Kamala Harris sculpture now at MLK Library


A six-foot, shattered-glass image depicting Vice President Harris arrived at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library this week, occupying a space that will ultimately host an exhibit tracing Black feminism in the District, from the turn of the 20th century, civil rights and Black power eras to today.

The sculpture, which Swiss artist Simon Berger hammered by hand, was driven from a storage facility in New York City on Wednesday morning. The installation crew wiped down the glass with blue cleaning solution, increasing its vibrancy and glimmer, and repainted parts that were scuffed in transport.

The installation, arranged by the National Women’s History Museum, marks a milestone for both organizations at a time when conservatives have increasingly sought control over the teaching of history, challenging book offerings and ensnaring public libraries in a national battle for memory and meaning. As divisions have intensified, the museum — an online outlet founded in 1996 — is embarking on partnerships with libraries and other cultural institutions across the country, seeking to share facts about well-known and unknown women in history.

The goal is to root installations in local experiences with the help of librarians and historians in those communities, Susan Whiting, chair of the National Women’s History Museum board, told The Washington Post in an interview.

The cracked-glass installation is a tribute to the courage and strength of Harris’s accomplishments and will be on display until spring 2023.

Her role as vice president has made her a first in many categories for the vice president’s office — she is the first woman to serve in the role, and is the first South Asian American and first Black American to hold the position.

When asked why the work was not created by a woman or a person from a minority background, Whiting noted that the museum became involved after it was already made.

Berger’s work was created under a creative agency, now known as BBH USA. After which, the museum teamed up with Chief, a private network focused on connecting and supporting female leaders, to present the medium last year.

Harris’s image will be part of the museum’s aim to bring a full exhibit exploring Black feminism to the library in the spring.

Acclaimed historians Sherie M. Randolph and Kendra T. Field curated the spring exhibit, which will tell the stories of Black feminist leaders whose work impacted the District and the country.

The exhibit will occupy the same space as the glass artwork.

“That space, because it is accessible and welcoming, is so perfect for our exhibit about struggles for women’s rights and civil rights that many Black leaders had and still have,” Whiting said. “We’re very excited to be doing this at this time.”

Timing has been complicated for the library, which underwent over $200 million in renovations as leaders reimagined a home befitting a mission that extends far beyond making books and computers accessible: a community center that offers life skills, supports hobbies and honors those who’ve contributed to D.C. culture and life.

Area residents can sign up to learn how to use a sewing machine and then reserve time to use it at later dates. Library staff teach aspiring podcasters how to use equipment, giving them tools to record on their own when they reserve a room dedicated to recording. Photographers and graphic designers, or those who want to enter the fields but can’t afford the software, have free options.

The library reopened its doors in September 2020, but the public wasn’t able to walk around and fully appreciate its facelift envisioned by Dutch architects. Visitors began trickling back and enjoying the space, but with caution, around March 2021, said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, D.C. Public Library’s executive director.

When they did, they encountered a dotted, glass image of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Cardozo high school to the right at the main entrance and a permanent exhibition on the fourth floor showing King’s ties to local activism — a direct response to District residents polled as renovations were under consideration who said the library needed to do more to honor King and other important historical D.C. figures.

Library visits still haven’t reached pre-coronavirus levels, and the MLK Library isn’t immune to the readjustment to life in an active — but controlled — pandemic. The library saw more than 283,000 visits between January and September of this year.

Reyes-Gavilan said he hopes the library’s partnership with the Women’s History Museum becomes a model for other museum partnerships even if the content shown in D.C. might not be as easily displayed in other areas of the nation.

Libraries serve communities and are not inherently political institutions, he said.

“Anytime we get time to espouse D.C. values, we’re going to take advantage of it,” he said. “We’re proud to be putting people like Kamala D. Harris literally on a pedestal.”

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