Coinciding with the 2020 presidential election, Lehigh University Art Galleries has curated a new photo exhibition titled “Doing Democracy.”
The exhibition explores democracy through black and white photographs donated by ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos, who is a frequent donor to prominent universities throughout the United States.
The exhibition was co-curated by Lehigh students of different disciplines as well as professors and chairs in the departments of history, political science, communication, journalism and art, architecture and design.
Many students who took a class on democracy last spring had a hands-on role in curating the exhibition.
Lena Weisman, ‘22, was one of those students. As a history major, the class was recommended to her by her adviser.
Weisman said students were able to get involved and have a say in what was included in the exhibit as they got to choose photos that stood out to them.
“A lot of people put their own viewpoints into these photos and the labels that they chose, and it really shows how diverse everyone is,” Weisman said. “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion and when people can understand and hear others’ opinions, it’s a better path to move forward.”
The Stephanopoulos family has donated over 2,000 photographs to Lehigh’s collection. Mark Wonsidler, curator of exhibitions and collections at Lehigh University Art Galleries, said his curatorial team narrowed down the collection to between 400 and 500 photos they deemed relevant.
Stephanopoulos declined a request for an interview.
William Crow, professor of practice and director of Lehigh University Art Galleries, said about 30 students and faculty helped to co-curate the exhibition by selecting photographs, writing labels and creating an audio guide that people can listen to online.
The class looked at the photographs at first in-person but then digitally after Lehigh moved online last semester due to the coronavirus. Students learned how to write exhibition labels connecting the photographs to the viewers’ perspective.
Wonsidler said the decision to have the exhibition coincide with the U.S. presidential election was important and intentional.
“It asks us to look at our present situation in the light of history … a lot of these photographs could have been taken now in terms of the issues that we’re still dealing with,” Wonsidler said. “Particularly the ones around civil rights, including marching and public protest. There’s also the issues of rioting and the police that are reflected in these photographs.”
Wonsidler said like the exhibition, democracy is a process and is all about getting involved.
“We all have a part to play in that growth and change and that if we don’t participate in it, we lose our ability to shape it,” Wonsidler said.
Lehigh University Art Galleries hopes the exhibition will encourage people to look beyond themselves and engage in conversation with others, Crow said.
“Museums are places where we can not only learn more about people who have different perspectives and different experiences,” Crow said. “They often allow us to take a really hard look at ourselves and our communities and where we want to go from here.”
Stacie Brennan, the curator of education at Lehigh University Art Galleries, said there are many community-wide programs that align with the exhibition, including family workshops, lectures, tours and hands-on activities.
On Election Day, Nov. 3, Lehigh University Art Galleries is partnering with Hawk the Vote, a student-led proposal to cancel classes on Election Day, to plan a series of workshops around the election and democracy to promote civic engagement.
“Doing Democracy” is open through the spring. It is featured in the Lehigh University Art Galleries Main Gallery and also has reproductions of key works located along the South Bethlehem Greenway.
Due to the announcement on Oct. 2 that all undergraduate classes and most graduate classes will be remote for the next two weeks, Lehigh University Art Galleries is encouraging everyone to make an appointment to view the exhibition.
“We were particularly excited to mount this exhibition in collaboration with the students and the faculty members and then also with community members through our programs,” Crow said. “We really feel like it parallels the kind of democracy that we want to live in.”