Can a single image tell us a complex, multifaceted story or expose the truth of a historical incident? Since the formation of states, artists have shed light on political and social events and, in some cases, forged fables and shaped national identity. American Memory: Commemoration, Nostalgia, and Revision, though not historically or artistically comprehensive, examines how images—paintings, prints, and documentary photographs—shape our memories and understanding of historical and current events.

History is often told from a single perspective. Episodes that impacted women, people of color, and the LGBTQI+ community (to use the current term) are frequently skewed, have been erased from the historical record, or were never documented. American Memory looks at works in the Museum’s collection from multiple perspectives and reveals this selective grooming. Told in three chapters across the galleries, the exhibition amplifies underrepresented voices and analyzes the impact of slanted narratives, employing social history to move beyond purely aesthetic readings of the works.

American Memory, further, is an essential catalyst to critique the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collecting and interpretive strategies. Addressing how the Museum acquired particular objects and acknowledging inconsistencies in interpretation are important to the work of presenting art and sharing the stories that are relevant to our community. American Memory is but one action the Museum is taking in this direction, which includes inviting the people of Milwaukee specifically to have a seat at the table.

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Chapter 1: People and Identity

July 15–Oct 31, 2021 (extended to Nov 7)
Contemporary Galleries, Level 1, Gallery K108

Portraits tell stories—sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly. In many cases, portraits tell stories not only about the individuals represented in them, but also about the artists who made them, the culture and time in which they were created, and even the era in which they still exist. In other cases, portraits disclose little, giving only brief or cryptic glimpses into the lives of the sitters, the makers, and the historical circumstances under which they were created.

Chapter 2: Activism and Terrorism

July 15–Dec 5, 2021
The Bradley Wing, Level 2, Gallery K215

Chapter two of American Memory acknowledges moments involving the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the struggle for freedom throughout much of the twentieth century during the Great Migration and the civil rights movement. Domestic terrorists—then as today—created hostile environments and committed outright violence to intimidate civilian populations and influence governmental policy; activists, again like today, boycotted businesses and protested laws that were segregationist and otherwise marginalized Black people. More than passing incidents, these historical episodes reflect ongoing social injustices, ones that artists have addressed in multiple ways over time. The works of art in this gallery document, condemn, and, in some cases, turn on their heads these significant moments.

Chapter 3: Responses and Revisions

Oct 1, 2021–Jan 16, 2022
The Godfrey American Art Wing, Level 2, Gallery K230

Images contribute to our understanding of history, its events and players. A single image, however, can picture only one visual narrative or portrait; it is unable to capture the full scope of a historical episode, to represent the voices of everyone involved.