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Taking local history national

An astute feel for history and art has provided curator Rachel Seligman ’91 with an unusual inspiration for much of her career: Solomon Northup, the sub- ject of a recent Hollywood movie. During the leadup to last autumn’s premiere of 12 Years a Slave, Seligman and her co-authors—Clifford Brown, Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Government at Union College, and David Fiske, former senior librarian at the New York State Library—discussed Solomon North up in a variety of nation- al and regional media. For Seligman, it all came down to a good story. Interest- ed in local history, she read the autobi- ography Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plan- tation Near the Red River, in Louisiana and says, “I could not put it down; it was so compelling. The writing, detail, ob- servations, in - sight—it was like no other slave narra- tive I’ve read. And I couldn’t believe I’d grown up in Sarato- ga Springs but did not learn this story in school. I wanted to share it with a million people.” She explains, “As

a curator, my mode of communication is an exhibition.” As the director and cu- rator of the Man- deville Gallery at Schenectady’s Union College, she connected with her colleague Brown, who teamed up



with his students to research Northup and collect artifacts, documents, and photos to authenticate the story. The re- sult was a 1999 Mandeville exhibition

(with a related event in which Seligman, a violinist, played tra- ditional music that Northup, also a vio- linist, had included in his book). In the show’s catalogue, she wrote, “It is our hope that this exhibition will rekindle interest in this regional fig- ure whose experi- ences in slavery pow- erfully illustrate an important part of our national past.” As Brown collabo- rated with Fiske on further research, the trio began writing a new book covering North up’s release and return to northeastern New York. Their book, Solomon Northup: The Com- plete Story of the Au- thor of Twelve Years a Slave, has been de- scribed as a “compre- hensive biography… presenting fascinat- ing, previously un- known information.” Meanwhile, the Northup story had also been gaining traction in Holly- wood, and director Steve McQueen de- veloped the movie project. For the Har- vard and PBS scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who served as histori- cal advisor on Mc- Queen’s film, the book was “indispens- able . . . Fiske, Brown,

and Seligman’s Solomon North up is the best current biography available. The facts they have uncovered are invalu- able—the living descendants they have


identified, precious.” For Seligman, who says she and her co-authors were con- cerned that “we were three white people saying definitive things about this African American person,” Gates’s en- dorsement was “the highest point” of her journey with Northup. Seligman believes the story of Solo -

mon Northup is “a history story that needed to be made into an art history story.” As an art history major and Eng- lish minor, she had worked at the Schick Art Gallery with David Miller, professor emeritus of art. The experience “made me want to work in museums and galleries as someone who wanted to create narratives through art.” After Skidmore she earned an MA in art histo- ry at George Washington University and interned at the National Museum of American Art.

After 13 years at Union, Seligman re- turned to Skidmore in 2011 as associate director of the Tang Museum. She ex- plains, “As the Tang became known for being a leader in object-based learning, I kept my eye on it and was inspired. The chance to come here was a dream come true.” She adds, “This group of people is always motivated by ‘How can we figure out how to support this idea?’ I’m so happy to be back.” —AW



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