Most museum visitors come to appreciate the work of great artists from various eras and civilizations, and (in the case of older or remote societies) learn something about the civilizations themselves. Normally, those now-obscure figures who typically sat for portraits are of no contemporary interest in themselves. But to highlight only their relation to slavery is to reduce them to stick figures, and the portraits to mere artifacts of propaganda.

Why should sitters’ relation to slavery be the only thing that matters about them? How many of them (or their spouses) fought in the American Revolution or Civil War? How many made valuable contributions to local civic, charitable, intellectual or cultural life, or to New England’s economic prosperity? Contrary to the curator, whatever one’s race or ethnicity, it is no more “interesting” or artistically relevant to learn how many slaves some sitter owned than to categorize sitters by their political or religious beliefs, their wealth, or their domestic situations.

I return to my proposed solution above: set the general scene in a wall text, not in individual labels. No, it’s not right to valorize these sitters; but it’s not right to condemn them without knowing more either.

And art museums are about art, not politics, not history.

Photo Credit:  Courtesy WBUR