Brown University, Williams College and Mystic Seaport Museum scholars will use maritime history as a basis for studying the relationship between European colonization, dispossession of Native American land, and racial slavery.
Mystic, Conn. (February 2, 2021) — A $4.9 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice will fund a partnership with Mystic Seaport Museum, and Williams College that will use maritime history as a basis for studying historical injustices and generating new insights on the relationship between European colonization in North America, the dispossession of Native American land, and racial slavery in New England.
The collaborative project, titled “Reimagining New England Histories: Historical Injustice, Sovereignty and Freedom,” will create new work and study opportunities at all three institutions, particularly for scholars, curators, and students from underrepresented groups. It will result in a new Mystic Seaport Museum exhibition on race, subjugation, and power, and a “decolonial archive” spotlighting a diverse collection of stories from several New England communities.
The grant was awarded by the Mellon Foundation as part of its Just Futures Initiative, a by-invitation competition that invited 38 colleges and universities to submit project proposals that would address the “long-existing fault lines” of racism, inequality, and injustice that challenge ideas of democracy and civil society.
“Mystic Seaport Museum is proud to collaborate with our esteemed partners in implementing an institution-wide reframing of the traditional narratives around the American maritime experience as it relates to African, African-American, and Indigenous peoples. As America’s leading maritime museum, we are uniquely positioned to be the venue for a monumental exhibition in 2023, which marks an imperative, transformative, and inclusive reflection on how America’s activities on the world’s oceans have and continue to play a part in our country’s society from the position of race and slavery,” said Christina Connett Brophy, senior director of museum galleries and senior vice president of curatorial affairs. “Working with our partners, and through the fresh lens of ships and the sea, we are excited to engage new audiences in critical conversations that have long remained unfinished.”
The planned exhibition at Mystic Seaport Museum will run from Fall 2023 to Summer 2024 and will juxtapose traditional narratives about early New England with engaging artifacts that tell a different story about the past — from archaeological materials to documents and literature to music and oral histories
“A myth in the founding narrative of the United States is the idea of New England as a ‘city on the hill,’ a place founded on the idea of liberty for all,” said Anthony Bogues, director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. “But it is important to consider that this site of America’s founding was also a site of Native dispossession as well as racial slavery. Brown and Williams have told stories about both of those histories, but rarely have we explored the relationship between the two.”
Since its founding in 2012, the CSSJ has explored the history and legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and racial slavery through research, study, public conversations, exhibitions and more. The groundbreaking work of the center’s researchers has catalyzed international scholarly conversations and inspired similar work at colleges and universities across the country.
But Bogues, who will oversee the grant-funded project, said that in recent months, he and his colleagues felt their mission must expand to include the investigation of New England’s role in displacing Native Americans — something he believes is as foundational a part of American history as racial slavery.
To help draw connections between racial slavery and Native American dispossession, Brown reached out to scholars at Williams College in Massachusetts — a growing group of whom focus on Indigenous peoples and racial slavery in early America — and Mystic Seaport Museum, which for more than 40 years has worked with Williams to offer the program Williams-Mystic, a unique liberal arts-focused semester at sea for undergraduates on its museum campus. The Museum also conducts the Frank C. Munson Institute for American Maritime History, a graduate-level program accredited by the University of Connecticut. Together, the three institutions devised a plan for a three-year partnership that will draw on each institution’s strengths to generate new scholarship, student experiences, public events, and more. Some K-12 educational programs will also be developed with support from other sources.
“We chose Williams as a partner because they have some very fine young historians who are thinking critically about Indigenous dispossession,” Bogues said. “The college has made it very clear that they sit on Indigenous land, and they are convening courses and programs that reckon with that. As well, we have wanted to partner with Mystic Seaport Museum on an exhibit that touches on racial slavery and the sea for quite some time. This is an opportunity for our three institutions to come together and think hard about the links between two major historical injustices in our country.”
The project has four major components: a new research cluster at the CSSJ, an online “decolonial archive,” a major exhibition at Mystic Seaport Museum, and expanded courses on historical injustice in early America for students at Williams, Brown, and Mystic Seaport Museum.
The new research cluster, housed at the CSSJ, will focus on how societies founded on historical forms of injustice can become more inclusive and just. Faculty, staff and students from Brown and Williams will collaborate on scholarly projects, sometimes engaging in research work as part of joint Brown-Williams courses.
To create an online “decolonial archive,” the three partners will work with leaders in New England’s Black and Indigenous communities, Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative, the John Carter Brown Library and staff at the John Hay Library to gather oral histories of New Englanders who have experienced the effects of centuries of institutional racism and dispossession. Part of the archive will consist of recorded community conversations organized by Brown and Williams, which will help ensure stories are gathered and shared in ways that reflect community desires, rather than in an exploitative, extractive manner.
The large exhibition at Mystic Seaport Museum will draw upon its vast collections of maritime artifacts as well as those of other lending museums, library, and archival collections. The exhibition will map a more complex historical framework engaging with questions of race and sovereignty, weaving a new narrative with a creative juxtaposition of visual and material culture, archaeology, oral traditions, and songs and performance. The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of interactive interpretive programs – both virtual and in-person at the Museum’s riverside campus – to engage the general public and underserved communities.
Over the next three years, all three partners will also offer a wide variety of learning opportunities for students of all ages. Brown and Williams will develop several cross-disciplinary courses focused on colonialism and historical injustices. Mystic Seaport Museum will develop a new curriculum for its Munson Institute and conduct a summer museum-studies internship for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students with an emphasis on issues of race and inequality in the museum profession.
The research undertaken at the Museum by the exhibition curators, Munson fellows, and summer interns will not only add greatly to the body of knowledge about the African American and Native American facets of the Museum’s permanent collection, but also influence the scope and tenor of future museum collecting by identifying gaps to fill. It will allow the Museum to address critical histories that reflect the history of the region and the sea.
“This is just the beginning of what we hope will become a sustained conversation about the inequities of the nation’s founding,” said Brophy. “It is only by facing the past with an honest and truthful understanding of the forces that shaped the development of our nation that we can hope to become a truly just society.”
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About Mystic Seaport Museum:
Mystic Seaport Museum, founded in 1929, is the nation’s leading maritime museum. In addition to providing a multitude of immersive experiences, the Museum also houses a collection of more than two million artifacts that include more than 500 historic vessels and one of the largest collections of maritime photography. Mystic Seaport Museum is located one mile south of Exit 90 off I-95 in Mystic, CT. For more information, please visit www.mysticseaport.org/ and follow Mystic Seaport Museum on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.