Troubling Images: Curating Collections of Historical Photographs

March 11, 2021
Left to right: Mark Sealy, courtesy of Steve Pyke; Ilisa Barbash, courtesy of Chris Snibe/_Harvard Gazette_; David Odo, courtesy of Matthew Monteith; and Makeda Best, courtesy of Unique Nicole.

Historical photography collections sometimes contain images that can be deeply troubling to contemporary viewers. What should be done with collections that include photographs of colonial violence, enslaved subjects, racist stereotypes, or other difficult imagery?

In this video, moderator David Odo and photography curators Mark Sealy, Makeda Best, and Ilisa Barbash talk about the challenges and possibilities of curating legacy collections of photographs today. 

Presented in partnership with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture.

Please note: This recording contains imagery and discussions of a sensitive nature that may be troubling to viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph A.B.P. and Principal Fellow Decolonising Photography at University of the Arts London

Makeda Best, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, Harvard Art Museums

Ilisa Barbash, Curator of Visual Anthropology, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University

David Odo, Director of Academic and Public Programs, Division Head, and Research Curator, Harvard Art Museums 

Works explored:
Carrie Mae Weems, American, You Became a Scientific Profile/A Negroid Type/An Anthropological Debate/& A Photographic Subject, 1995–96. Monochrome c-prints with sandblasted text on glass. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Richard and Ronay Menschel Fund for the Acquisition of Photographs, P2001.28.1–4. © Carrie Mae Weems. 

Marion Post Wolcott, American, Cashiers Paying Off Cotton Pickers, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi, 1939, printed later. Gelatin silver print. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Gift of Wolcott Community Management, 2.2002.1572. 

Lorenzo G. Chase, American, Photograph of “Aleet-Mong” aka “T'sow-Chaoong,” 1850. Daguerreotype. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 35-5-10/53058. 

Walter Hunnewell, American, Photo of an unnamed Brazilian woman, 1865. Negative, glass plate. Commissioned by Prof. Louis Agassiz. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM2004.24.7640.