Upheaval at premier museum echoes racial turmoil in America

Magdalene Odundo at the African Heritage House with one of her pots from her first exhibition in Africa in the background.  PHOTO | AFRICAN HERITAGE

What you need to know:

  • The museum is under pressure to diversify its mostly white staff.
  • The world’s largest museum and research institution, the Smithsonian, is respected for the promotion of culture, the arts and history.

Perched at a strategic location at the Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, is a shiny smooth, dark-brown ceramic with black spots by Kenya-born Magdalene Odundo, whose work captures the momentary stillness of a dancer’s sleeve.

A masterful artist, Odundo is known for her clay ceramics whose beauty emanates from their shimmering surfaces and curvy forms that covey the depth of humans-earth relations, and ideas about the material culture of her people on the shores of Lake Victoria, in Samia.

It is the sort of exquisite sculpture that has made her world famous, but she still mediates these ideas through the gaze of white curators at the museum.

That could change if, as expected, the Smithsonian Institution decides to appoint black curators at its museums representing art from Africa over the coming months.

The museum is under pressure to diversify its mostly white staff. This comes as American reckoning with its original sin deepened this past week for the cultural elite. The Smithsonian Institute, a 174-year-old venerable federal agency that runs several museums and archives, was forced to apologise on Friday for a graphic race guideline at one of its museums that said rational thinking and hard work are white values. It is a trope that suggests Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Arabs, and other cultures do not value those attributes.

Civil rights

The problematic race guideline was published recently in the website of the National Museum of African-American Culture and History, which was established a few years ago to celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black Americans and to narrate their struggles against slavery and for civil rights. Designed in the shape of an African basket by Dar es Salaam-born David Adjaye and opened by President Barack Obama and George W. Bush in 2016, the African-American museum has become the most popular branch of the Smithsonian family.

The world’s largest museum and research institution, the Smithsonian, is respected for the promotion of culture, the arts and history. It manages 19 museums and nine archives and research centres across the United States, with several affiliates around the world. So, when its branch for African-American history and culture published what some considered a racist guideline, it set off a huge uproar .

The preamble of guideline, entitled “Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness in the United States”, appears to be lost in translation or undermines their intention. It says: “White dominant culture, or whiteness, refers to the ways white people and their traditions, attitudes and ways of life have been normalised over time, and are now considered standard practices in the United States.

And since white people still hold most of the institutional power in America, we have all internalised some aspects of white culture — including people of colour.” Looked at charitably, however, the guideline is confusing and appears to be the product of poor thinking and deplorable writing skills.

The author probably wanted to caution against the idea of White culture as a given, echoing a point made by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. In it, Foucault spotlights assumptions that make up orders or systems through which we navigate our lives. The guideline also could just be a bungled attempt to channel Frantz Fanon without quoting the Martinique-born psychoanalyst and postcolonial philosopher, author of Black Skin, White Mask.

In the 1952 book, Fanon — using his psychiatry training — offers a clinical critique of the complex ways identities of black people are formed, and the effects of racism and colonialism on our experiences, psyche, and relationships. It is unclear what the African-American museum had in mind. But what is crystal clear is that this is not what a museum should do — engaging in unsettled racist tropes outside of the representation space that serve nothing but to undermine the struggle for justice and equality.

Discriminatory practices

Either way, this is also a lesson on the need to couch a controversial statement with a qualifier; otherwise, directly quote the source. But the damage has already been done, and this could not have come at a worse time for the Smithsonian, which was already fighting institutional racism charges.

A few days before the guideline debacle, several former staff and board members of the National Museum of African Art, the smallest branch of the Smithsonian, wrote a highly critical letter to Lonnie Bunch III, the first black head of Smithsonian. In it, the authors expressed “outrage” at discriminatory practices at the museum. Its leadership, they charged, “ has recruited, retained and promoted a predominantly white staff”.

The National Museum of African Art is one of the most interesting in Washington, DC. Tasked with inspiring “conversations about the beauty, power and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide”, the museum inexplicably has a curatorial team of exclusively white people. It has been this way over the past decade despite demonstrated interest of Black artists, administrators, and scholars who want to join the institution, the former staffers charged.

So far there are only five full-time black employees on a staff of 29, and none of them holds the position of curator. This is a major flaw because curators play a role: they determine what goes where in the museum — that is, they make decisions on space, where to display a piece of art and in so doing they influence the way we see art and educate ourselves.

That is why the museum is a contested space; art and history are nothing but symbols of power, which explains why the West do not want to return stolen African art.

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