Aultman Glass Negative Collection, Aultman Studio photographs collection item 20008586

Story

Black History Month: Reflections Beyond February

History Colorado. The mission of our institution is captured in our name. Our primary purpose is to tell, collect, and preserve those stories that make Colorado special. We are tasked to serve as a collective memory: from our prehistory before earthen layers rose to become the Rocky Mountains, the earliest human habitation, territorial government and incorporation into the nation state, and our contemporary existence as a collection of people from many nations.  

We also know and acknowledge that history museums have fallen short of the lofty missions they espouse. And this could not be more evident in February, during Black History Month. 

Aultman Photography Collection item 10053469
Aultman Photography

Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, expressed this ambivalence recently when he said that,

“You can tell a great deal about a people, about a nation, by what it deems important enough to remember: what graces the walls of its galleries? What elements of a country’s identity are featured in its national museums? What images appear on its currency and what holidays are celebrated?

I would suggest, however, that one learns even more by examining what a nation chooses to forget.”

Aultman Photography Collection item 10053423
Aultman Photography

Colorado was born of and is a part of a nation still grappling with the things it chooses to forget. History Colorado, like museums across the country, has inherited a legacy imbued with the sattin of white supremacy and institutional racism. It is reflected in the artifacts we have come to possess, the collections and whose stories they tell, and the lack of diversity within our organizations to truly reflect the representation of underrepresented people across the state. We admit this, not as an act of self-flagellation, but as the first in a series of steps towards true inclusion and a critical re-examination of the ways in which the Museum presents and represents Western history.  

Aultman Photography Collection item 10053443
Aultman Photography

During this Black History Month, our goal is to highlight the cultural contributions of Black Coloradans, and affirm their presence in the state. In Colorado’s Black history we often talk about: Madame C.J. Walker, James Beckwourth, Clara Brown or Mayor Wellington Webb. We want to focus our attention (and yours) on the unknown stories, using the unique visual assets in our Aultman Collection. 

Oliver E. Aultman opened the Aultman Photography Studio in Trinidad, Colorado in 1890. He used glass plate negatives and, later, film, to make studio portraits of thousands of southern Colorado residents. This portrait collection reflects the ethnic diversity of southern Colorado at the time, and included a number of images from southern Colorado’s African-American community. 

Aultman Glass Negative Collection, Aultman Studio photographs collection item 20008586

Studio portrait of an African American (Black) woman who wears a double-breasted jacket. A patterned scarf is wrapped around her neck and held in place with a pin shaped like a crescent moon

Aultman Glass Negative Collection, Aultman Studio photographs collection

As we culled through the images in our collection for Black History Month, we discovered right away that a number of people lacked proper names and identifiers. While this could have been oversight by the photographer, or information lost to time, it got us thinking about history’s erasure of Black people from origin stories we tell about our nation, and our state. 

Our celebration of Black History Month is coupled with a desire to see beyond February as the only time to tell these stories. We hope that you will be mesmerized by these photos, newspaper clipping of monumental events, and historic places that shaped and continue to define Colorado. 

Happy Black History Month! 

For a deeper dive into the movement to build institutional empathy and making museum staffs and curatorial practices more equitable, here’s a recommended reading list: 

Artsy - Museums Are Becoming More Diverse, But There’s Still Work To Do

Medium - Confronting Our Whiteness: Our First Steps Towards Systemic Change (National Art Education Association)

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh