Museums contain treasures of human heritage, but many of our masterpieces carry with them problematic racial legacies. Traditional presentations have sidestepped engagement with racial content and unwittingly promulgated racist systems of knowledge. How to research, present, frame, and contextualize this art has been a matter of increasing debate in recent years. Can the racist content be ignored in favor of stylistic discussion? What are the consequences if we carry on as before? Surely tossing artwork isn't desirable nor is shuttering museum doors. While the scope of the problem remains vast, there is hope. An honest reckoning coupled with responsible curating and viewership can lead to a fuller understanding of our collective artistic inheritance and into a clearer future.
Letha Ch'ien specializes in issues of identity, ethnicity, and race in late medieval and early modern Venice. She earned her Ph.D at UC Berkeley and taught at UC Davis before assuming her current position as assistant professor of art history at Sonoma State University. She has been a Fulbright Fellow, a Gladys Krieble Delmas Fellow, a Townsend Center for the Humanities Fellow, and is currently a fellow at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Her recent publication, "Polytopos: Multi-ethnic Practice in Venetian Imagery" in Cultures and Practices of Coexistence in the Multi-ethnic Cities of the Mediterranean World, 13th - 18th uncovers pictorial strategies managing multi-ethnic orders and hierarchies.