What art does and doesn’t tell us: Nate DiMeo’s “The Memory Palace” at The Met

hiawatha, minnehaha, longfellow
“Hiawatha” and “Minnehaha” (2015.287.1-2), Edmonia Lewis, 1868. On view in Gallery 759 of the American Wing in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On this hump day, Marabou offers something for both your eyes and ears: an episode from the postcast, “The Memory Palace” about two marble sculptures on display in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing.

Sound artist and storyteller Nate DiMeo started his podcast “The Memory Palace” in 2008. DiMeo shares snippets of history in a style that is a mix of a friend telling you a story and a college professor reminding you to entertain multiple perspectives in your historical analysis. From 2016-17, DiMeo was the artist in residency at The Metropolitan Museum of Art during which he created 8 Met-specific episodes of “The Memory Palace.”

Listen to Episode 7: “Two Small Sculptures” about “Hiawatha” and “Minnehaha,” 2 marble busts made by Edmonia Lewis in 1868, located in Gallery 759. Marabou appreciates DiMeo’s approach to discussing these two objects. In a brief 6.5 minutes, he imparts a load of information including: who the sculptures represent, why the figures are significant, their stylistic influences, American race relations in the nineteenth century, forced removal and slaughter of Native Americans, Edmonia Lewis’s life, her accomplishments, and her connection to the subject matter. At the same time, DiMeo asks, how are we to know all of this from the two unassuming statues set on a small shelf? He concludes the episode saying, “We know a work of art can contain so much more than what is there before you.” This statement leaves Marabou with a burning question, if these two sculptures are loaded with the information DiMeo describes, then why is the museum’s label distilled to the following:

Like many American sculptors of the nineteenth century, Lewis, an artist of African American and Chippewa (Ojibwa) ancestry, worked in Rome, Italy. Her multiracial identity and gender were formative in her selection of subjects. Between 1866 and 1872 she completed a series of marble sculptures on the popular theme of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, drawn from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). These cabinet-sized busts represent the star-crossed lovers from once-warring nations (Ojibwa and Dakota), and blend an idealized treatment of form with American Indian dress and accessories.

Although this is a summary of what DiMeo shares in “Two Small Sculptures,” it is a reductive summary. There are opportunities to use the two objects in a way that deepens and complicates the historical narrative told in The Met’s American Wing. Marabou knows that space is always at a premium in a museum setting, so not everything can be included on a museum label. However, why not use the museum label to go deep with one topic the sculptures touch on? The Met could discuss the many influential historical figures Lewis encountered in her lifetime including Frederick Douglass and Longfellow. Or the label could focus on what it meant to be a mixed-race artist in the nineteenth century. Another option is to explain that “idealized treatment of form with American Indian dress and accessories” means, in plain terms, whitewashing Native American characters to conform to physical features matching the Greco-Roman standards valued by white Westerners. The sculptures of Hiawatha and Minnehaha are so rich with content. Marabou is curious about the discussions and decision processes that determined the current museum label.

This episode of “The Memory Palace” and the questions it raises serve as a nice link between last week’s post discussing the representation of Native Americans in The Met’s American Wing and tomorrow’s post about the exhibition “Americans” at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.

All “The Memory Palace” episodes from Nate DiMeo’s residency at The Met can be found here.

If you want to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” you can find it here.

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