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Using History to Provide a Lens Into Today’s Politics


This article is part of our latest Museums special section, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

FERRISBURGH, Vt. — In a nation ripped apart by racial strife and economic inequality, Rowland and Rachel Robinson took a stand.

It was the 1830s, a few decades before the Civil War. The Robinsons, devout Quakers and uncompromising abolitionists, ran a Merino sheep farm and orchard here, and joined a network of Northerners that helped form the Underground Railroad, aiding enslaved African-Americans in their quest for freedom.

The Rokeby Museum is a preserved historic site and exhibition center on the Robinsons’ farm. It encourages visitors to use the polarized past to hold up a mirror to the political discord of the present. In recent years, the museum’s leadership has sharpened its focus on social justice, in deference to the values of the family that inspired it.

“We’ve got to be connecting Rokeby history to current events,” said Catherine Brooks, the museum director and former president of its board of trustees. “It’s the legacy of Rowland and Rachel Robinson. They stood up for human rights and worked hard for that. So we’re keeping their legacy alive by making these connections.”

The exhibition for the new season, when the museum reopens in May, is an example. Carol MacDonald, an artist who lives in nearby Colchester, Vt., is putting together “Mending Fences,” a collection of monoprints and historical objects from the Rokeby’s archives that illustrate “simple and profound acts of repair,” Ms. Brooks said.

On a recent afternoon, Ms. MacDonald was in her studio examining a variety of broken ceramic pieces that she had carefully glued back together, tracing the cracks with a thin line of red paint to highlight the repair. She wove red fabric through the worn threads of an old rug and planned a similar fix for a ripped fishing net.

She would press a badly frayed Victorian lace blouse to a sheet of paint to make a monoprint, revealing in detail both the damage and the repair. All of the items would have their mends undone after the exhibit to restore them to their original condition, Ms. Brooks said.

“The red speaks to a wound, something that’s been broken,” Ms. MacDonald said. “It speaks to anger.”

Her artistic vision for “Mending Fences,” Ms. MacDonald says, reflects these angry times — with political systems broken and social relationships fragmented. “The underbelly of racism is so apparent,” she said.

That underbelly was exposed at Rokeby in May 2016, when the museum’s now-retired director mounted four Black Lives Matter signs on the fence that fronts the property, easily seen from busy Route 7. Jane Williamson, who helmed the museum for almost 20 years, said she considered the Black Lives Matter movement a fitting way to illustrate the museum’s relevance.

Not everyone in the community agreed. Rokeby received phone calls, emails and visits from people who condemned the signs and deemed Black Lives Matter a terrorist group. “You would think we put up 10 signs that said, ‘Kill Whitey,’ ” Ms. Williamson said.

Credit…via The Rokeby Museum

In July, amid national attention on conflicts between the police and black communities, the Rokeby signs disappeared. Ms. Williamson hung more, and they were also stolen, she said.

One of the museum’s longtime supporters, a local man who helped tend the grounds, told museum leaders that he would no longer do the work while the signs stayed, Ms. Brooks said. Others, though, championed the message. Someone sent a check for $500, citing Black Lives Matter.

The board had some discussions but ultimately backed Ms. Williamson, Ms. Brooks said. Staff moved one of the signs to the Rokeby’s front door, where it remains today.

The uproar “was a defining moment for this museum,” Ms. Brooks said. “We are doing this work because we want to make a difference.”

Before Rowland Robinson’s parents moved to Vermont, they were wealthy landowners in Rhode Island, where they owned slaves. When the last Robinson who lived on the farm died, the family bequeathed the property to an association that founded the museum in 1963.

It showcased the stories of the four generations that lived and worked at the site, where the Robinsons’ house and several farm outbuildings — including a creamery and slaughterhouse — still stand. Rooms in the main house feature various aspects of the family members’ lives, with one section devoted to abolitionism, Ms. Brooks said.

In 2001, Rokeby was designated a National Historic Landmark for its role in the Underground Railroad. The recognition prompted a priority shift at the museum, which embarked on a 12-year campaign to build a new exhibition center.

The center, opened in 2013, houses the museum’s permanent collection of artifacts and the exhibition “Free & Safe,” a chronicle of two “freedom seekers” — the term Rokeby uses, as well as “fugitives from slavery” — who found their way to the farm through the abolitionist network.

The show, largely told through the two young black men’s experiences, documents the rise of the abolitionist movement and the Robinsons’ role. It also reveals that politics then could divide families as much as it can today. The exhibition includes a letter written by one of the Robinsons’ sons, George, in which he uses a racial slur.

Ms. Brooks said the museum had an obligation to expose even the ugly truth.

She also acknowledged the lack of diversity on Rokeby’s board. Currently, one trustee is black, and the board is working to bring on more people of color, Ms. Brooks said. That is a challenge in Vermont, where the population is 1.4 percent black, according to U.S. census data.

“You want to cultivate a place where different points of view are embraced,” said Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and a history professor at George Mason University.

Diversity is important, but a museum’s handling of content is more instructive, he added. “It’s about the sincerity of the effort.”

Rokeby’s emphasis on social justice has helped it attract both money and visitors. Last year, the museum more than doubled the amount it collected in its annual fund-raising compared with 2018, Ms. Brooks said. Two big supporters, one of whom gave $75,000 over three years, praised the museum’s dedication to discussions of racism and inequality.

“History in a tidy box, in an exhibit case, in a book or an article on the shelf, doesn’t do anybody any good,” Ms. Brooks said. “It’s great that it’s been documented. But we have to connect history to our lives today, what we’re looking for today, what we’re surrounded by.”

The Rokeby Museum will open for the 2020 season on May 17. The special exhibition “Mending Fences” will run from May 31 to Oct. 25. Winter hours are by appointment by emailing info@rokeby.org.

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