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The Columbus Museum, Georgia


Where Gumbo Was #458

Not every museum can have a broad collection of masterpiece paintings, nor the largest collection of historic artifacts. But every museum can tell an interesting story or highlight an area's artists and art history. My visit to The Columbus Museum, in Columbus, Georgia gave me a chance to see one that really does well, both on local history and regional art.


The museum, founded in 1953, takes on two tasks specifically, which it actually sees as one; its website says that "The Columbus Museum brings American art and history to life for the communities of the Chattahoochee Valley." Inside, to a greater extent, the art and history are separate, but not disconnected.


It's located on the edge of downtown, on what had been the 13-acre estate of W.C. Bradley, who left it to be used for "culture and education." It started as the Bradley Museum of Arts and Crafts, but its founding director, the Georgia painter Edward Swift Shorter, pushed it into bigger ambitions.


In its early years the focus was on exhbits, lectures and classes based on its fine art and Native American artifacts, but over several years, and in a new building, its name got shorter and its focus shifted to American art of all kinds, and artifacts of human habitation in the Chattahoochee Valley.


All histories of human habitation in North America have a twisty task: How to avoid the idea that nothing worthwhile was here until Europeans arrived, how to make sure that the story of enslaved Africans isn't omitted, and how to make sure that the complexity of it all is explored, if not explained.


Signs of that intent are evident in many of the exhibits in the large area that traces the area's history. The Columbus area was a center for Creek peoples who were later forced out in the Trail of Tears; exhibits explain the areas that were taken and the circumstances.


An exhibit that shows slave quarters that existed in the city, housing people enslaved as servants is careful to point out that they are far different to what was experienced on plantations. I doubt that any general interest museum can really fully tell all the intertwined stories, but it feels as if the will is there.


The historic tableaus continue on through the Civil War and beyond; Columbus was the scene of the last battle of the Civil War, a week after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, an event whose news had not reached southwest Georgia. Columbus was one of the South's major industrial cities, and therefore an important military target.


In the post-war era, Columbus became an important textile-industry town, not only hosting some of the largest southern mills, but becoming a center for manufacturing mill equipment and cotton gins.

P1190501P1190502World War I brought big change to the Columbus area; Fort Benning was set up 'next door' as one of the largest training camps.

The recruiting poster at left, calling on African-Americans to enlist with its slogan "The colored man is no slacker!" is unusual in its depiction; it skips the usual racist stereotypes to depict the soldiers and girlfriend heroically.

Ironically, black soldiers were sent elsewhere for training; Fort Benning was only for white units.


P1190504-001P1190612-001World War II gets its place also, and then a pause for local pride: Ma Rainey, Gertrude Rainey, was born and lived most of her life in and around Columbus. And, of course, just an hour's drive away, there was a peanut farmer who ran for President...

The Civil Rights movement is not ignored, and exhibits focus on events and people who were involved in Columbus itself and the surrounding area.


Columbus today still has significant industries, but one of its best-known companies is represented by a familiar duck. I had known that Aflac stood for American Family Life Assurance of Columbus, but somehow I had always assumed Ohio!


From another exhibit, I learned more than I had ever known about the lives of German and Italian prisoners of war in the U.S.; Fort Benning was the host to a large camp whose inmates served as labor on nearby farms.


Interestingly, in late 1943 when Mussolini was overthrown and the new Italian government declared war on Germany, Italian prisoners who were not found to be fascists were allowed to join Italian Service Units who worked in U.S. military uniforms in non-combatant roles at various ports and other places that more workers were needed. The image above was made at a mass at Fort Benning celebrating the October 1943 surrender.


Moving out of the regional history area, there's an easy segue to galleries focused on American, especially regional, artists and craftspeople: a small taste of future displays of quilts created by women in one family over a century and a half.


The museum is quite colorful: bold wall colors, each room with its own.


Many, though not all, of the artists represented in the museum have local or southern roots; for me, that's one of the strengths of museums like this. As I travel in different countries, I want to know what artists in those countries were doing while Impressionism was developing in France; equally, I want to see how southern artists saw and see their home as much as I am interested in how New York-based artists have looked at my home.


A 1944 painting, Between Courses by Edward Swift Shorter, the museum's first director reflects complex and ambivalent relationships between Black and white; James Bartlett's 1995 Homecoming, a wall-sized canvas asks many questions about growing up and assuming roles. Unnoted in the otherwise interesting label is the isolation of the one Black figure in the picture; while others look out into the gallery, he looks down.


Whitfield Lovell's Plenty, made with found objects and images taken from family photographs of middle-class Black families, reminding of different lives and conditions, often overlooked.


Everybody's Church, Representing Everybody's Jesus by Betty Bivins Edwards takes an ironic look at the south's profusion of churches, denominations and practices. On my road trip, I became convinced that Alabama and Georgia are probably the only places with as high a church-per-capita ratio as Brooklyn!


Stan Strickland's 1978 Discovery struck a chord with me; the former factory-turned-Marriott I stayed at in Columbus is just off-screen to the right, and the old trestle still carries tracks from the waterfront, past old mill buildings. In the background is one of the new office buildings that mark downtown Columbus.


Of course, not all of the collection carries as much connection to local history; there's a fair amount of contemporary glass work (as well as the Dale Chihuly piece seen near the top), and this vortex-like structure created by Martha Clippinger from foam core board, a peach basket and a piece of mirror.


Up on the second floor, another abstract piece, by Ida Kohlmeyer. It's called Slanted #3, and there's no attempt to interpret it, besides identifying it as 'welded aluminum with marine paint coated with catalyzed polyurethane.'


Also on the second floor is a light-hearted but serious exhibit, highlighting items that the museum owns but does not have on display. With it comes one of the best things I've seen a museum do: Speak to people who may not know a lot about museums but are clearly interested, since they are there. A series of three panels explains the museum's labeling, talks about why museums can't show everything, and explains the rules and concepts for letting go of pieces. To read them in larger size, click on their images in the slideshow below


Last, a painting by Arthur Rosenbaum that struck me as combining objects at rest and frantic activity; it reminded me in a way of works by Heironymus Bosch. Oh, and the title was for me, too: I am A Stranger on My Way


Congratulations to this week's solvers: ProfessorAbe, George G, Jonathan L and PortMoresby!

Title Image: Kindred, by Andrew Crawford, 2017


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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