Reviewed February 2017
Rita Ormsby, Associate Professor, Information Services Librarian
The William and Anita Newman Library, Baruch College, The City University of New York
Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series is a free, interactive website launched in 2016 to coincide with the exhibition People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, organized by the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in collaboration with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In the sixty-panel series, Lawrence tells the story of more than one million African Americans, including his family, who migrated from the south to northern cities after World War I in search of better opportunities. After finding support in Harlem, at age twenty-four Lawrence had a groundbreaking show at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in 1941. Afterwards, the Phillips Collection and MoMA each purchased thirty panels. This website provides the public a virtual means to view all sixty panels together, previously an opportunity available through attending temporary exhibitions (including at MoMA in 2015) or by reading Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, edited by Elizabeth Hutton Turner.
The homepage features panel one of the The Migration Series and a dominant image of Lawrence, which links to an interview excerpt. The lower portion has archival photographs of African Americans among several panels in a striking horizontal and vertical arrangement, which recalls Lawrence’s 1941 layout.
Clicking on the image of panel one takes the website visitor to a page showing thumbnails of all sixty panels, which stand out against a white background. Viewers either select an individual panel to enlarge and study, read Lawrence’s captions, listen to interviews or download transcripts, or filter the panels by audio/visual content. Some pages include curatorial comparisons, juxtaposing similar panels from The Migration Series or works by other artists, such as Renaissance paintings Lawrence viewed as a young man at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the first time, viewers and art historians have access to the texts and film of Lawrence interviews, commissioned by the Phillips Collection, for a 1993 exhibition and a 2000 retrospective.
In addition to details of Lawrence’s life and art, the chronology page includes text, images, and videos of scholars and artists commenting on social and cultural events from 1900 to 2000. This approach introduces the Great Migration to novice viewers, and offers those familiar with the subject the current perspectives of Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Spencer Crew, David C. Driskell, John Edward Hasse and Jacqueline E. Lawton as to the period and Lawrence’s lasting impact. Harlem Renaissance poets and musicians are heard through Spotify. While MoMA’s Poetry Suite features new works of ten noted poets, the Phillips Collection’s Poetry Scramble encourages everyone to be both a poet and an artist by selecting website images and combining words from poems of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Katherina Garrison Chapin. Text blocks of viewers’ Twitter and Instagram postings have backgrounds in hues similar to Lawrence’s.
The artist labeled his sixtieth panel “And the migrants kept coming.” To continue the storytelling, the Phillips Collection invites electronic submissions of artwork for inclusion in “Your #Panel61” and displays a dynamic curated collection of artists sharing a work that builds on Lawrence’s visual narrative. PRISM.K12 offers extensive educator resources, including information about 2015 workshops by Phillips educators in Bosnia, which enabled emerging artists and elementary students to tell their stories.
The website enables all to know the masterwork of the first African American artist to receive sustained recognition in the United States. Although focusing on sixty images, the Phillips Collection’s microsite provides extensive content relating to Lawrence and actively seeks to engage artists and viewers in past and current migration stories and the universal quest for better lives.