StudioEis: Memory, Monument, and The Embodied Past

By Naomi Subotnick, ’22

When we visit a museum or historic site, our attention is often directed to the collection objects on display, or the architectural elements of the building: rarely do we think about other interpretive tools utilized to transform exhibitions into narrative spaces. While visiting the Maryland State House during Winterthur’s Southern Field Study Trip, I had the opportunity to reflect on the other material presences that define our museum experiences. In the Old House Chambers of the Maryland State House, the room where Maryland outlawed slavery in 1864, two life-size bronze statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass stand opposite one another. Installed in 2020, the statues represent an ongoing effort by the Maryland State House to incorporate overlooked histories into their historic spaces. The installation came in the midst of a reckoning with Maryland’s Confederate monuments, including the 2017 removal of a statue of Roger B. Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, from the State House grounds.1

Statue of Harriet Tubman by StudioEis at the Maryland State House taken at the Douglass and Tubman Statues Unveiling, February 6, 2020. Joe Andrucyk and Patrick Siebert, photographers. Photograph courtesy Maryland Executive Office of the Governor.

 

Statue of Frederick Douglass by StudioEis at the Maryland State House taken at the Douglass and Tubman Statues Unveiling, February 6, 2020. Joe Andrucyk and Patrick Siebert, photographers. Photograph courtesy Maryland Executive Office of the Governor.

The sculptures at the Maryland State House were commissioned from StudioEis, a Brooklyn firm specializing in classical figurative sculpture. Founded in 1977 by Ivan Schwartz and Elliot Schwartz, StudioEis’s commissions have included sculptures for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the Virginia Women’s Monument in Richmond, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.2 They have also created sculptures for restaurants, corporate clients, and theater companies.

The bronze statues created by StudioEis are a reinterpretation of the nineteenth century monument tradition. As historian Kirk Savage has argued, it was during the latter half of the nineteenth century that a national memory of the Civil War was forged in bronze: the same years that saw the failure of Reconstruction also saw the rewriting of the nation’s past in public spaces.3 By celebrating Tubman and Douglass in the same material language that has long been used to glorify the Confederacy, StudioEis and the Maryland State House have made a statement about which historical figures belong in our public spaces– and in our public memory.

Yet the sculptures of Tubman and Douglass do more than commemorate the legacy of these two powerful abolitionists: they also make the past feel present. In order to create these lifelike statues, StudioEis referred to a variety of source material. The sculpture of Harriet Tubman was modeled on a recently discovered carte-de-visite from approximately 1868-1869: the only known photograph of Tubman at midlife. A vital piece of archival evidence, the photograph is now jointly owned by the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A photograph itself preserves physical presence, documenting one person at one precise moment in time: StudioEis’s sculpture has translated Tubman’s likeness from one embodied material to another. In crafting the sculpture of Douglass, StudioEis was also careful to include a tangible link to the past: the hands have been modeled from one of Douglass’s living descendants.4

[Portrait of Harriet Tubman], 1868-1869, Albumen print, Benjamin F. Powelson. Library of Congress and National Museum of African American History and Culture. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018645050/.

This attempt to bring to the past to life informs much of the firm’s work. Following the classical tradition, StudioEis’s sculptures are based on figure models: the design process involves photographic gesture studies of an actor, from which the final pose is selected. In addition to their traditional figurative monuments, StudioEis has begun to experiment with new digital technologies: they have created several forensic reconstructions from archaeological evidence, including a portrait of an early Jamestown colonist for the Smithsonian, and several portraits of George Washington for Mount Vernon.

The sculptures at the Maryland State House certainly possess a physical presence. The statue of Douglass almost makes eye contact as one enters the Old House Chambers, and the statue of Tubman– roughly my own height– gave me a sense of the towering courage of the young heroine. As I read the label text outlining Tubman’s remarkable life story, I reflected on the statue: why had the Maryland State House chosen this exhibition technique, and what effect was it having on me, a museum visitor? What was it about these sculptures that made me feel more connected to those long gone? I remembered that the impulse to preserve the physical presence of our heroes and loved ones itself has roots in nineteenth century: we might think of Frederick Douglass’s death mask, or the Lincoln relics that have been venerated since his assassination.5

Remarks made at Douglass and Tubman Statues Unveiling, with original Washington speech visible in central vitrine. February 6, 2020. Joe Andrucyk and Patrick Siebert, photographers. Photograph courtesy Maryland Executive Office of the Governor.

Across the hall at the Maryland State House is the Old Senate Chamber, the room where George Washington resigned as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Washington’s original resignation letter is the pride of the State House’s collection: the document is enshrined in an illuminated plexiglass vitrine, the focal point of the marbled hallway. Oddly, it was not this historical artifact that left the deepest impression on me: the sculptures by StudioEis have a presence that the original Washington document does not. Perhaps this may be attributed to my own relative interest in the histories each object represents: I am admittedly far more curious about Tubman and Douglass than Washington. Yet I think an answer must also lie in the material itself: even the tangible work of the human hand cannot compare with coming face to face, as best we can, with the past.

For more information about African American history in Maryland, visit the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland program at the Maryland State Archives.

  1. DeNeen L. Brown, “Removing a Slavery Defender’s Statue: Roger B. Taney Wrote one of Supreme Court’s Worst Rulings,” The Washington Post, August 18, 2017,https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/16/removing-a-slavery-defenders-statue-roger-b-taney-wrote-one-of-supreme-courts-worst-rulings/.
  2. About,” StudioEis, https://www.studioeis.com/about.
  3. Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).
  4. Evan Greenberg, “Inside the Creation of the Tubman and Douglass Statues at the Maryland State House: Sculptures of the Famous Marylanders Honor Their Legacies and Abolitionist History,” February 26, 2020, https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/section/community/inside-the-creation-of-the-tubman-and-douglass-statues-at-the-maryland-state-house/.
  5. “Frederick Douglass National Historic Site: Virtual Museum Exhibit,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/frdo/imgGal.html; “What Lincoln Wore,” Ford’s Theater, https://www.fords.org/lincolns-assassination/lincolns-clothes/.


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