In the world of museums, cultural heritage and art; new approaches, like interviewing living artists, designing webpages and using cutting-edge technologies, have become critical for all visitors, but what about special demographics. By special demographics, I mean people of colour. When visitors don’t find themselves physically inside a museum gallery, either on the walls or in the staffing? Then what?
Keep in mind that the class of 2020, have grown up with smartphones, and many have used Facebook since middle school. That knowledge, along with the advances in digital imaging, means people in general have unprecedented access to museum collections, views of archaeological sites and artifacts, and exterior and interior views of architectural wonders from around the globe right at their fingertips for free. And people of color, LGBTQ persons and other underrepresented groups who often feel left out of the conversation because they rarely see themselves reflected in “art” can use those same technologies to seek — and find — research topics that will allow them to experience art history through their own lens.
The art world is already changing, feeling the effects of this new generation. Kimberly Drew (@museummammy) began her Tumblr page, “Black Contemporary Art,” as a Smith College student in 2011, after an internship at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Her page gave her a voice in promoting artists of African descent. It took off. She now holds the influential position of social media manager for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. With over 300,000 followers in only five years, Drew has become one of the foremost voices in the art world through the powerful accessibility of social media.
This brings me back to museums, social media, pop culture, gender inequalities, colourism, race, whitewashing, representation, repatriation, provenance and diversity. Social Media has been used to both help and harm, it is a double edged sword. In 280 character Twitter can make or break a situation. I’m going to look at what Black Panther taught us, and how it raised difficult questions museum politics needs to address. Somewhere in there I’ll address the Dana Schultz’s fiasco, that was a twitter cluster-snot! The Whitney and the artists found out the hard way that social media takes serious management and it can make or break your audience development. That was definitely a learning curve for The Whitney and the artist in this digital age (Hossaini, A and Blankenberg, N. (2017).
In one scene, the blockbuster superhero movie touches on issues of provenance, repatriation, diversity, representation, and other debates currently shaping institutional practices. While everything about Marvel Comics’ record-breaking Black Panther is wonderfully extraordinary, for museum folks the standout scene may be Erik Killmonger’s visit to the fictitious “Museum of Great Britain.” In the span of a few minutes, viewers witness the condescending treatment of a museum visitor of color, a discussion of questionable acquisition practices, and the self-assured yet misinformed retelling of cultural narratives. The scene also makes a number of subtler, equally poignant points. Though the High Museum in Atlanta served as the museum’s exterior, the Museum of Great Britain seems to be a thinly fictionalized version of the British Museum, which has long been embroiled in a number of real-life repatriation campaigns. And Killmonger’s partner and henchwoman, inconspicuously disguised as a café worker, reflects the hierarchical divisions that persist even when museums’ workforces are ostensibly “diverse” — with predominantly white curatorial staff and people of color in service roles. The scene, which may prompt viewers to think about their own museum visits (or lack thereof), is also emblematic of the experiences of many people of color in such spaces.
Former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, is familiar with the sense of exclusion that awaits many people of color in museums. During her 2015 speech at the opening of the Whitney Museum’s new building, she described how children living less than a mile away might not imagine themselves ever visiting a museum. “I was one of those kids myself,” Obama said. “So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this” (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/)
However, Black Panther demonstrates that the “feeling of not belonging” is part of a larger picture, one that includes racism and reckless cultural appropriation. The controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket” (2016), is a case in point. While some found merit in the stylized depiction of Emmett Till’s corpse, others demanded the painting’s removal from the 2017 Whitney Biennial. But as writer Siddartha Mitter recently reflected, for all the complex issues raised by the controversy, the heated debates mostly revolved around one question: Who gets to tell whose story? Black Panther pushes the question even further: how does it feel when someone else tells your story? Killmonger knows the feeling, and offers one kind of solution.
I was awed by Killmonger’s declaration to an overconfident curator that she was mistaken. When the curator condescendingly informed Killmonger that items in the museum aren’t for sale, I clutched my invisible pearls. I was downright thrilled when the villain bluntly confronted her: “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?”
Artist Deborah Roberts said: “Black Panther’s museum scene describes a centuries-old truth — colonialists robbing black culture to put on display for European consumption.” This taking of stories — the theft Roberts speaks of — is only part of the not-belonging feeling Michelle Obama described. Moreover, it isn’t just about who gets to tell the stories; it’s also about who gets to hear the stories.
For Killmonger to educate the curator and reshape his story, he had to go to the museum. But data show black museum visitors are rare, making up just 6% of overall visitors to US museums, according to a 2010 report by the American Alliance of Museums (http://www.aam-us.org), those’re some serious analytics there (Hossaini, A and Blankenberg, N. (2017). This could be a result of uncomfortable visitor experiences, it could be because the narratives elevated in galleries aren’t representative, or a combination of these and other factors. Regardless, to Roberts’s point, even when attention is given to under-represented stories, the narratives aren’t always shared with those reflected in the stories. It’s not simply about touting marginalized stories; it’s also about creating access to them — for everyone.
To be clear, museums and other cultural spaces have functioned under the weight of these truths since people began publicly exhibiting art and artifacts. But old truths are giving way to new attitudes, as evidenced by France’s more diplomatic version of Killmonger’s vigilante repatriation of African artifacts. However, ongoing debates about representation, repatriation, and cultural appropriation — all cannily encapsulated in Killmonger’s memorable visit to the Museum of Great Britain in Black Panther — affirm that a great deal of work is still needed to make our museums truly welcoming and diverse. Besides, as Princess Shuri puts it: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”
The scene takes no more than five minutes of the movie, and the tension between colonial history and race only escalates from that point on. However, museum professionals need to talk about the inclusion of this scene, especially regarding its function in a film that was cut from nearly four hours long in its first iteration to a solid two, a film that so many young people will see and one that is poised to become a cultural touchstone. The museum is presented as an illegal mechanism of colonialism (that good old plutocratic turned bureaucratic museum) (Rodley, E., Stein, R. and Cairns, S. (2015), and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays.
And is there anything incorrect about that?
It is worth considering the aspects of the scene that are realities in the modern museum. African artifacts such as those shown in the film’s museum are likely taken from a home country under suspicious circumstances, such as notable artifacts in real-life Britain like the Benin bronzes which now reside at the British Museum. It is often the case that individuals will know their own culture as well as or better than a curator, but are not considered valuable contributors because they lack a degree. People of color are less represented in museum spaces, and often experience undue discrimination while entering gallery spaces. Finally, museums are experiencing an influx of white women filling staff roles, leading to homogenized viewpoints, and lack senior staff with diverse backgrounds. With these truths represented in such a short but poignant scene, the tension between audiences and institutions is played out to the extreme.
It is uncomfortable for many institutions to even broach the subject of the museum’s complicated relationship with audiences of color, but Black Panther has created an impeccable opportunity for institutions to begin a dialogue with their community (Hossaini, A and Blankenberg, N. (2017). So many people have seen and will see this film; the scene may only reinforce their conception of museums, or it may open their eyes to the realities of the complicated relationship between the universal museum and colonialism, and museums need to be prepared to actively engage with this topic rather than avoiding the uncomfortable truths that are now out in the open on cinema screens.
The first step after this movie is to publicly confirm the reality of the situation; museums need to step up and acknowledge the fact that Killmonger’s anger in the exhibition and the experience he had were not entirely fictionalized, but rather a magnification of museum practices in the modern world. The next step is to listen. Listen to people of color, to communities, and to whole countries who see themselves both robbed by and cast out from international institutions. By communicating openly with the audience of a museum, professionals can determine how better to adapt their practices and make the institution a place that is relevant and respectful for all visitors. Until a truly symbiotic dialogue is established, this scene in Black Panther will represent the reality of museum politics where fact is truly more alarming than any fiction.
Hossaini, A and Blankenberg, N. (2017). Manual of Digital Museum Planning. Rowan & Littlefield, 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706; USA.
Rodley, E., Stein, R. and Cairns, S. (2015) Code Words: Technology and The theory in the Museum. MuseumsEtc, UK Hudson House, 8 Albany Street, Edinburg EH13QB