Truths and Reckonings: The Art of Transformative Racial Justice explores how reparative curatorial practices attenuate legacies of historical racial violence by turning this teaching gallery into a “pop-up” memorial museum. The aim is to facilitate understanding and commemoration of this haunting presence of the past and encourage greater commitment to transformative racial justice.
Exemplified by museums engaging the Holocaust, enslavement, genocide, and other atrocities, memorial museums seek to translate education and commemoration around past injustice into ethical commitment to a just future. Memorial museums are a form of transitional justice practice, collectively meant to transform rights-abusing social orders into just societies organized by equal human and civil rights. Yet transitional justice often fails to transform, and past patterns remain present. In theory, transitional justice becomes transformative by freeing political culture from the trappings of past injustice, which requires facing this history, building shared truth, and committing to reparation and reconciliation.
Artworks and institutions are vital to this process. As mediators of historical consciousness, they inform understanding of the past and our relationship to it. To these ends this installation bears witness to difficult truths, enabling the acknowledgment and processing of traumas that are socially embodied and sustained, and imposing a counter-memory on a political culture invested in forgetting without knowing. Grouping objects to create unscripted dialogues between artworks from the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum’s permanent collection and items on loan from Washington University Libraries’ Department of Special Collections, Truths and Reckonings stages a virtual public hearing where the evidence informs critical reflection, unsettles and rebuilds understanding, and promotes openness and urgency to change.
This installation is presented as a pop-up memorial museum in order to stress its commemorative focus and to embrace its exploratory and fleeting presence in this particular space. The exhibition serves to illustrate that restorative practices can unfold in museums and galleries, notwithstanding—and in some ways owing to—their impermanence. Many institutions can create more space for reparative work, but the dynamism, expressive freedoms, accessibility, legitimacy, and influence of museums make them ideal for the commemoration of truth—the cornerstone of transformative transitional justice. As sources of historical representation and understanding, museums can uniquely expose the legacies we embody and reproduce, and in this way support our repair.