Yesterday afternoon I spent a little time looking at “ReconTEXTILEize,” an exhibit on the second floor of Canaday Library at Bryn Mawr College. The exhibit centers on a group of Byzantine textiles in the collection of Thomas Jefferson University that have been loaned to Bryn Mawr for study in a year-long 360° Course Cluster, “Textiles in Context: Analysis, Interpretation, and Exhibition.” Like a lot of the work that Bryn Mawr students do, especially in archaeology, classics, and museum studies, the exhibit was professional and informative. It did a good job of something that classical studies excel at: taking small bits and scraps of evidence and extracting as much meaning as possible from them.
Then I noticed this sentence off by itself in bold type at the bottom of the placard introducing the exhibit: “This exhibition contains content on death, child mortality, burial practices, and colonialism.”
My first reaction was to laugh. I’m used to trigger warnings, and I occasionally use them just to be polite—but really?
Then I thought about it a bit. Child mortality is mercifully rare these days, but it was part of life for much of human history, and it remains hard to think about, especially if you’re a parent. I know a man who cannot look at Charles Willson Peale’s “Rachel Weeping” in the Philadelphia Museum of Art because he and his wife lost an infant daughter. In 1782 Peale showed the painting behind a curtain, along with a trigger warning: “Before you draw this curtain Consider whether you will afflict a Mother or Father who has lost a Child.” (Consider yourself warned before you follow this link.) So maybe infant mortality, for a few people nowadays, will trigger unpleasant memories.
But the rest of the notice, like many similar well-meaning statements that I see at Bryn Mawr, remains incoherent, and even a bit anti-intellectual. Death can’t be avoided, and knowing that we will come to it is one of the things that makes us human. Education—Bryn Mawr’s purpose, the last time I looked—exists, in part, to help us think about this one event that none of us can escape, and about the art and rituals (burial practices among them) that human beings have devised to manage their knowledge of it. Those three items about mortality sit oddly with the fourth, “colonialism.” Colonialism is a matter of history, and so a matter of argument. We can’t argue about whether death is a good idea, but we can ask whether colonialism is. Education, again, exists to help us ask hard questions and think in clear and nuanced ways about history, and about things whose ethical status is debatable.
Finally, I was left wondering whether everything in my own academic subject might seem to some people to need a trigger warning. Death? Life? Violence? Beauty? How to live, and how to die? Slavery, and freedom? Classics can’t avoid these things, and its clear gaze at them is one of its great strengths. How big is the gap, also, between warning someone about something and warning them against it? Between putting a curtain in front of “Rachel Weeping” and taking it off the wall?