When we move to new places, we take things with us. We bring letters, books, photographs, works of art, heirlooms, and tchotchkes to remind us of who we are as individuals, as a family, and as a culture. In time, the objects will be rediscovered by others, telling them intimate stories about people and places.
This project was inspired by the part of the collection of the Great Plains Black History Museum that is temporarily stored on the fourth floor of the Bemis Center. During a research trip to Omaha in April 2015, we began to mine this collection. As we opened boxes, some of them moldy from years of dampness, the objects we found within led us to construct a complex picture about the things one leaves behind. We also visited the Joslyn Art Museum, El Museo Latino, the Phillip Schrager Collection of Contemporary Art, and the Omaha Public Library, where the official city archives are held. From these collections, we have selected and arranged a diverse array of objects to create a work of art and exhibition about the power of people and the power of place.
As artists, we are interested in how cultural ideas are communicated through these archives. In the nineteenth century, museums and libraries were established in major cities of the United States. The model of collecting was encyclopedic, meaning that the content of the collections represented the division of the world into categories: Ancient, European, Asian, Pre-Columbian, Native American, Modern, and so forth. These collections became disassociated from their original geographical and cultural contexts and became tools for public appreciation from a presumably shared worldview. A history is often constructed from objects selected through the perspective of the cultural elite; subtle meanings are often lost in interpretations, misunderstandings, and imperialistic points-of-view that convey a sense of ownership of another culture.
Long ago, Omaha was declared a sovereign region by independent settlers who crossed the Missouri River from the east into disputed territory. Historically, these presumed founders described themselves as adventurers, discoverers, missionaries, pioneers, freedom fighters, or searchers. As contemporary artists, we wonder: How does a place that was wild and free become a place ruled by prescribed democracy, with independence, liberty, and justice for all—except for the indigenous, nomadic, tribal people who lived there for thousands of years?
We have learned that, in history, when people moved fruit around the world, their culture accompanied it. In Omaha, we focus on the apple. Apples were planted during the western expansion of the United States because they store well in winter and easily grow almost everywhere. Nebraskans take great pride in their apples; note, for example, the popularity of the Applejack Festival and this quote excerpted from the January 1877 issue of Nebraska Farmer:
Now, in comparing Nebraska apples with the products of other states, their superiority was evident in at least three particulars. First, their flavor was superior. Apples from regions that were comparatively insipid, when grown in Nebraska, were found to be finely flavored. This was the case with all the samples tested. Second, the color was superior. This was observed by everyone who visited the Nebraska department, and every one who had an eye for the beautiful had a word of praise for these fine apples. Third, the Nebraska apples were exceptionally free from parasitic fungous growths.
Omaha was one of the gateway cities for the Oregon Trail, and the people who relocated to the emerging towns along the trail brought things that represented their former lives and cultures. In the span of one generation, small towns became cities, and networks of transportation and transcontinental communication were built upon a wild land that was once ruled communally by its indigenous people. In just forty years, the native culture, flora, and fauna had been overtaken and replaced with those from other places.
Our intention in this exhibition is not to criticize any particular point of view; instead, we feel that the artistic consideration of hidden knowledge can be fluid and abstract, more like a dream. Borrowing from the origins of modernism, the art installation invites the viewers’ curiosity without asserting an opinion or conclusion about any object or shifts in meaning. Like most dreams, history is more often about the way it is presented and less about the truth. Over time, the process of historical archiving can mute the significance and relevance of objects. As artifacts are rediscovered, their cultural significance can be transformed into something new.