“Well, he’s never gonna be president now…that’s one less thing to worry about.” Thomas Jefferson’s taunting of his rival in the hit musical Hamilton has reverberated through the end of this never-ending election season, along with serious questions about the fitness of candidates and political traditions.
And it’s prompted the Mia staffers in the museum’s Newsroom—the curious minds behind 2014’s popular Monuments Men tour—to ask some questions of our own: How have we and other cultures, in other places, at other times, handled the succession of power?
We found plenty of answers in Mia’s own collection. Here’s our look at some of the stories we uncovered and the artworks that led us to them. Read about them here, then come see the artworks—the stories will be up through November.
1. Bust of Emperor Hadrian as a Young Man, c. 1590, on view in Gallery 340
Hadrian did not have any natural-born heirs. And early in his career, he had four of his most likely successors executed. So, toward the end of his life, with his long tenure as emperor of the Roman Empire winding down, he adopted.
First, he adopted an old man with family ties to one of the men he had murdered—a reconciliation, perhaps—but the man soon died. He then adopted a younger man, who would eventually succeed him as emperor, much to the dismay of Hadrian’s own family. His brother-in-law had stood in line to the throne for decades, and his brother-in-law’s grandson had his own designs on power. Hadrian, seeking to ensure his will was respected after his death, had both of them killed, too.
2. Emperor Ming Huang and Yang Guifei with attendants, c. 1600, on view in Gallery G222
Xuanzong, who ruled China in the 700s as Emperor Ming Huang, was considered—even in his day—the last great ruler of a golden age. But his imperial guards suspected that his relationship with the beautiful concubine Yang Guifei, depicted here, was distracting him from his duties. They spurred a rebellion.
The emperor fled, his concubine was executed, and he abdicated the throne shortly thereafter in 756. That doesn’t mean his influence was over, however. The Chinese tradition of “retired emperors,” who have abdicated in favor of someone else, allowed for considerable power behind the scenes—equal to and sometimes surpassing the reigning monarch. Indeed, Ming Huang interfered so much that his successor asked him to take back the throne. He declined.
3. Crown, about 1920, on view in Gallery G250
Yoruba kings, or obas, once surrounded themselves with beaded finery, palaces, courtiers, and servants. But even the king served at the pleasure of others. A king was not born into power. A council of kingmakers selected him from a pool of candidates after weighing each one’s fitness for office. Once the king was installed, diviners checked in with the orisha (deities) each year to determine if the king still had divine support. If he didn’t: adios.
Gross infractions, incompetence, or dereliction of duty could also result in the king’s removal. In that case, he was instructed to remove his crown and look inside it at the packets of medicines held within. His political power was then gone. But he was not simply off the hook. So overwhelming was the medicines’ power that witnessing it could also lead to the loss of the former oba’s life.
4. Portrait of Shah Jahan, 1700–1720, on view in Gallery G243
Emperor Shah Jahan was the last powerful ruler of the Mughal Empire, controlling significant parts of India. He was also the man behind the Taj Mahal, built as a mausoleum for his favorite wife. This portrait was painted after his death, when the empire he oversaw was crumbling.
The image symbolically gestures toward the passing of one era and the coming of another. Several less powerful princely rulers had asserted their independence from the Mughals and established their own rule. The empire was fractured, and into the power vacuum stepped the British, who seized the moment to strengthen their hold on the subcontinent.
5. Chilkat dancing blanket, c. 1840–1890, on view in Gallery G261
The naaxin (also known as Chilkat) dance blanket is worn by powerful clan leaders of the Haida and Tlingit Nations. This leadership role was passed down from one generation to the next, and the ceremonial regalia signifies one’s right to command the position. The designs display the identity, prestige, and power of the blanket’s owner.
The naaxin is valuable because of the time and resources required to make it. Highly revered women would weave these exquisite blankets based on designs drawn by men who had inherited the right to do so. The designs and crest symbols recount stories that reaffirm how wearers or their ancestors were granted power through their interaction with natural and supernatural phenomena. It was the artistry of the weaver to transform the cedar and goat’s wool into and object able to communicate in both the spiritual and natural realms.
