"Did Alan Singer Actually See the Exhibition?" A Reponse from a Curator at the New-York Historical Society



Richard Rabinowitz is one of the leading public historians in the United States, with over 40 years of experience in creating new museums and exhibitions on every aspect of American history and culture. He is president of the American History Workshop and the exhibition chief curator and writer for "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn."

Professor Alan Singer’s demolition job on the New-York Historical Society exhibition, Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn, published on the History News Network on December 5, is so rife with distortions and misrepresentations as to require a response.  As the exhibition chief curator and writer, I cannot recognize our exhibition in the professor’s review.  I am grateful for Dr. Darlene Roth’s response (“Consider This: Response to Alan Singer,” posted on H-Public, 12/14/11), but I want to take up the cudgels myself and answer Singer’s charges point-by-point.

First, let me lay to rest Singer’s absurd allegation that the exhibition submits to the right-wing “political direction being imposed [on N-YHS] by Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman.”  This old canard, backed up only by a 2004 newspaper interview, reveals how ignorant Singer is of the process of producing an exhibition.  I never met with Messrs. Gilder or Lehrman in the course of work on this exhibition or discussed the public interpretation of slavery with them.  I do not know whether they have funded this exhibition or not.  Like hundreds of other historians, teachers, and students, I have benefited from their generosity to major institutions in our field.  But to think that eminent scholars like Thomas Bender, Laurent Dubois, Ira Berlin, Jeremy Popkin, and the other twenty scholars who actively collaborated on the exhibition are simply puppets in the hands of trustees or funders is ridiculous and insulting.  I do not know or care who sits on the board of Singer’s university but it would be equally inane to attribute Singer’s “political direction” to their influence.

Enflamed by his mission to uncover the exhibition’s “right-wing agenda,” Singer’s method is to locate single sentences within secondary or tertiary level interpretive panels, elevate them arbitrarily to the status of “major themes,” and then dismiss them as platitudinous or even worse, as inaccurate.  Then he lays on long lists of humanity’s troubles in the post-revolutionary era to disprove the “themes” he has chosen to attack.  Every one of his observations, astonishingly, deliberately misreads the exhibition text, ignoring the ideas presented before and after, and neglecting altogether the evidences presented by the documents in the exhibition.

The first of Singer’s examples comes from the very last line of the very last text panel in the exhibition.  He writes,

“The Age of Revolution made us all citizens of the world as well as our own nation, loyal to global ideals as well as local and group bonds.”  I only wish this were true.  If it were, slavery in the United States might not have continued into the 1860s; European imperialists might not have sub-divided and colonized Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century; the United States and other countries might not have virtually exterminated their indigenous populations; and the world might have avoided World War I, World War II, a series of genocides, and the nuclear arms race.

Perhaps we are as stupid as the professor suggests.  But I prefer to think, as most historians do (e.g., Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights), that the past two centuries have witnessed the rise of a global humanitarianism, stemming from the intellectual, moral, and religious impulses of the Age of Revolution, as well as political and economic forces.  In our own time, this has been institutionalized at the UN, in hundreds of NGOs, and in international human rights tribunals.  That this “religion of humanity” has not rid the world of war and injustice since 1815 is an obvious fact repeatedly acknowledged within the exhibition text.  But that virtually all of us may judge the actions of nation-states, our own and others, by a moral standard is undeniable.  And where did this “new normal” (to use the phrase suggested by Ira Berlin), this new sense of expectation, come from, if not from the revolutionary age?  Was it apparent in the Crusades or the Thirty Years War?  I don’t think so.

After this, Singer’s review proceeds in exactly the same manner, accusing the scholarly team of ignoring the entire history of American law, the suffering of colonial peoples, racism, starving children, the invasion of Iraq, and God knows what else.  Shame on us!  Guilty, guilty, guilty.

But, of course, none of this concerns the history treated by the exhibition itself.  About that the professor has almost nothing to say.  Does he approve of our interpretation of the American or Haitian revolutions?  He doesn’t say.  He claims to dislike our reading of the British anti-slave trade campaign, but he never gets around to saying why.  Does he “buy” our adoption of Robin Blackburn’s idea that each eighteenth-century revolution radicalized the next?  We will never know.

Instead, Singer roams through the exhibition, plucking out individual sentences from the text panels and invariably misrepresenting them.  He lambasts us for saying that “gradually during and after the Revolution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights, rights were defined as ‘universal.’”  Again, we get the laundry list.  But the context is narrower.  As our principal scholar, Thomas Bender, noted, what began as a defense of the rights of British Americans in the 1760s evolved toward more universal claims over the next quarter-century.  Does Singer deny that?  How else can he explain the appeal of the American example for European radicals in the 1780s and 1790s?  As the “Curator’s Overview,” an audio accompaniment to the exhibition explains, political power in the new United States was not given “to women, not to the poor, and absolutely not to the 25 percent of Americans who were enslaved.”

