itself.  Do you say stroller?  Or pram? Or carriage?

So, if objects have meaning, do objects have race?  Artist Fred Wilson would say, yes, yes, yes.  Wilson is known for creating new contexts for displaying objects from museum collections to shape the way we understand them.  His hallmark is creating non-traditional pairings of objects, such as the Klu Klux Klan hood and the baby carriage above.  He displays the same objects as curators do around the country, “but what Wilson tweaks are display conventions.” [1]

In 1992 the controversial and groundbreaking exhibit “Mining the Museum” exhibit opened at the Maryland Historical Society.  Wilson took traditional museum objects and paired them with those objects that become relegated to collections storage because they are too controversial.  He juxtaposed slave shackles to colonial silver tea sets and a slave whipping post to Victorian era chairs.

Seeing these objects together allows the viewer to see the whole story.  The goal of this exhibit is to understand both the African American and the white history, and how they interact.  The title “Mining the Museum,” reflects Wilson’s ability to do many new things with traditional objects.  He is literally “excavating the collections to extract the buried presence of racial minorities, planting emotionally explosive historical material to raise consciousness, and finding reflections of himself within the museum.” [2]

Wilson says, “I usually let the objects tell me what to do.” [3]  Wilson used the objects to show the racist impulses that can run deep in the storage rooms but, are shuffled to the back of the collection by displaying the images with the “fine” objects we expect.

He also used the objects to tell the narrative of what it is to be African American.  In the case of the baby carriage and the hood, he is commenting on the realities of living in a Jim Crow world.  The carriage and hood were displayed next to photographs of black nannies with white babies. The meanings of this display are multiple:  babies learn oppression as early as the carriage, prejudice is a learned hatred, the realities of living Jim Crow are even present with children.

The way visitors experienced the exhibit was also revolutionary.  Instead of being told about the objects, “visitors were armed with an education broadsheet of concrete poetry.” [4]  Wilson gave them the questions not the answers.  He wanted the visitors to find their own meaning, and answer “For whom was it created?  For whom does it exist?” for each of the objects. [5]

What do you think about Wilson’s approach?  Is he purely an artist or is he a curator?

It is clear that Wilson believes that museums are not completely addressing issues of race.  I would agree with Wilson, as he says, “I love museums like I love my family, and families could always improve.” [6]  Wilson offers a new paradigm to the way we understand objects and race that I think we should adopt into our growing museum family.


[1] Helfand, Glen, “Object Lesson,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, January 22 – 28, 2003, Volume 37, No. 17

[2] Stein, Judith, Sins of Omission [Fred Wilson’s Mining of the Museum], http://judithestein.com/sins-omission-fred-wilson%E2%80%99s-mining-museum

[3] Helfand, Glen, “Object Lesson,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, January 22 – 28, 2003, Volume 37, No. 17

[4] Stein, Judith, Sins of Omission [Fred Wilson’s Mining of the Museum], http://judithestein.com/sins-omission-fred-wilson%E2%80%99s-mining-museum

[5]  Education Broadsheet, “Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson,” The Contemporary & Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD, 1992-3

[6] Helfand, Glen, “Object Lesson,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, January 22 – 28, 2003, Volume 37, No. 17

Categories: cs

One thought on “What Race is Your Stroller?

  1. Great choice of exhibit! I think it’s interesting that Wilson says he lets the objects tell him what to do, because I wonder if other people would interpret the objects differently–I’m almost completely sure that they would.

    The whole idea of objects having “race” makes me wonder too–while some objects have clear racial connotations, such as the slave shackles, other objects may be more of a stretch. Although the stroller, in this case, seems to be construed as “white”, as does the colonial silver, isn’t there another story those objects could tell about the people who handled them besides the (presumably) white owners? It’s kind of like the case at some of the slave plantations–how do you fit in the story of slavery into this white, upper class narrative of the so-called “old South”? It seems especially problematic for telling stories of slaves, because there are not many remaining objects that have been maintained or kept over time.

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