In May 2019, students in the Master’s Program in Public Humanities wrote a letter asking for the removal of nineteenth century wallpaper in the central hallway of the Nightingale-Brown House (where the Public Humanities program is housed) “because of its racist depictions of Black and Indigenous peoples.” As Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, I have spent the months since learning more about the wallpaper and its historical context, considering other examples of now-controversial public art, discussing the issue with University officials, and thinking about a range of possible responses to the students’ concerns.
In the spirit of openness and collaboration called for by the students, I have gathered their letter and my response, as well as scholarly articles about similar initiatives, photographs, and relevant documents, in a Google Drive that anyone can access here. The discussion about the wallpaper raises complex issues about history, representation, and public space that others have also addressed, as well as pointing to the challenges posed by the unusual combination of a historic house and classroom space within the Nightingale-Brown House.
Let me set the stage: The historic wallpaper is titled Vues d’Amérique du Nord. Created by Jean-Julien Deltil (1791-1863) and printed in 1834 by Zuber et Cie in France, it was installed in the Nightingale-Brown House by John Nicholas Brown as part of renovations in the 1920s, and reinstalled in the 1990s after substantial renovation to the building before it was donated by the Brown family to Brown University in 1995. A section of Vues depicts exoticized, nearly nude, Native American dancers performing for a group of curious white onlookers, and another section shows a group of flamboyant and well-dressed free Black people in a grouping that was based on a well-known racist caricature printed in 1828.
Deltil never visited the United States, so he relied on travel accounts and artistic renditions to construct this series of vignettes, which includes Boston Harbor, West Point, Niagara Falls, and the Shenandoah Valley. Jacqueline Kennedy installed the same wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, and it remains in print by Zuber et Cie to this day. The students called on the John Nicholas Brown Center to remove “this racialized and racist wallpaper from the space where we study, work and socialize.”
My review of the documentation regarding the transfer of the Nightingale-Brown House by the Brown family to the university revealed that any future action may be constrained by the “memorandum of understanding” that governs Brown University’s use of the building as dictated by the terms of the Brown family’s gift. In addition, removing the wallpaper might cause the building, constructed in 1792 on historic Benefit Street, to lose its Landmark status. The MOU between the donors and the university, signed in November 1994, states:
The Nightingale-Brown House, which has recently undergone extensive renovation, shall be preserved in keeping with its historic character and status as a National Historic Landmark, and shall be maintained in good repair and with appropriate security.
The Secretary of the Interior, in accordance with the Historic Sites Act of 1935 and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, designated the Nightingale-Brown House a National Historic Landmark in 1989. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties state that the “expressed goal . . . is retention of the building’s existing form, features, and materials.” In addition, the Standards assert, “identifying, retaining, and preserving a floor plan or interior spaces, features, and finishes that are important in defining the overall historic character of the building” is recommended and “color, texture, and pattern are important characteristics of features and finishes, which can include such elements as…plaster, paint, wallpaper and wall coverings.”
Armed with the history of the wallpaper and of the Nightingale-Brown House, and with some knowledge of the National Historic Landmark Standards, I spent the summer of 2019 explaining the issue to University administrators including the Vice-President for Institutional Equity and Diversity, Shontay Delalue; the General Counsel, Eileen Goldgeier; Provost Richard Locke; President Christina Paxson; and faculty colleagues at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative and at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. They were unanimous in their opinion that the Center needed to better contextualize the wallpaper, including gauging the reaction of a wide range of people to its troublesome scenes, before the University could or should take any other action. I agreed.
Colleagues at the Center and I came up with a set of projects over the next year that we think can begin the work of contextualization including:
- A new interpretive plan for the wallpaper
- Co-sponsorship of a Bell Gallery exhibit by Maori artist, Lisa Reihana, which directly addresses the racism and colonialism of another set of scenic wallpaper
- A conference on the issue of racialized representations in art/architecture in University and public spaces
Let me outline what each of these projects will look like and end with possibilities going forward.
We have included a new interpretative plan for the wallpaper in our ongoing efforts to improve the curation of the historic rooms at the Nightingale-Brown House, especially but not exclusively around issues of race. Our first step was a new pamphlet about enslaved labor in the Nightingale-Brown House, using research by scholar Dr. Joanne Pope Melish commissioned by the John Nicholas Brown Center. You can read Dr. Melish’s report here. The exhibit by the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), Hidden in Plain Sight: American Slavery and the University, and its accompanying brochure served as an important template for this project. The work of MA In Public Humanities grad Arielle Julia Brown and ChE Ware of the CSSJ’s Spatial Relics project provided inspiration and we learned from a project done by students in the Public Humanities Methods course on how to make this historical research available to the public. The pamphlet, “Enslaved Labor and the Making of the Nightingale-Brown House” focuses on ownership of enslaved people by the Nightingale family. Copies are available to anyone who comes to the Nightingale-Brown House, and you can see a PDF here.
We have also installed a touch screen computer in the space that contains the wallpaper. The touch screen gives better access to the digital tour that we completed two years ago and also provides visitors with a critical audio tour of the wallpaper completed by students in the Digital Storytelling class.
