Dale Tomich stands in front of his "Plantation Places: Cotton, Sugar, Coffee and the Making of Nineteenth-Century Slaveries" exhibit at the University Art Museum. The exhibit will remain on display until Dec. 15.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Sociology professor presents ‘Plantation Places’Tweet
Dale Tomich, professor of sociology, is showcasing years of research in an exhibit at the University Art Museum while using the exhibit to teach one of his classes.
The exhibit, “Plantation Places: Cotton, Sugar, Coffee and the Making of Nineteenth-Century Slaveries,” features 130 visual images that Tomich collected over four years with a group of international scholars. The interdisciplinary project, funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation, allowed the scholars to study the function and representation of plantation spaces in Brazil, Cuba and the Lower Mississippi Valley.
“We looked at how the commodities sugar, cotton and coffee emerged and changed the landscape of the plantation and the organization of the land,” Tomich said. “Books about slavery tend to be about master and slave relations, not about geography. We inverted that idea and looked at images to see how geography and the plantation space shaped what slavery was like.”
Tomich’s class for students in the Binghamton Scholars Problem, Plantation Landscapes, encourages students to use the images in the exhibit to view slavery in terms of what slave systems produced and the geographical landscape. Students in the course will all write research papers that will be made into a book.
“Only a few of the students in the class are history majors, but there is something here that appeals to everybody,” Tomich said. “There are so many different connections that can be made, so students are free to make their own interpretations. We look to the images to find out what is behind them. In this course, students are learning by learning how to see.”
The images, Tomich said, reveal truths about how plantation life changed over time. During the 19th century, slavery was revolutionized as part of the growing and competitive world economy. Industrialization caused a reorganization of the plantation to emphasize maximum productivity.
“Maximum productivity governed everything,” he said. “It is about the extortion of human labor based on calculated productivity and about forcing slaves to produce more and more on a larger scale. Everything is a constant flow of movement around extensive land.”
The exhibit’s blueprints, drawings and maps of sugar plantations in Cuba, for example, show how life and work on the plantation changed as technology changed.
“Sugar is an agricultural product, but it has to be processed right away, so the sugar plantation combined the field and factory,” Tomich said. “As technology advanced, everything on the plantation got bigger. There were different systems of measurements used and conveyer line set-ups. Life and work centered on railroads and how long it would take to get materials to market. There was a new conception of time and space that was completely modern.”
Diane Butler, director of the Art Museum, said Tomich’s interdisciplinary exhibit has touched a wide audience.
“It has brought in people who don’t usually come to the Art Museum because of its focus on Latin America, history, technology and agriculture,” Butler said. “It goes outside of the normal parameters of art and touches on many historical themes.”
Tomich’s exhibit was already in progress when Butler was appointed. With the support of the university, he had printed reproductions of the images and was preparing to showcase them when Butler became part of the project.
“I think Diane was shocked that we were planning an exhibition that wasn’t an art exhibit, and I was shocked that I was suddenly working with an art director,” he said. “It took us both a day to get over the shock, and then it was wonderful. Diane helped me rework and redesign the whole exhibit, and it was much, much better for her intervention. We collaborated really well.”
This collaboration between faculty members and the Art Museum is something Butler plans to continue. Beginning next fall, Butler has plans to feature two exhibitions on China as part of a collaboration with the university’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, the Asian American and Diaspora Studies program, the Confucius Institute and the Theatre Department.
“We are here to be utilized by a great many people,” Butler said. “We love that the art history and studio art departments make use of our collections, but that is just one piece of the pie. Art can be utilized by a great number of people for a great number of things. With faculty collaborations and student projects, more people can really benefit from our collection of over 3,000 objects.”
The exhibit, “Plantation Places: Cotton, Sugar, Coffee and the Making of Nineteenth-Century Slaveries,” will be on display in the Art Museum until Saturday, Dec. 15. The exhibit is free and open to the public.