But the professor evidently did not bother to listen to the audio guides (which are, incidentally, available in Haitian Kreyòl and French as well as English, as are many of the texts).  Just as he did not notice the very beautiful exhibition catalog, with a dozen scholarly essays, including one in which I explored how the major themes of the exhibition emerged through the course of scholarly collaboration, historical research, and curatorial work.  And, as Dr. Roth pointed out, the professor did not take notice of any of the 300 objects, documents, and images (from 73 repositories in 18 countries) collected for this exhibition.

He missed the first genre painting in American art, “Sea-Captains Carousing in Surinam.”  He missed the actual scroll, 35 meters long, on which the Stamp Act was written in Parliament in 1765, which has never been shown outside the U.K.  He missed the audio re-creations of seaport tavern conversations, drawn in large measure from Linebaugh and Rediker’s Many-Headed Hydra and Julius Scott’s Duke dissertation on “The Common Wind” (not a happy source for rigid right-wingers there!).

He missed the very first issue of Common Sense, and its translations into French and German.  He missed the copy of Noteson Virginia that Jefferson gave to Abbé Morellet to translate into French (and the French translation that came of it).  He missed the chest of African treasures that the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson carried around Britain to exemplify the cultural sophistication of those being enslaved by British ships.  He missed a seven-foot-long iron yoke used to shackle slaves during the middle passage.  He missed the comments of fellow-visitors, especially the Haitian Americans proud to see the complex history of their nation’s origin presented so thoroughly

He missed the original printing of the Brookes slave ship engraving, the greatest propaganda device of the age and he missed the wooden model of the Brookes commissioned by Mirabeau to use in anti-slavery debates in the Assemblé Nationale.  He missed Girodet’s painting of Jean-Baptiste Belley, one of the greatest portraits of a black man in Western art, borrowed from the Château de Versailles.  He missed the Haitian Declaration of Independence, recently discovered in the British National Archives, the only copy extant in the world.  In fact, he noticed nothing particular in the most extensive exhibition ever produced on the Haitian Revolution, anywhere, which occupies 65 percent of the exhibition and only one line in Singer’s review.  He missed two brilliant pieces of video art about Haiti, which happen to have been produced by a former Hofstra student!

These are treasures but they are also evidence.  Again and again, Singer’s disagreement with the interpretive text flies in the face of the objects and documents surrounding it.  For example, he dismisses the 1763 Peace of Paris as anything more than a truce between the French and the British empires, ignoring the extraordinary cartographic and iconographic celebration of the British victories in the Seven Years’ War.  Among the gems here is the 1768 Scenographia Americana, “an imperial travelogue through the British North American colonies,” drawn and engraved superbly by British military and naval officers.  Historian J.E. Crowley notes that its “overall impression … conveys satisfaction with the peaceful beauty of Britain’s North American realms, with an aversion to conflict and triumphalism” (Common-Place, January 2006).  Similarly, Gibson’s map of the North American frontier, finally printed in 1778, carefully delineates the rival claims to the Mississippi Valley after the Seven Years’ War, in a manner that surely aims to be definitive and not tentative.

At the bottom of an interpretive text panel that explores the opportunities offered by British forces in the War of Independence for black Americans to escape slavery, Singer locates a sentence about Washington’s begrudging acceptance of black troops into the Continental Army.  Forgetting the opening paragraphs, the professor then astonishingly accuses us of failing to stress that more blacks joined the British than the patriots.  He takes no notice of the actual original proclamation by Governor Dunmore of Virginia just inches away from the offending text panel.  He misses Prince Hall’s petition to the Massachusetts legislature to secure for blacks the rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence.  Artifacts, or facts, mean nothing to the professor.

And so on.

Finally, fully one-half of Singer’s review is occupied with a long narrative related to the abolition of slavery itself in the British Caribbean in the 1830s.  Why this is appended to a review of an exhibition about the eighteenth-century age of revolutions, except to display the author’s erudition, is unclear.  True, at the very end of the exhibition, aiming to wrap up our story, we do briefly note the abolition of slavery in all the American states and colonies, representing the documents issued in London and Paris.  We mention the indemnity obligations, incurred by the Boyer government in Haiti to the French in 1825.  But the professor uses about thirty times as many words (and no objects and images) in his historical summary as we can in this concluding section.  As Dr. Roth points out, this only shows how poorly Singer understands the curatorial task.

All this raises the question, why did the professor bother to visit the exhibition? He might as easily have asked me to send him all the interpretive texts via email and he could have saved himself the train and subway fare from Long Island.  If academic historians do not want to explore the material and visual evidences of the past, they might as well stay holed up in their libraries.  But more than that is at stake.  One of the virtues of museum presentations is offering visitors the rare chance to see whole those documents from which we historians extract the juicy quotations to spice our narratives.  It encourages us to view these documents as objects produced in a specific time and place and with a specific purpose.  Professor Singer apparently prefers to slice and dice his quotations from the sources, as he has from our interpretive texts.

Fueled by anger over a yellowing news article, Singer appears to have ignored every single bit of the historical evidence presented in the exhibition itself and cherry-picked quotations to demonstrate his passion for all the world’s good causes.  Meanwhile, the scholarly and curatorial teams that labored for five years on Revolution! await the first professional review of our work.  We invite readers of H-Net and HNN to visit the show, open till April 15, 2012, and to attend the scholarly symposium scheduled for January 20-21.

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