When legendary book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach founded the Rosenbach Museum & Library Museum in Philladephia with his brother and business partner Philip at the turn off the 20th Century, they never sought to examine the Black experience in America. Instead, they built an outstanding collection of rare books, manuscripts, furniture, and art, which now sits as a world-renowned museum and research library set within two historic 1865 townhouses in the Rittenhouse Square area that reflects an age when great collectors lived among their treasures.
A new millennium reexamination of the varied and diverse collection yielded an abundant of evidence of the African American experience. So in what is a departure from the museum’s standard exhibits, “Look Again” ask visitors to view American history as inclusive of Black Americans. Simply put, African American history and American history are, in a word, inseparable.
The exhibit begins in Africa, homeland of the African Diaspora, and contains materials from the late 1500s through the 1900s and general reflects Europeans views of Africa. During this time, Europeans and Americans commonly perceived Africa as a “dark” exotic continent, suggesting it had no important history and made few contributions to human civilizations. This attitude obscured Africa’s rich, extensive history and replaced it with myths and misconceptions.
Those erroneous beliefs are what the exhibit’s consulting curator, Dr. Diane Turner, sought to correct. “I was very adamant about beginning in Africa before we even look art these documents and books because Africa provides Americans of African descent with out humanity,” explained Turner. “Often times in American history, enslaved Africans are referred to as ‘the slaves.’ But when you go back and you make reference to Africa you begin to se that these individuals were human beings who were taken from their families and various societies and were brought to the Americas for some very specific reason of their labor. Also they were brought because of their cultural and technological knowledge, which helps to build the very foundations of American society as we see it to day. Often that gets lost when you just talk about ‘the slaves,’ that they don’t have any history. Yes, they have history. They came from places where they had high cultural and technological knowledge and this is what made American society flourish.”
Turner credits her studies as an African American history major at Temple University under the guidance of the late Dr. Clement Tsehloane Keto, Dr. Malafi Asante and Charles Blockson as pivotal to shaping her outlook. Turner was a curator for four years at the African American of Philadelphia until earlier this year and currently teaches her major at Camden County College.
“I think it was a good collaboration because they had these objects, documents and so forth, and I provide them an African perspective in looking at slavery and actually how it was viewed by Americans of African descent,” said Turner.
The “Look Again” exhibition is organized in five sections: Africa, slavery, Resistance to Slavery, Founding Fathers and the Civil War. A sixth section on African American literature is displayed in a separate part of the museum.
“The museum agreed that it was important to look at the fact that enslaved Africans were not passive and that they were active in the process to deal with a major theme in American society,” said Turner. “That theme is freedom and they were preoccupied with that on a daily basis, whether it meant running away, work slowdowns, breaking tools, or pretending to be ignorant. The root of running away or escaping begins with the Africans themselves.”
Sometimes, to escape racial oppression, African Americans would redefine their race, or “pass.” The exhibit tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, who was a close friend of Abraham Rosenbach and one of the most powerful women in the art world in the early 20th century. She was personal librarian to J.P. Morgan, then considered one of America’s wealthiest men, and after his death became director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City for many decades. She traveled the globe spending millions of dollars buying and selling rare books, manuscripts and art and befriending famous artists and scholars, all the while keeping secret the fact that she was African American, and instead passed for Portuguese.
“When you look at that it speaks to relationships in American society,” explained Turner. “The first question you would want to ask is why would people want to be other than what they are? It speaks to the hierarchy that still exists in American society where whites are at the top and different individuals as you go down the pyramid is based on color.”
Turner agrees with the museum’s mission to encourage visitors to explore African American history as an integral part of American history.
“African American history has always advocated for a more inclusive of everyone to really get a total picture of what American history really is,” explained Turner. “(For) early Europeans who were slave owners, coming to America was an American dream for them. But if you look at it from the perspective of those enslaved, it was an American nightmare.”
“Look Again” is showing from September 13, 2006 to February 25, 2007 at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2008-10 DeLancey Place. For more information, call 215.732.1600 or visit http://www.rosenbach.org