This fall, students from Professor Monica Salas Landa’s A&S 325 class, Museum Studies: History, Theory and Debates, collaborated with a team of Lafayette librarians on an exhibit featuring objects from Special Collections & College Archives. The resulting exhibit, “Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism – A Pop-Up Exhibit” is curated by students in A&S 325. The exhibit will run from November 10th to December 6th in the Special Collections Reading Room, and student presentations will take place on November 14th and 16th at 12:15pm in the Gendbien Room of Skillman Library.

This exhibit draws inspiration from Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s book of the same title and aims to confront the profound legacy of violence deeply ingrained within museum collections. During the 19th century, imperial endeavors led to the extraction of objects from diverse communities, significantly shaping the emergence of museums as defining institutions that determine and evaluate what qualifies as “art.”

This process involved detaching artifacts from their original material and political contexts, selectively placing them within timelines and art histories imposed by empires, while conveniently erasing the violence that facilitated their inclusion in museum collections. Building upon these concepts, our exhibit features a series of textual interventions designed to address the neutral language often found in museum labels. Such language frequently overlooks the violent history of museum collections, particularly their imperial and colonial origins. Through our creative interventions, we strive to illuminate this context and its lasting consequences. For museums today, no question is more pressing than understanding what was taken, from whom, under which conditions, and facilitating the return of objects when demanded.