A New Museum for an Old Colony, Puerto Rico

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Here is a great article on Pablo Delano’s “The Museum of the Old Colony” by David González (The New York Times). [Also see previous post Pablo Delano’s The Museum of the Old Colony and Pablo Delano: A Brief Interview with Repeating Islands.]

The images from Puerto Rico show devastated landscapes, flooded streets and barefoot children. In some cases, they are accompanied by snide comments that tease or blame the subjects for their predicament. Are these from 2017, post-Hurricane Maria?

No, try 1899.

A year after the Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War and the United States acquired Puerto Rico (along with Cuba and the Philippines), images from an illustrated census provide early insight to the nebulous, paternalistic and at times violent relationship between the United States and its island territory.

The photographer Pablo Delano has long collected images of Puerto Rico: In some ways, it is in his blood, since his father, Jack Delano, had gone to Puerto Rico in the 1940s as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, then returned after World War II to work in film, television and photography, producing one of the most telling (and loving) looks at the island.

But these photos from 1899 appealed to him for different reasons. A few years ago, while poring over the countless images he had collected over the decades, he decided to use them in an installation that looks at how Puerto Rico — and Puerto Ricans — were portrayed by their colonial masters. Long interested in museums — especially ethnographic ones — he was inspired to open his own: The Museum of the Old Colony, a movable installation comprising images, text and objects that has already been exhibited at New York University and will open in the coming weeks at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art.

“I was struck by how similar the 1899 pictures looked to the ones we’re seeing from Hurricane Maria,” said Mr. Delano, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “Some of the photos were even taken in the same towns and streets. It was difficult to look at because to me it suggested visually maybe we are back where we started. It raised the question: What has been the outcome of this century of occupation?”

Some answers were evident in the slow and spotty federal response to the hurricane, as well as President Trump’s postings on social media showing little empathy for the plight of some 3.4 million American citizens. To many on the island and its diaspora, the president’s remarks, the slow pace of recovery, even FEMA’s supplying of candy and snacks instead of healthier emergency rations, were sobering reminders of their second-class citizenship.

The phrase “Old Colony” is a play on words, referencing both the island’s political status and a popular local soft drink. While the show was conceived several years ago, its images and captions – which include misspelled place names and casual racist slurs – provide ample proof that the relationship between the island and American authorities has been unequal from the start.

The books and images Mr. Delano collected for decades portray Puerto Ricans as colonial subjects whose lives will be improved by the imposition of American values and, in 1917, American citizenship. They were done — mostly by outsiders — to introduce American readers to the people and places that were taken as the spoils of war, and often with a distinct, propagandistic point of view.

“People were generally portrayed as ignorant or stupid,” Mr. Delano said. “There was a very strong racialization that was very different from how race was thought of under the Spanish colonials.”

Dark-skinned workers and their families shown barefoot and in threadbare clothes are touted as “newly made Americans,” while six dark-skinned children sitting on a fallen palm street are called “pickaninnies.” One stereo card image shows two children in ragged, torn clothing as wearing “their Sunday Dress.” A white tourist child is shown drinking from a coconut using “a sanitary straw,” the implication being that she had to be protected from local contagion. [. . .]

For full article, see https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/11/15/a-new-museum-for-an-old-colony-puerto-rico/

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