Harvard University could have avoided a recent dispute with a Swiss activist group hoping to exhibit a series of racially degrading photographs commissioned by one of Harvard’s most beloved professors in the 19th century by simply allowing the group to use the images.
According to Pamela Gerardi, director of external relations at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the university denied the request because the group wished to blow up the sensitive images and print them on a large banner. Gerardi worried that that format might further exploit the photographs’ subjects — American slaves and Brazilian natives who had been stripped naked and displayed like scientific specimens to prove their supposed biological deficiencies. While that sensitivity is understandable, it wasn’t strong enough grounds to deny the request, especially not without further clarification from the group. While enlarging the photographs could have been distasteful, it could also have been powerful way of exploring the images’ sinister history.