6. Portrait bust of Pope Clement X, modeled c. 1668, cast late 1600s, on view in Gallery G310
The succession of popes is rife with intrigue. The 900s were especially wild, as two popes were murdered and a series of anti-popes—rulers who challenged the legitimacy of the reigning pope—took power. But just as popes could be taken out against their will, so could they be installed. And in the 1600s that’s exactly what happened.
After the death of Pope Clement IX, an arduous process of selection began, lasting four months. French and Spanish factions caused rifts among the cardinals. When no decision could be made concerning the three candidates, an unlikely candidate was proposed: Cardinal Altieri, an octogenarian. Because of his age, Altieri refused the post, and offered up another candidate in his stead. His protests were futile, however, and on May 11, 1670, he was crowned Pope Clement X, assuming the name of his predecessor. Clement X would go on to reign for exactly six years, two months, and 24 days. Despite his foot-dragging acceptance of the role and his short tenure, he is remembered for his efforts to preserve peace throughout Europe.
7. The Grand Canal in Venice from Palazzo Flangini to Campo San Marcuola, c. 1740, on view in Gallery G307
Charges of rigged elections are nothing new. When it came to electing the Doge, Venice’s leader for life, randomization was introduced to insulate the process against the influence of city’s powerful families.
Here’s how it worked: The Doge was elected by a select group of men from Venice’s Great Council, who themselves were selected through a highly complex system of drawing lots. Thirty members of a Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; those nine chose 40 members, who were subsequently reduced to 12, who in turn chose another 25. Those 25 were whittled by lot to nine, who elected 45. Then the 45 were once more reduced by lot to 11, and those 11 finally chose the 41 who actually elected the Doge by simple majority. Phew! And we thought the Electoral College was cumbersome.
8. Ehrenpforte (The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I), 1515 (printed 1799), on view in Gallery G241
An impressive example of propaganda, think of The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I as the ur-billboard. At the time of its initial publication, The Triumphal Arch was the largest print ever completed. Though Maximilian I, a Habsburg king who would become the Holy Roman Emperor, was not rich enough to complete major self-aggrandizing monuments, he seized on the idea that a printed equivalent—by Albrecht Dürer, no less—could effectively make his case for the right to rule. Fully assembled, the print measures more than 11 feet tall by 9 feet wide. Which is larger—if no more arresting—than the coffin he traveled with from 1514 until his death five years later.
9. Kennedy/Eisenhower, April 22, 1961 (not on view)
Much like Barack Obama considers a potential Hillary Clinton presidency a “third term” for himself, extending his legislative legacy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was cheering for his vice president, Richard Nixon, over John Kennedy in 1960. He also just didn’t respect Kennedy. He thought the wealthy New Englander too young and inexperienced to be a serious presidential candidate (though he himself, of course, was a former general with no prior political office). He referred to Kennedy as “the boy” and “young whippersnapper,” and he resented all the money and political manipulation that made him a contender.
During the campaign, Eisenhower became incensed with Kennedy’s claim that his administration was weak on defense, falling behind the Soviets in the arms race and the space race, given the recent launch of Sputnik, in 1957. Eisenhower said Kennedy knew “damn well” the U.S. was keeping pace and was just playing politics. When Kennedy won the 1960 election, Eisenhower considered it his own greatest defeat. Nevertheless, as this photo shows, he was there when Kennedy needed him most, in the midst of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, intended to overthrow Fidel Castro.
10. Pledging Allegiance to the Flag in a School in Puerto Rico, 1946 (not on view)
In 1946, when this photo was taken, Harry Truman appointed the next governor of Puerto Rico. The island’s governors had been appointed by the president of the United States, not elected, ever since it was turned over to the U.S. military after the Spanish-American War in 1900.
Truman’s appointee was the first native-born governor of Puerto Rico since the takeover. But he was merely a stepping-stone, and everyone seemed to know it. The following year, with Truman’s sign-off, Puerto Rico gained the right to elect its own governors. Ironically, the expansion of air travel soon precipitated a mass migration of Puerto Ricans, almost exclusively to New York City.
Contributors to this series, also on view through November in the galleries, include Alex Bortolot, Tim Gihring, Atreyee Gupta, Gretchen Halverson, Susan Hopson, Dakota Hoska, and Diane Richard.