In conjunction with our current exhibition, The Power of Labeling, we are pleased to present you with Exhibit Focus Fridays! Every Friday for the next few weeks, we will highlight an aspect of the exhibition, for example, a specific piece, an interview with an artist, a reflection regarding our process, and so on. This week, for our first Exhibit Focus Fridays, one of our Community Advisory Committee members, Zac Stocks, responds to Jessica Rubenacker’s piece The Monarch Butterfly (2005).
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Built into the process of labeling is a power relationship between that which is being labeled and those doing the labeling. Labels ascribe identity, therefore inaccurate judgments can forever affect the perception of labeled objects, ideas, or people.
Museums are not passive agents in the process of meaning making, as the labels they use to reach their audiences carry significant impacts. For much of their history, museums featured shelves lined with stolen bones. These exploitative displays allowed for biological comparison between western and non-western bodies as a means of illustrating supposed differences in social and intellectual capacities. Exhibits like this are rare nowadays, but museums of all types still imply cultural hierarchies through their presentations of “great civilizations”, fine art vs. folk art, and the absence of non-normative perspectives.
Jessica Rubenaker’s The Monarch Butterfly (2005) expresses the arbitrariness of racial labelling by referencing one of its best known examples. The work features four different colored butterflies accompanied by the famous 18th century descriptions of “the four races” by Charles Linnaeus, considered the father of taxonomy. Rubenaker’s piece displays criticism of society and its institutions. By naming the work in the singular (“Butterfly”) despite the presence of four separate butterflies, the artist emphasizes that these diverse specimens represent a single species. Based on experiences of being personally labelled by her race, the artist comments:
There is a human tendency in particular to classify the unclassifiable: anything that does not fit neatly into the pre-assigned categories. Immediately, we wish to make a new category in which to place this object, person, animal, thing, unexplainable object.
Museums, like people, are guilty of this, as objects become labeled by the markers of difference of their makers (race, gender, ethnicity, and more) rather than being viewed individually or within existing classifications. The consequences of this labeling can be significant. Understanding that race is a social construct, Linnaeus’ assertions of “natural differences” based on outward appearances have long been discredited (and seem especially absurd when placed beside butterflies). However, labelling has a dangerous ability to be self-fulfilling. The absence of public dialogue about race allows simplistic explanations of differences to flourish, while the subjects of these misguided characterizations internalize the ways they have labelled. Countless people of color have surely read Linnaeus’ descriptions and wondered about their accuracy –questioning their own nature and humanity. Who knows how these portrayals have affected and continue to affect how society perceives difference?
Works like The Monarch Butterfly are so valuable today, as they compel viewers to question how science, art, and history have influenced the way we think about those around us. Some viewers might look at art, or people, without thinking and see physical difference as a sign of inequality. A careful observer, though, will see that despite how labels separate us, our differences, as with the butterflies, are only small variations within the same beautiful form.
Zac Stocks is a Seattle-based museum thinker with a passion for community-driven interactive experiences and self-representation of people of color. When not writing about museums, he can be found rock climbing with his partner, Ginger.
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Interested in being involved in Exhibit Focus Fridays? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org