Busts of friends, paintings of family, and sculptures representing abstract ideologies decorate the Edward H. Linde Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). On Jan. 27, the museum opened one of its newest exhibits, Monuments to Us, after two months of organization. As its title suggests, the exhibit aims to identify and magnify works of art that display the significance of things often overlooked in displays of artistic expression. Inspired by controversies surrounding Confederate monuments, curator Liz Munsell hoped to confront this issue by presenting a collection of works that embody those who are not often represented.
“For me as a curator, such discussions have affirmed the crucial role of the visual arts in shaping the politics of remembrance,” she said in an email. “Through this selection of works from the MFA collection, I wanted to ask, “Whose stories are memorialized, and whose are erased?’”
The small collection—three paintings, one photo, and six sculptures—challenges the conventional understanding of a “monument.” While they traditionally depict renowned figures of significant political or social standing, these pieces collectively create a more comprehensive understanding of monuments. Because the artists represented in this exhibit approached their works intending to portray personal subjects, they signify the importance of memorializing such intimate entities, from neighbors and cousins to the political involvement of the marginalized.
With such an intimate collection, the museum allows visitors to reflect on the personal significance of each work to its creator and the broader implications that accompany it. Thus, in order to appeal to the political and social awareness of the audience with the artwork, Munsell wanted to “look to the recent past and build on these histories.”
The pieces were all created in the late 20th or early 21st centuries. Munsell deliberately chose contemporary artists because of their creative responses to pressing social issues, such as the AIDS epidemic, the underrepresentation of women as artists, and the overlooking of nontraditional sexuality within art. With this exhibit, visitors will not need great historical knowledge in order to pull meaning from the works—the exhibit requires only a brief understanding of contemporary issues in order to appreciate the underlying significance of these works.
The exhibit’s focus on the current tensions regarding Confederate statues inspires viewers to contemplate personal experience with similarly unrepresentative political and social issues.
These reflections are magnified by the solemn atmosphere prompted by the silence that typically occupies museums. The silence, however, is occasionally broken with many events that supplement the exhibit. Conversations with curators about the specific works, musical performances, and workshops are scheduled throughout the duration of the exhibit.
Ultimately, the museum aims to inform its audience of the creative response to issues of oppression that plague society even today. Each work of art featured in the museum delivers a message of inclusion based on a social problem personal to the artist, whether through experiences that are their own or of a loved one.
“At this particular moment in U.S. political and cultural history,” Munsell said. “I found it extremely important to speak to lives and experiences of individuals and groups whose stories have been systematically excluded.”
Featured Image by Mary Wilkie / Heights Editor