A Bronze Bust and its Legacy at the RISD Museum

Photo credit: RISD Museum.

About a year ago now, I submitted my final assignment for a class with Yannis Hamilakis called Decolonizing Classical Antiquity: White Nationalism, Colonialism, and Ancient Material Heritage. The prompt was “Decolonizing the Museum”: we were to select one object from the nearby RISD Museum, research its history and context, and present it from a decolonial perspective. The object I selected is shown above. It was previously known as “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy.” I argued that the name should be changed to avoid racial language. Why? To answer, here’s an excerpt from my paper:

I argue that the name used for this object should be changed from “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy” to remove racial (and gendered) language. An example of an alternative title is “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child.” I suggest that the word “boy” be replaced with “child,” since there is no clear evidence that the subject is male. Making this change acknowledges the legacy of patriarchy in naming museum objects; the “unmarked” term should not be masculine. Most importantly, I strongly believe that racial terms like “Nubian” should be avoided when naming objects. As I contended earlier, using such terms – even with the best of intentions – reinforces the structural racism that still pervades our world today. Removing racial language from the label of the object is not a panacea, but it does signify the commitment of the RISD Museum to a just future. Leaving out racial language also does not mean ignoring the continuing legacy of racism, especially in the United States. Ideally, a name like “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child” would force the viewer to reflect on their ideas of race. Whiteness is currently the norm; no object is (or should be) described as a “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a White Child.” Using unmarked language (with no racial descriptor) for the object under question normalizes blackness. Rather than ignoring race, changing the label to remove racial terminology provokes reflection on race and racism while also avoiding ahistorical vocabulary that is inappropriate when referring to classical antiquity.

My full paper is available here if you’re interested in reading more. What I was happiest about, though, is that this paper actually made a difference (albeit a small one). After the class, I emailed Gina Borromeo, the curator of ancient art, suggesting this change. It took nine or ten months, but I’m very glad to say that the object is now called “Bust of a Child”!

3 Responses

  1. Dear Aliosha, I’m interested in the issue of decolonizing classics & came across your article on the Bronze Bust. I felt it was very well argued, but I have a different perspective & wonder if you had considered it. In the 1990s I taught a subject on Black Athena to Africana Studies students in California. I would say that the majority of them felt that history was a white, Eurocentric lie, excluded the black contribution, & marginalized them by excluding them from history. As a result, I developed a lecture on Blacks in Antiquity, looking at the Kushites as well as Snowden’s work (I agree with you it’s a bit old fashioned), but it gave the students a greater feeling of inclusion. To get to the point, do you have any concerns that renaming the bust might elicit the same feelings of exclusion among contemporary Africana studies students. Thanks, Louise Hitchcock

    1. Thank you for this comment, and sorry for the late response! I think the concerns you express are valid and well-warranted — and something I haven’t considered thoroughly enough. After some reflection, I think I would still prefer not to use racial language in naming this object — especially since “race” looks so different in antiquity. Ideally this shouldn’t be about any kind of erasure or exclusion; instead, it should be motivated by a desire to reflect on the legacy of racism that made these objects be given racial names. I think where this falters is that a viewer now looking at the “Bust of a Child” is probably not going to think about racism at all (while previously one might have thought of how racism affected the naming of the object). But the name is only one small part of a viewer’s engagement with a museum. A lot of great programming is happening to get museum visitors to think about the implications of racism in collections. Indeed, other papers for this class took a much more ambitious approach than I did, even imagining what it would mean to decolonize the very form of a museum. I fully support this kind of work and definitely think the right thing to do is to include this bust in such discussions. But I also think that for the specific, relatively small matter of the bust’s name, we shouldn’t use racial language. In short, I agree with your point that we should emphasize black inclusion in museums — something that renaming the bust itself doesn’t accomplish. I think renaming this object complements this ongoing, harder, and much broader work.

  2. Celebrating the long prehistory and history of the Nubian ethnicity is not racist but creating a more inclusive history. I suggest looking at the work of Stuart Tyson Smith. A problem I perceive is that taking a subject on decolonizing classics from someone who works mainly in Greece is going to be problematic. Thanks for the comment.

Let me know what you think!