In addition, two glass screens stand in front of the contested images, providing an opportunity for visitors to respond to the wallpaper. Visitors may take a new postcard that describes the history of the wallpaper and context for the racist images. The postcard reads:
The French firm of Zuber et Cie introduced this scenic wallpaper, Vues d’Amérique du Nord, in 1834. Almost one hundred years later, John Nicholas Brown bought the wallpaper, which was still being printed, from Zuber for this house. Working with architects, Brown carefully designed and decorated the front hallway to evoke an idealized American past shaped in part by his own ancestors. In the 1990s, a renovation of this building brought a new set of this wallpaper from Zuber’s original 1834 wood engraving blocks. The wallpaper also decorates other American homes and public buildings, including the White House.
Recently, Brown University Public Humanities students have brought critical attention to the wallpaper’s images of Indigenous people and African Americans. The original images and the wallpaper present stereotypical racist depictions of both groups. Former curator Robert Emlen located the 19th century American images on which the wallpaper was based, including a racist caricature of middle class Blacks in Philadelphia. Duke University Professor Jasmine Cobb wrote, “Vues traffics in the suspicion of black freedom that characterized both caricature and nationalist ideology.” Writing about the representation of indigenous people, Public Humanities students assert the wallpaper reinforces “nineteenth-century racial tropes that rationalized the mass genocide of Indigenous peoples.”
The transparent screens contain labels and prompts, which ask visitors to respond to the problematic scenes. Classes in Public Humanities and Native American Studies will contribute additional labels and prompts so these can be changed often. We intend the screens and the postcard to call attention to the wallpaper and the questions that surround it. We hope visitors understand that the images are problematic and that those of us who use the space are aware of the racist content. We wanted to “de-naturalize” the wallpaper and the experience of seeing it.
Our future activities aim to find even better ways to interpret Vues d’Amérique du Nord. Working with our colleagues at the Bell Gallery, we look forward to their exhibition of Maori artist Lisa Reihana’s “In Pursuit of Venus” (2015), a digital scroll that reinterprets another scenic wallpaper titled Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique and its depiction of Polynesian native peoples (Les Sauvages was created by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and was exhibited at the Paris Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie in 1806). Reihana’s work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, the de Young Museum, the Musée du Quai Branley, and the Venice Biennale and you can see a version here. Reihana’s reinterpretation of wallpaper similar to Vues offers new ways to think about how art can recontextualize and explore racist representations. We hope to build on the new ideas she will bring to campus and perhaps commission other artists to do work similar to Reihana’s but focused on Vues d’Amérique du Nord.
Other new ideas about recontextualization will come from a large, international conference, to be held in September 2020 at the John Nicholas Brown Center, in conjunction with the Reihana exhibit at the Bell Gallery. We have applied for external funding for the conference, and the grant proposal places the issue in historical context:
In recent years, art historians, artists, activists, public officials, institutional leaders, and citizens have begun to grapple with what to do about the vast and pervasive visual archive of problematic representations of race and indigeneity on American college campuses, in schools, in government and office buildings, and in other public spaces. Dartmouth College removed the Hovey Murals from a dining hall after sustained student-faculty protest and put them in storage at the Hood Museum (the four murals painted in the 1930s depict indigenous peoples as sexualized, drunk, and illiterate). In Minnesota, the Indian Affairs Council petitioned the Minnesota State Capitol to remove paintings dating from the early 1900s that glorify white settlers and disparage Native peoples. In Washington DC, Congress recently passed a bill including a report that calls for the Architect of the Capitol to review representations of Native peoples in the US Capitol that date from the 19th and 20th centuries, to reframe its tours to “accurately and respectfully represent the history of Native Americans,” and to relabel some artworks to draw attention to their racist nature, while a school board in San Francisco voted to paint over – and then re-voted and decided to cover up – thirteen WPA-era murals by Victor Arnautoff in George Washington High School that depict enslaved and Native peoples in poses of subjugation. This symposium brings together art historians to present on the original intent and context of such artworks in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries with speakers from different fields – including contemporary art, law, tribal leadership, museums, and activism – to present on strategies that are being used to respond to concerns about these artworks in the present. Such strategies may include destruction, removal, removal and recontexualization in a space or setting that centers issues like racialization and racism, counter-labelling, and/or the commission or installation of oppositional historic or contemporary artwork. Racist, racialized and white triumphalist imagery pervades our public spaces and our private homes; the symposium seeks to understand the history of these artifacts, and to reflect on what we might choose to do with this inheritance.
We are working, either in conjunction with the conference or after, toward a commission, or series of commissions, of artwork that would share space with the wallpaper and reimagine it. I hope that the exhibit and the conference will bring forward other possibilities as we seek to learn from those who have faced similar challenges.
The students who asked for the removal of the wallpaper based their objections, in part, on a survey of people who used the Nightingale-Brown House. The survey showed, the students wrote, that those who came to study at the Center for Public Humanities were harmed by their constant, forced interaction with racist depictions. After the new interpretation, the exhibition, and the conference, I hope we can do another survey, and see if those feelings have changed. This is the work of Public Humanities and we are engaged in it. I don’t have easy, or quick, answers but the questions are crucial.
Susan Smulyan is a Professor of American Studies and the Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.