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”!