Nothing is more enriching and challenging for a class of students than seeing the real counterpart to a concept studied abstractly over the course of a semester. The students, both graduate and undergraduate, of Professor Ray Silverman’s course on “Exhibiting Africa” were provided such an opportunity during a weekend trip to Washington, D.C. in April. After twelve weeks of considering a diverse set of exhibitionary contexts through which the continent of Africa—its peoples, animals, and “things”—has been interpreted and represented, we set out to investigate how contemporary museums in our nation’s capitol have responded to the challenge of exhibiting “Africa.”
We began our visit at an institution that deals not with Africa but with an equally contested terrain: the history and culture of Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. At the National Museum of the America Indian, we were greeted by curator Emil Her Many Horses, who shared with us the challenges faced by the institution throughout its extensive process of collaborating with Native communities. Celebrated, and more often critiqued, for its ambitious approach to exhibiting the history and culture of an extensive range of individuals and communities, the NMAI was a perfect point of departure for exploring the practical implications of representing a continent of people through words, images, and objects.
Our first encounter with things African occurred at—of all places—the National Museum of Natural History. Here, Dr. Mary Jo Arnoldi, curator of the museum’s “African Voices” exhibit, led us in a provocative discussion concerning the implications of exhibiting African culture in the midst of galleries displaying dinosaur bones and dioramas of early humans. As I listened to the other students pose challenging questions to the Smithsonian curator, it became clear to me that a shift had occurred in the character of our engagement with the course material. When we met later that day with Dr. Chris Mullen Kreamer, head curator at the National Museum of African Art, the political and personal implications of such questions as “Art or Artifact?” and “Who owns culture?” resonated with our individual experiences as both museum visitors and scholars.
While all of us arrived in D.C. with different personal backgrounds and levels of education, the shared experience of encountering the rich complexity of the living museum meaningfully transformed our conversations. This is not to mention the sense of camaraderie established between students and the sheer amusement of leading some through their first trip on the Metro, their first taste of Ethiopian food and their first experience of Washington, D.C.