Taken Out of Context: Walls on RISD's Walls

I’ve always felt a personal connection to murals. From the streets of Southern California to the entryway of my childhood home, the art form was everywhere growing up. It was the first medium of visual art that I interacted with and thought was beautiful. 

Murals capture and represent a moment in time. They can be made for a number of reasons, from the personal to the political. And unlike artwork typically found in a museum, one does not need to enter into a space to see them. However, although they are accessible, they are also quite vulnerable. Almost paradoxically, because murals are attached to buildings and the built environment, it is easy for them to be altered or destroyed.

Left: Unknown (Chinese), Fragment from a Mural, 1500s-1600s. Gift of Mr. Cornelius Ruxton Love 51.559. Right: Unknown (Roman), Fragment of a wall depicting a candelabrum, 14-37 CE. Mary B. Jackson Fund 41.019

So when I saw these murals from China and Pompeii hanging on the walls of the RISD Museum, I was taken aback. Museums allow visitors to learn about different parts of the world that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. However, in both cases, in order to share part of a story with the people of Providence, the full stories of these murals has been permanently lost.

For example, we know that this Ming Dynasty mural depicts Magu, a Daoist immortal seen as a protector of life and women. But what was happening around Magu? Who else would have been around her and how would they have been portrayed? 

This same thought experiment can be applied to the wall fragment from Pompeii. Although we know that the wall was most likely found in a dining room, where in the dining room was it? This fragment depicts a candelabrum; were there other candelabra throughout the rest of the room? 

Visitors can learn so much from having these pieces in RISD’s collections. And yet, we also know so little. 

In many ways, murals remind me of tattoos– a permanent piece of art that can say something about both the person who created it and the person who wears it. Tattoos, like murals, have the ability to tell a story.

For example, one of my tattoos features a feather landing softly on water with a small halo around it. Meant to symbolize that in my darkest moments, my family always managed to catch me and help me land more gracefully than I ever could alone, the tattoo reminds me to keep going. Every part of my tattoo is necessary. As such, if I were to remove any part of it (as I have shown below with the help of Photoshop), the context of it would shift. 

When I remove the water from the bottom of the tattoo, it seems as though the feather is in free fall. There is no graceful landing–instead there is an anxious energy to it.
If I remove the feather, the story of the tattoo seems to disappear with it. It is unclear why there is water or a halo and the tattoo seems to be empty rather than full of meaning.
When the halo is removed, the uniqueness of the moment is lost. To have a family who stands behind you is a precious and rare gift. Without the halo, the tattoo, and the meaning behind it, becomes less special.
My tattoo as it looked on the day that I got it. It has three main elements: a feather, a halo, and water.

Although my tattoo may not hold the same amount of cultural significance as the pieces in RISD’s collection, this thought experiment helps show how meaning is lost when only parts of a work are removed. 

The fragments in the collection represent a period of collecting that was not too long ago. Although the RISD Museum acquired the works through legal avenues that are consistent with contemporary museum collecting processes, murals like these were brought to the United States by Western-centric archeologists in the late 1800s andearly 1900s who had little regard and respect for cultures outside of their own. To them, these wall fragments were little more than mementos, pieces that caught their eye that could be easily excavated. And because it is unclear exactly where these pieces came from (which temple? Which dining room?), visitors to the museum will never be able to fully and properly understand the works. 

Although these works’ past is rather sobering, their futures are not. Museums work continually to recontextualize the art in their collection, and the RISD Museum is no exception. There are many possibilities for additions to these murals’ incomplete story, from updated wall texts to artist interventions.


Aubrey Beam was the 2022 Mellon Summer Intern in Contemporary Art. Aubrey is a second-year master’s student at Tufts University studying art history and museum studies.