Thursday, 31 March 2011

Exploring African art in Washington DC

I recently returned from a trip to Washington DC to visit family. My time there was a welcome break from Durham and the archive, but not a rest per se. I have never been to DC and I was happy to find it is a great museum city: the National Mall is a museum lovers dream with seven (yes, that right seven) Smithsonians, the National Museum of Arts and more. This is not to mention the generous scattering of memorials, including one of the most interesting sites of memorial there is going - the two Vietnam veterans memorials. One of them, the wall, designed by a college student has been wildly successful in producing a site of national mourning and identity, the other, a statue of three soldiers, denigrated as a failure and eyesore.

As soon as you get interested in museology, all museums become intrinsically interesting, even if you don’t like or agree with them. Museums ended up punctuating my whole time in the States, even the day I spent catching up with a friend in NYC I could not resist the magnetic pull of the Met drawing me in.

There was plenty to interest a student of Africa, especially one with an interest in the politics of display.  Some of the African collections in Washington (and NYC) are truly amazing, but not unproblematic. I saw here a lot of the problems and successes of exhibiting Africa that I have also seen in Europe.

The first exhibit on Africa I went to was in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. This location was the main problem I had with this exhibition. What is an exhibition about African history doing in a The Museum of Natural History? Surely it should be in a museum of human history if anywhere?  You should not have to walk through a gallery about the ice-age into a display on post-apartheid South Africa: that just has to be the wrong message. A sign at the beginning of the exhibition announced that purpose was to display the history of African cultures from the evolution of humanity to the present day. In reality, there was very little on human evolution and it mostly concentrated on Africa’s colonial and post-colonial period. In their defense, the curators had gone to a lot of effort to stress the diversity and modernity of various African societies. However, I think whatever was done with the content of the exhibit, you could not get away from a creeping feeling of intense discomfort with the way that African cultures were being put in the context of natural history. The Ancient Greek and Roman collections used to be housed in the Natural History Museum but they have been moved, I am told. Africa remains with the beasts and rocks.

There were two massive cliches in this exhibit. The first was the decision to dim the lights. Exhibits on Africa are often dimly lit (this is the ‘Dark Continent’ after all) the Africa Galleries at the British Museum are also very dark. The second was the enormous number of proverbs printed above the cases, as if thinking in Africa only comes in mystical and poetic form?

Next we went to the Smithsonian Museum on African Art. My first impression was that they had fallen into another classic trap of displaying Africa - confusing art with artifact.  In the main hall there was a door displayed in a glass cabinet.

Nice, but is this ‘art’ or is this a door?

As we went in, we found they had a really nice exhibit of some contemporary South African and Brazilian artists. And the museum is nice, although there are a lot of empty spaces, but they seem to put on a lot of interesting events. I can't resist drawing attention to some really bad labeling we spotted. For example the label below starts with the sentence “Images of women with or without children appear frequently in African art”, this is not something unique to African art, as the Guerilla Girls have brilliantly made the point that 83% of the nudes in the Met Museum are female.

Finally I went to the Met while in NYC. I thought they have done a really nice job of displaying the permanent Africa collections.  My picture below makes it look a little dark but its not at all, some pieces you can walk all around and others are put together in cases.  For me part of the success of the Met has to be down to how genuinely fantastic their collection is, particularly the Malian pieces, I fully recommend. 

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