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Fleming Reimagined: A University Museum's Journey to Decolonize Its Collection

Two students on colorful chairs outside of a red brick colonial style building that reads "Robert Hull Fleming Museum" at the University of Vermont.
Marlon Hyde
/
VPR
The Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont has been showcasing art and historical artifacts for over 90 years.

For more than 90 years, the Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont has showcased artifacts and paintings from around the world. Now, at the urging of staff, it’s undergoing a transformation. The museum is confronting its role in perpetuating racism and oppression. Instead, it hopes to become a platform for BIPOC art and anti-racism work.

“Museums throughout their history were founded in spoils, you know, in European collectors showing off their exotic things they've collected from around the world,” said Andrea Rosen, the curator at the Fleming museum.

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The colonial style red brick building with white wood trim sits across the street from the medical center. Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd, members of the Fleming staff expressed a desire to change the museum’s collections to address the legacy of colonialism that stains American and European museums.

Out of this moment birthed “Fleming Reimagined: Confronting Institutional Racism and Historical Oppression.”

Cynthia Cagle is the Guest Services Coordinator at the museum. She says, when she walked into the room that housed the Fleming’s European collection she got goosebumps.

“My ancestry is indigenous, Native American and Mexican. So when I see these people in this kind of clothing, and from this time period, it makes me think of genocide of Native Americans and it makes me feel uncomfortable,” Cagle said.

“My ancestry is indigenous, Native American and Mexican. So when I see these people in this kind of clothing, and from this time period, it makes me think of genocide of Native Americans and it makes me feel uncomfortable."
Cynthia Cagle, guest services coordinator at the Fleming Museum

For many of us, observing relics from other cultures has become a tradition.

But as the sole BIPOC staff member, Cynthia has pushed her colleagues to understand the harm museums have caused to indigenous communities. And that had an impact.

“Hearing from a co-worker, you know, that something that you were putting — as I was doing — on brochures, and so forth, like, that [it] was actually an offensive and harmful image, you know, wasn't something even on my radar screen,” said Chris Dissinger, the museum's assistant director.

He's worked in the museum for over a decade. Before “Fleming Reimagined,” the museum’s galleries operated like a machine. Exhibits were scheduled years in advance.

But this reckoning turned the status quo on its head. Fleming staff dug through its 25,000-piece collection. They chose pieces that represent an array of diverse backgrounds and identities.

The African and Egyptian collections are permanently closed. And instead of just replacing problematic artwork like an expensive band aid, there are blank spaces left with labels of what was taken down and an explanation for its removal.

 A museum visitor stops to read one of the new "Absence" labels that explains the removal of the painting that was previously in that spot.
Marlon Hyde
A museum visitor stops to read one of the new "Absence" labels in the European Exhibit. These labels are written by the staff to explain why the artwork was removed and how it is hurtful to members of the community.

Staff hope the museum is more dynamic now — with spaces created for visitors to participate in conversations and the curating of art. Although it's more work than he is used to, Dissinger says it’s rewarding.

He continued: “A lot of meaningful change happens through confronting things that are challenging to either your ideology, or to your experience, or to your comfort level — your personal comfort level.”

“A lot of meaningful change happens through confronting things that are challenging to either your ideology, or to your experience, or to your comfort level -- your personal comfort level.”
Chris Dissinger, assistant director of the Fleming Museum

But this effort to address systemic racism and replace harmful collections was not enough. The Fleming staff also volunteered to unlearn biases within themselves by talking to each other, and with help from BIPOC consultant Ferene Paris Meyer.

UVM senior Kelly Garcia interned at the Fleming during the early discussions for this project. She says just removing offensive works sends the wrong message.

“I was very vocal about that," Garcia said. "I was like, 'You can't just take paintings down and call it a day and say that, you know, we're doing something good,' because then you're just hiding what was there, and you're hiding your past."

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To boost accessibility, the Fleming also cut it’s admissions fee. Staff say they will have to apply for more grants to make up for lost revenue, but it’s the right move.

Janie Cohen has been the director of the Museum for almost 20 years. She feels this culture shift is long overdue.

“You know, for me personally, and looking back, since I've been at the Fleming for so many years, you know, I am a big part of why we haven't changed,” Cohen said.

“You know, for me personally, and looking back, since I've been at the Fleming for so many years, you know, I am a big part of why we haven't changed.”
Janie Cohen, director of the Fleming Museum

The museum reopened to the public in late September. Cohen knows the Fleming is not alone in its reckoning. Artists, curators and activists around the country and the world are pushing for similar work — to decolonize museum collections.

Cohen adds, “White supremacy within institutions in America is just beginning to be unpacked. You know, this is a forever project.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Marlon Hyde @HydeMarlon.

Updated: October 4, 2021 at 3:35 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include Ferene Paris Meyer's name and website.
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