Breaking Chains exhibit

"Breaking Chains" consists of more than 25 objects and pieces of artwork.

When one comes across a fossil, they often wonder where it came from or what time period it’s from. Now imagine coming across a simple red brick with the preserved fingerprints of a person imprisoned by slavery. A simple artifact like this can change one’s perspective of moments in history that are now written about in textbooks.

The Lisanby Museum has worked closely with James Madison’s Montpelier and the Madison Art Collection over the past year to create an exhibition displaying artwork ranging from the time of the transatlantic slave trade to the civil rights movement of the 1960s in an effort to highlight the growth of social activism.

“Breaking Chains: Voices from Slavery to Civil Rights” will open Sept. 10, and the museum will hold an opening reception and curator’s tour Sept. 13 at 3 p.m. The exhibit will feature a variety of artwork ranging from prints, objects and artifacts while exemplifying the experiences of African American culture.

Virginia Soenksen, associate director of the Madison Art Collection and Lisanby Museum, originally pitched the idea of “Breaking Chains” to Mary Furlong Minkoff, the curator for archaeological collections at Montpelier, who agreed to provide resources from Madison’s home.

One object from Africa, a Paog’biga, is a doll related to fertility and the culture of woman within the Mossi people, an ethnic group who captured and sold other cultural groups to the transatlantic slave trade. Other objects will come specifically from areas of Virginia where slavery was practiced.

“We’ve got beads that would've been used by a seamstress who was a formerly enslaved person as part of her business and some toys that her children would have used,” Soenksen said. “The objects that are coming from Montpelier, many of them would have been made by enslaved people.”

Designed specifically for the Lisanby Museum to represent a statewide initiative called “American Evolution 2019,” Soenksen curated about 25 objects and pieces of artwork. The initiative aims to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first African-Americans who arrived in North America, among other milestones of the first settlers.

Ben Shahn, a printmaker, will have five artworks featured as part of the civil rights section of the exhibition. In a portfolio titled “Human Relations,” his prints will commend Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and three young men. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, activists within the civil rights movement, were murdered by the Klu Klux Klan in the Summer of 1964 as they travelled to Mississippi to register African American voters. Other works are mainly anonymous because they’re more everyday objects that would have been mass produced during that time period, but were used by enslaved people.

“Things like a ring, a pocket knife and a slate pencil,” Furlong Minkoff said. “They’re incredibly personal objects ... we may not know their names, we may not know much about them, but it’s a really personal connection you can make with the enslaved people that lived at Montpelier.”

Zachary Stultz, a senior graphic designer major, created many of the spacial designs for the exhibit and museum through its student internship program. Drawing inspiration from pieces in the exhibit, he attempted to pair his color scheme and illustrations with those of Ben Shahn.

“The most impactful part of this exhibition is that it’s a story. That’s kind of the driving narrative that I wanted to come through in the way I designed it,” Stultz said. “The story of African American’s struggles and achievements in America is so inspiring and still ongoing. I wanted the exhibition to feel the same, in that this is just the story until now and look what’s been accomplished.”

During the summer, Montpelier partners with JMU to offer programs like the archaeological field school in which students can visit the grounds and learn the more in depth history of these objects while participating in hands on excavation for class credit. “Breaking Chains” is only a small portion of what the Madison Art Collection and Montpelier have to offer as a testament to the experiences of African-American people throughout the nation’s history.

“We’re hoping that this exhibition can allow the voices of enslaved people and activists to be seen and heard by a new generation of Americans,” said Soenksen. “That their stories and words can really inspire activism today and also help people understand that activism is never finished, the work is never done.”

Contact Traci Rasdorf at For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.

Traci Rasdorf is a Culture Editor at The Breeze from Alexandria, Virginia. She’s a junior media arts and design major with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication.