Museums make the world of human creativity and expressiveness accessible to the public. It is through curation and display that museums play an important role in constructing meaning and understanding of Africa’s histories, societies, and belief systems. Throughout Europe and the United States, there are museums exhibiting material culture originating in Africa. Yet, the history of “exhibiting Africa” intersects with colonial exploitation and is fraught with problems. From theft and coercion to control over narrative formation, there are numerous critical questions that must be addressed in order to understand what is found in museums. In this episode, we examine the history of how African cultural products made their way into Western museums and discuss the politics and possibilities of reckoning with this history today.
Dr. Ndubuisi C. (Endy) Ezeluomba
Dr. Ndubuisi C. (Endy) Ezeluomba is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Curator of African Art. Dr. Ezeluomba previously served as the Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He was raised in Benin City, Nigeria and received his Ph.D. in art history from the University of Florida, Gainesville.
Hannah Cohen is a social studies teacher at Sharon High School in Sharon, MA.
Free Resources and Featured Books
The Brutish Museums: Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution by Dan Hicks focuses the broader debate on museum decolonization around the Benin Bronzes on display in the British Museum and the work undertaken to acknowledge and address their removal from Africa in 1897.
Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes by Barnaby Phillips explores the controversy of the Benin Bronzes at the British Museum through examinations of empire, race, and justice.
The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk About It by Alice Procter critically interrogates the role played by museums in constructing narratives and forming identities while grappling with the aspirations and limitations of attempts to decolonize museums.
“The MFA is showing looted African art. Here’s how to deal with it.” by The Editorial Board of The Boston Globe traces the history of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ relationship with the Benin bronzes that were taken by British colonial forces in 1897 while positing an argument for restitution with Nigeria.
“What does it mean to decolonize a museum?” by Elisa Shoenberger is a primer for the ongoing and expanding discourse of museum decolonization, drawing from various examples across the United States, Europe, and Australia.
“The Benin Bronze Debate” by thoughtsonart.com offers an overview of the history of the Benin bronzes, describing the process for their creation and their original use before offering an account of the controversy regarding their ongoing presence at the MFA in Boston and elsewhere around the world.
Thanks to Endy Ezeluomba and Hannah Cohen for sharing their insights and expertise.
Thanks to Nico Rivers for audio editing, mixing and mastering this episode.
Photo of Endy Ezeluomba provided by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts website