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  • Exhibition

  • July 31, 2020 - January 17, 2021

This past spring, artist Ben Ripley worked with MASS MoCA’s Director of Education, Laura Thompson, to organize an exhibition of his work with her Advanced Museum Studies class at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). When MCLA’s Gallery 51 shut down due to COVID-19, MASS MoCA stepped in to host Ripley’s show. On view in B6: The Robert W. Wilson Building, Ripley’s timely work gives visitors the opportunity to explore the definition of race by museums and cultural institutions.

Ben Ripley’s photographs focus on the 1930s Hall of the Races of Mankind exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which featured 27 life-size busts, 27 busts, and 50 heads depicting various racial types. The Field Museum commissioned sculptor Malvina Hoffmann to make the series of bronzes, with a goal to make anthropology more engaging and illustrate the “brotherhood of man.” The original exhibition claimed to show scientific divisions between races and illustrated the racial theories of Arthur Keith, who became known as an influential figure in the modern white nationalism movement in America. Ripley reconnects the original exhibition to the modern day by superimposing his own face and body on photographs and 3D scans of the original bronze sculptures, in a display that deflates notions of ethnic typing and museum authority.

Ripley speaks of his work: “This historical example of the forceful authority of museums and the seductive power of beauty leading to visual arguments whose consequences we are only now starting to understand suggest an urgent examination of the responsibility of the visual arts on a larger scale. Are our museums leading to a fruitful exchange of diverse ideas? Is our visual art reductive and divisive or humanizing and complex? What are the future consequences of a pursuit of ideological purity? How can art be used to heal and persuade rather than create an exclusive echo chamber? Who do artists and museums serve?”

About the Artist
Ben Ripley engages critical moments in history by reimagining technologies used for the transmission of culture such as language, photography, and sound recording to suggest alternate, more humane societies. He works from a continuing exploration of the deep history and mechanics of photography. He teaches at Buxton School in neighboring Williamstown, MA, where the photography program combines creative expression and inquiry with science, ethics, and mathematics.


A man from Korea #32
Ben Ripley, 2020