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?