The material conditions of “historic” preservation and institutional presentation communicate a particular version of the past through, what the late historian and professor of geography, David Lowenthal, terms selective forgetting and selective recall.
Common myths of white benevolence and exceptionalism – particularly in the North – contribute to the perceived “invisibility” of slavery in New England and across the United States at sites similar to “historic” Christ Church Cambridge in Harvard Square.
By reading against boundaries, materiality, and identity projections, this project situates the church within broader, interconnected landscapes of dispossession and extraction, making connections to places and people beyond the fiction of “historic” boundaries –
in W. E. B. DuBois’ words – to Black labor as the “foundation stone” of “Northern manufacture and commerce.” The goal is to construct what bell hooks calls a “subversive historiography,” an alternative spatial narrative of place that allows us to revise and expand the storytelling of Christ Church Cambridge in its context. The work aims to render visible this (currently invisible) history through research and exploratory mediums of knowledge sharing and representation.
A temporary art installation provides a platform for bringing the hidden past into view.
The inaccessible, largely unknown Vassall Tomb in the basement of Christ Church – where Darby Vassall, a formerly enslaved person, is buried – is shared with the public via a looped video projection displayed on the church’s front lawn.
The video is accompanied by narration, telling the particular story of this church’s collusion with, dependency on, and profit from the slave trade that provided economic foundations for the establishment and growth not only of this church, but also of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New England. Both the research and writing process and installation development were made possible by a number of talented, dedicated, and generous people.
Adapted Abstract from Piepenbrink, Nicole Catherine. 2022. “Here Lies Darby Vassall: Rendering the obscured and concealed history of slavery at Christ Church Cambridge.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Design.︎︎︎