When I returned to Emory this fall, I was greeted by an entirely new campus. The updated Michael C. Carlos Museum was no exception. Clearly, the Carlos has taken the time and space to reflect on past issues, pursue post-pandemic opportunities and engage with the student body in innovative ways. The museum has persisted in providing the visitors with a thoughtful, respectful and diverse dialogue between art of the past and the present. They now engage equally with modernity and history in some of the most transformative ways I have witnessed yet, including the new “Each/Other” exhibition, the redesign of the Asian Art Gallery and the addition of “Confronting Slavery in the Classical World” labels.
The new “Each/Other” exhibit at the Carlos has been a prime example of the museum’s transformation, as it actively celebrates the works of often underrepresented Indigenous American contemporary artists, prompting a critique and revision of museum representation. This exhibit was installed around the same time as the many other changes at the Carlos, leaving the entire museum staff busy and lively.
One of these endeavors includes a big visual change to the museum: the redesign of the Asian Gallery. After four months of renovation, the Asian Gallery now boasts a space more conducive to both movement and the display of the museum’s diverse Asian collection. The gallery space was opened up by replacing a wall that previously stunted one side of the gallery with newer, less bulky display pedestals. These changes establish a better flow as visitors enter and move throughout the space, allowing viewers to examine the objects on display both up close and farther away.
In the redesigned Asian Gallery, the focus on more realistic, immersive displays for traditional religious objects has also provided a more comprehensive and accurate museum experience. For example, the “Shiva Linga with Four Faces” is now displayed in the round, as it was intended to be viewed. Each face is connected to one of the four cardinal directions, as opposed to being placed against a gallery wall or corner. Similarly, an alcove was created at the entrance of the gallery, holding a sculpture of the Hindu deity Ganesha, whose image is usually found at the entrances to temples and shrines. The symbolism and intentionality of these great artworks are undeniable, especially when displayed properly in this new space.
One detail that is truly emblematic of the Asian Gallery redesign is the inclusion of archival drawers in the wall, which visitors can open to reveal fantastic Indian works usually not found on display. These drawers make the Asian painting collection far more accessible for visitors, especially children who can easily open and look inside these drawers. This display is also far less stressful for curators, as they are UV-plex covered and better protected from light damage. While this is only a small corner of the museum, these simple changes transform the experience and engagement with the artworks in much larger ways.
This genuine, immersive experience is continued in the Greek and Roman galleries, with further nuance provided in the form of additional labels here as well. This new labeling of the Greek and Roman Galleries entails the addition of new QR code labels alongside the original labels for 8 artworks in the collection. This new digital exhibition entitled “Confronting Slavery in the Classical World,” was released in conjunction with the Emory symposium “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession: Emory, Racism and the Journey Towards Restorative Justice,” and was carried out by students taking the HIST 241 course, “Facing the Slave in Classical Antiquiy and the Modern Museum.” The intent of these new labels is to raise awareness of the history of slavery in the anicent Mediterranean, a practice so widespread that nearly one of every four people inhabiting classical Athens was enslaved.
The “Confronting Slavery in the Classical World” exhibit entailed the addition of the aforementioned QR codes, leading the viewer to information about the contributions of the enslaved person or formerly enslaved freedmen to these culturally significant artworks. This examination of brutal slavery in the classical Western world reveals a poignant connection to American slavery, as classical Greek and Roman ideas served as the basis for the “ideal” of American democracy, justice and art. In revealing these narratives, we see how that classical ideology for government and art, both in the ancient Mediterranean and in modern America, was constructed by the work of enslaved people.
Many of the works included in this digital exhibition feature visual representations of both an enslaved person and an elite citizen together, the former being so often overlooked that their inclusion into these classical artworks was unremarkable to the original viewers. The enslaved were seen as objects that simply set the scene of works featuring triumphant elite citizens. Today, instead of shying away from these images, visitors are encouraged to look at the major role enslaved people played in society, both in the important work they did during their lifetime and in their visual, symbolic role as part of these artworks. While these eight new labels may seem small compared to the vast collection of classical Greek and Roman artworks at the Carlos, they signify a broader step in uncovering often relegated narratives that museums need to be considering. “Confronting Slavery in the Classical World,” alongside the new “Each/Other” exhibition and the redesigned Asian Gallery, serves to recenter important narratives. While they are quite diverse in their history and meaning, they are unified in their advancement of the museum.
In thinking of the current “Each/Other” exhibit at the Carlos, I am reminded that “art” and “inclusion,” are words that demand action and require the work of people to truly activate them. In that sense, I see the Carlos Museum transforming into an action-oriented institution; the space has been recently activated by the energy of the viewers, innovative students and passionate, committed faculty. While change is a slow process, we can see those actions paying off in the display and discussion of art at the Carlos.