2022 Design Studies Thesis Prize: Nicole Piepenbrink’s “HERE LIES DARBY VASSALL: Rendering the obscured and concealed history of slavery at Christ Church Cambridge”

Derby Vassall

by Nicole Piepenbrink (MDes ’22) — Recipient of the Design Studies Thesis Prize.

The material conditions of “historic” preservation and institutional presentation communicate a particular version of the past through what historian David Lowenthal terms “selective forgetting” and “selective recall.” Common myths of white benevolence and exceptionalism (in the North) contribute to the perceived “invisibility” of slavery in New England and across the nation at sites similar to “historic” Christ Church Cambridge in Harvard Square. By reading against boundaries, materiality, and identity projections, this project situates the church within broader, interconnected landscapes of dispossession and extraction, making connections to places and people beyond the fiction of “historic” boundaries to—in W. E. B. Du Bois’s words—the “foundation stone” (Black labor) of “Northern manufacture and commerce.”

Part 1

Part 2

The goal of this project is to construct what bell hooks calls a “subversive historiography,” an alternative spatial narrative of place that allows us to revise and expand the storytelling of Christ Church Cambridge in its context. My work aims to render visible this (currently invisible) history through research and exploratory mediums of knowledge-sharing and representation: a temporary art installation brings the hidden past into view. The inaccessible, largely unknown Vassall Tomb in the church basement—where Darby Vassall, a formerly enslaved person, is buried—is shared with the public via a looped video projection displayed on an 11-foot tall, roughly 40-foot long curved panel positioned on Christ Church’s front lawn. The video is accompanied by a sonic script, telling the story of dependency on and profit from slavery that provided economic foundations for the church’s establishment and growth.