That is Mahogany!

Mahogany is known to Millennials as the choice wood of Effie Trinket of The Hunger Games, but what they may not know is the significant history behind such a luxury item. In Mahogany: The Price of Luxury in Early America, Jennifer L. Anderson discusses the hidden cost of luxury mahogany furniture. That cost is equally a social one, as well as ecological and economic. Rainforests were decimated, slave labor was used to harvest as much wood as possible and later in history the term “mahogany” became a racial slur. Thinking of the hidden costs of collections should lead a museum professional to reevaluate what stories can be told by their collection. Telling the story of how a mahogany chest came to be can enrich the visitor’s awareness of the impact the item had on society and the earth.

I interviewed Ashleigh Oatts, the Education Coordinator at the T.R.R. Cobb House in Athens, Georgia. I asked her how we can, as museum professionals, make sure that the complicated pasts of objects, such as mahogany pieces, do not get lost over time? She stated, “As far as complicated pasts with objects, that is where interpretation is vital, and being upfront about the controversy. When you try to hide it, visitors stop taking you seriously. If you are upfront about the controversy, you can gain a visitor’s trust.”

A visitor’s trust is extremely important. What if we do not know about an objects past and it suddenly comes to light? How should we handle that?

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19 Responses to That is Mahogany!

  1. I think that as museum professionals we have to be especially aware of the many different stories behind objects. Many objects in collections potentially have difficult stories associated with them, and it’s our responsibility to acknowledge this rather than redirect attention to a less controversial story. We should be constantly vigilant about this and consider reinterpreting collections to discuss some of the more controversial stories.

    • kiewma93 says:

      I agree Christine. Is there a system that can be set up to insure that museums are vigilant in reinterpretation? How do we get others museums to consider these ideas?

      • karissa430 says:

        I think museum staff should be trained (we are – yay!) to evaluate objects’ interpretive value in creative ways. Workshops and other professional development opportunities come to mind as possible ways to achieve this.

  2. kwebberj says:

    I like the question about how a museum could handle new information about an object in your collection–for example, if you found out a painting was stolen from someone, or an artifact was looted. I think to preserve the trust you mention, it is necessary to take the proper steps to make amends, even if it means losing the piece.

  3. emerbr84 says:

    The great thing about this book is what it does for material culture. Many people look at an object and just pay attention to the physical properties, not the history of the people and environment that resulted in the creation of the object. Mahogany gives a renewed hope of the ability of museums to integrate deep stories and questions into exhibits.

  4. Leanne says:

    I agree that you need to be aware of the many stories, and not shy away from controversy, but I am not sure if museums deliberately seeking out controversy in every exhibit. I feel like that might create an entirely different type of museum.

    • kiewma93 says:

      I do not mean for museums to create or actively seek controversy, but rather to be aware of any potential controversy and if they are going to use a piece they will need to address that controversy. I believe it would help when building an exhibit to be aware of potentially unforeseen issues. Does that clarify what I meant?

  5. juliafell17 says:

    I think the complicated past of many objects goes to show that as a museum, the research is never done. Curatorial and Collections departments should constantly be aware of new information pertaining to the subject areas of their collections and try to make connections between what they have and what else is out there. This also speaks to the particular importance of exhaustively researching objects before they go on display, in order to have the best awareness possible and therefore control over what stories are being told and preparation for questions pertaining to the stories that are not.

    • kiewma93 says:

      I agree. I actually feel exhausted thinking about how much work has already been done and how much there is lying ahead of us as museum professionals. It is a good kind of exhausted though, I believe uncovering hidden stories of objects adds a lot of value to societies understanding of the world we live in.

    • pnorman02 says:

      I completely agree with you, Julia. I think items that are controversial, create the perfect opportunity to reevaluate the collection as a whole. Not only do the curators and collections department need to always be aware of new information, like you mentioned, it would be a great way to possibly tell stories that haven’t been told before.

  6. at01lang says:

    The need to be upfront about the controversy surrounding certain objects reminds me of work I did in an historic house over the summer. During the tours I gave, I would briefly mention some of the social costs related to mahogany pieces in the home, having had a tangential knowledge of the slave labor used to harvest mahogany. It was something guests found very interesting, and most had known nothing about. In the script I worked on, my supervisor said she liked integrating this aspect into things, but she could imagine a time when previous people involved with the house would not have wanted such a story lest it detract from guest’s appreciation of the beautiful piece. I am glad that more museums are coming to embrace a more involved and complex discussion of their collections, because it reminds me this is often a more recent phenomenon than we think and that there are some instances where collections still need some proper contextualization.

  7. thankyouluke says:

    As much as I love me some mahogany, you are absolutely right. Looking at objects from a different point of view, such as a social, racial, or even environmental point of view can totally change how museums can interpret objects. Take, for example, the steam engine. From the point of view industrial history, the steam engine was wonderful. Looking at it from the point of view of an environmental historian would NOT see the steam engine in this light!

  8. mickcr says:

    I agree with everyone’s comments completely. We need to insert information about objects into our programming and exhibits so visitors can understand the importance and experiences that went into the object being created, who used it, and why it is or isn’t valuable anymore. We need to figure out how to present that information in a way that leaves a lasting impression with visitors.

  9. joshdtaylor says:

    This is a great question! I feel in this age of “throw it away once it is broke”, these objects from a different age take on a new meaning. However, we have to remember that stuff has to come from somewhere and all the effort to make it, ship it, and sell it, we forget all the hands that have touch even the smallest of objects.

  10. saraumland says:

    Mahogany really made me think about what museums have in their collections and what stories museums are telling with them. When looking at a wood chair the story is not so much who sat in the chair, but who made the chair and what material the chair came from. I think museums should reevaluate what stories they tell with the objects they have. A lot can be learned from what does not meet the eye directly. At a time when collections are becoming a burden a new identity to is needed. Book like Mahoney show the values that collections have at museums.

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