Connected \\ August 23, 2020
Voices of America join PEM’s collection
Courtesy image from Lydia Gordon of Bethany Collins, America: A Hymnal, 2017 as seen on display at EXPO Chicago.
I began studying this object: What was I really looking at? Isn’t this song ubiquitous? What’s so significant about it? Why has the artist burned the musical notations? What do the lyrics say? What’s with the song’s title?
My eyes quickly darted to the wall label for answers. Here is where I learned the seedling of an art project that continues to captivate me: The artist, Bethany Collins, researched the history of the popular patriotic anthem to discover over 100 versions. Between the 18th and 20th centuries, American songwriters rewrote the lyrics to the melody of My Country, 'Tis of Thee (also called America) in support of varying American causes, including revolution, temperance, suffrage, abolition, Native sovereignty and slavery. Collins bound these versions together chronologically in the special edition shape-note hymnal and then burned away the musical notes. America: A Hymnal chronicles an idea of American national identity fraught with multiple meanings and contradictions through the history of one song. Collins’ decision to remove the oval noteheads perhaps acknowledges how memorable the tune is, while gesturing to how diverse American identities really are.
There are moments as a curator when I engage with art that so deeply gets at my core it feels like a volcano erupting. Simultaneous multiple meanings and points of connections spill out like uncontrollable fire. In the few first minutes of experiencing Bethany Collins’ America: A Hymnal, I knew this passion would carry the conversation and the art forward in exciting, transformational ways.
Upon returning to PEM, I was able to research, pitch and ultimately acquire an edition of Collins’ hymnal for the Phillips Library collection. I’m extremely proud to celebrate the fact that the first museum acquisition of my career is a work by a woman artist of color. ...and that over the last year we have been able to add two more pieces by this artist to the museum's permanent collection. To contribute to the collection of the Phillips Library, one of the oldest museum libraries in the country, is a true honor. It makes sense: Collins primary medium is language. Throughout her work, the artist explores how meanings of words are nuanced and change over time and context. While Collins works in multiple ways such as painting and sculpture, America: A Hymnal is an artist book, expanding the very idea of what a book is and how a museum collects it. In fact, the artist intends the book to disintegrate as each page is turned.
This self-destructive aspect challenges the stewardship responsibilities that museums and libraries assume when acquiring items: we commit to the preservation of cultural works for future generations. Bethany’s work confronts us with a conundrum because it issupposed to destroy itself, so every decision we make about using or displaying her hymnals is fraught with existential tension. Each page turn introduces physical changes, and we are mindful that future viewers will not experience it in quite the same way as we do. We have partially addressed our fears by including — in the hymnal’s custom storage box — an instructional sheet providing guidance for its use, and a mylar envelope to gather bits of the pages that fall out. In addition, we make a conscious effort to document its evolving condition for our internal files by recording page turns via photographs and videos.
With the support of curatorial colleagues, I selected Collins’ hymnal for exhibition in Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, an exhibition celebrating the reunion of the modern American artist’s Struggle series, a 30-panel narrative exploring the words and actions of all those who contributed to the founding, and continued experiment, of American democracy. Along with two other contemporary artists, Collins’ work was presented in the exhibition and publication as a way to frame history as not a distant period of the past, but an active space that is continuously questioned in the present. I went to work with the artist on how to conceptualize her space.
Installation image of Collins’ America: A Hymnal, 2017, Phillips Library Collection, N7433.4 .C639 A58 2017 in Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, on view at PEM January 18 - August 9, 2020 (exhibition closed to visitors between March 12 - July 16, 2020) © 2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola
Collins wanted a chapel space to surround the displayed hymnal. Another work by the artist, an embossed wallpaper of flower translations, would adorn the walls. At this time, Collins was experimenting with performances of America: A Hymnal. She was interested in putting voice to the versions bound in her book and creating a multi-sensory experience of the hymns. The artist first experimented with singers by directing an open call program during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2018 and then again in Chicago in Mies Van Der Rohe’s “God Box” as part of an exhibition with the Smart Museum of Art.
As the artist continued to push her practice, a collaborative relationship grew with PEM. Through the museum’s cross-departmental support of the artist, Collins was able to produce a commissioned six-channel sound work to accompany her installation in the touring exhibition.