Most art museums don’t really try to explore the origins of their pieces. They leave them up on the wall with just a few scraps of information—leaving it up to us to piece together their historical context. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a sentence or two describing the artist’s life; if we’re unlucky, there will be a blurb just describing the art to us. But the Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum took a decidedly different approach, creating an art exhibit that’s explicitly about the context. “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment” looks critically at the origins and sociopolitical context of its pieces, constructing meaningful historical connections between classic works of American art.
Rather than focus on one particular style, “Nature’s Nation” surveys how American art has depicted and interacted with the environment. The show covers a lot of ground, starting out with indigenous art—a Pawtucket bear sculpture from the sixteenth century—and going all the way to contemporary video and photography pieces, such as a Misrach photo of petrochemical decay in Louisiana or a video of a mirror protest at Standing Rock from 2016.
From John James Audubon and Albert Bierstadt to Georgia O’Keefe and Robert Rauschenberg, the exhibit has considerable breadth. “Nature’s Nation” is structured into segments; in one section it examines the context behind luxury goods, in another, the representation and plight of the buffalo.
There is, quite possibly, too much art. The scope of the exhibit and its highly curated nature can seem overwhelming. To survey hundreds of years of American art and examine how it considers us and our country’s legacy in connection with the land is a laudable undertaking. While the exhibit does bite off more than it can chew, it shouldn’t be faulted for trying.
“Nature’s Nation” seeks to provide context and connections. In one instance, we see a silver sugar urn, and next to it, a fair amount of interpretation explaining its significance. We learn about the history of silver mining in Bolivia, how it began in the country as a Spanish practice under colonial rule and continues to be a point of tension today. Without that information, I would have just passed by the urn without giving it any thought. Instead, it became a meaningful, problematic object.
Notably, the exhibit starts with something I’d never seen before in a museum: a land acknowledgement. “The Peabody Essex Museum acknowledges that we are on the ancestral territory of the Pawtucket, Pennacook, Naumkeag, and Massachuset,” reads a sign. “Please join us in honoring their communities, their elders past and present, as well as future generations.” It’s possible to envision signs like these all over the Boston area and the United States—even in places that aren’t directly interrogating the history of the American land. Hopefully they’ll become less rare.
After looking at Bierstadt’s painting celebrating Manifest Destiny (“Mount Adams, Washington”) and Frederick Law Olmstead’s Central Park schematic—which displaced Seneca Village, a neighborhood founded by freed slaves—I thought about how little museums actively try to tell the stories behind their pieces.
With few exceptions, the MFA does precious little to educate visitors on the historical, social and economic stories that shaped its art. After seeing “Nature’s Nation,” it seems that leaving out critical context is a choice in itself—to drive discourse away from how money and politics have affected art. Context helps bring the art world back down to the real world, implicating it as part of the same processes of imperial oppression. The exhibit makes a compelling case for why museums need more interpretation, not less. Art can’t exist in an aesthetic void.
There need to be more conversations about the roles of power and wealth in the often affluent world of art. As a provocation for thought and more active curation “Nature’s Nation” is successful; as an efficient, coherent exhibit, it is not.