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Contextualizing historic campus art an exercise in self-flagellation

A committee at Williams College charged with reviewing historic works of art for their appropriateness to modern times and impact on today’s campus climate is currently reviewing a monument at the school that honors Christian missionaries.

This is the second time this year the college’s Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History has reviewed controversial works of art.

Earlier this year it reviewed a mural depicting Native Americans that some viewed as stereotypical and offensive, and ultimately recommended adding modern “context” to the work. Now the group is considering the Haystack Monument. Erected in 1867, the 12-foot tall marble structure honors the birthplace of the missionary movement.

This effort to contextualize campus art caught the eye of The Wall Street Journal, which weighed in on how “some Williams College professors want ‘context’ for a monument to spreading the Gospel.” But is it necessary, and a good idea?

Author Jennifer Braceras points out:

Williams seems to be adopting what is known in the academy as “contextualization”—a way to preserve history while providing alternate perspectives. In theory, it seeks to honor the principles of free speech, open debate and rigorous inquiry that are the hallmarks of a liberal education. In practice, however, contextualization often turns into an exercise in self-flagellation that provides the professional victim class the soapbox on which to air its latest grievances.

How might Williams go about “contextualizing” the Haystack Monument?

The monument’s bicentennial celebration in 2006 provides clues. The weekend events included twilight vespers, panel discussions on the meaning of mission work today, and Sunday worship services. But the event also featured a critical reflection in which Prof. Denise Buell argued that Christian missionary work is “a justification” for violent forms of cultural imperialism.

All of this reflects what Glenn Shuck, a scholar who taught courses on the history of Christianity at Williams for over a decade, calls the college’s “ironic relationship” with the monument: It is a memorial to something important that happened on campus—but not something of which the college’s faculty is necessarily proud. According to Mr. Shuck, many Williams faculty members regard efforts to translate the Bible into other languages to spread Christianity as inherently racist and imperialist, a view he does not share.

… in suggesting, even inadvertently, that an unobtrusive monument to Christian missionary work is offensive, Williams has lent legitimacy to the perpetually aggrieved and has risked encouraging the piqued mob.

Read the full piece.

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