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Imagine Which Africa

HannahB's picture


                Exploring the exhibit “Image Africa” sparked the realization that I have in fact become an entirely critical academic. On the one hand, I was excited by the nature of exhibit—writing on the walls, participating in a focus group and generally enjoying the hands on experience truly engaged me in the exhibit and made me think far more actively about the content than I would during my typical museum visit. Yet I left “Imagine Africa” deeply confused. Just what they were trying to get at? It seems to me that the creators of the exhibit had failed to develop a clear conception of the purpose of the exhibit.

                To me the title “Imagine Africa” conjures up images of the future, questions of what will Africa become. My hope was that the exhibit would strive to overcome “the single story” we have discussed in class—showing the general public that Africa is not the “traditional,” “primitive” country (rather than continent) that too many people often assume and instead is developing and creating in its own unique way and hundreds of difference ways that are equally as cultural valuable as what we do in “the West.” I was met instead by an exhibit that mostly just succeeded in entirely confusing me—the brightness, the provoking questions, the mix of present and past held hope for my vision of the museum exhibit but the overall effect fell flat and instead I was just unclear as to my own impression and more importantly, concerned about how the outside observer who is not necessarily coming to observe with a critical eye might misconstrue the message.

                On the one hand, as pointed out to me by one of the woman working at the museum at the focus group, this was a museum of anthropology and archaeology; the museum focused on historical artifacts and accounts and thus the exhibit was meant to show these. But on the other, I think the designers of the exhibit desired to create a more broad-based, modern image of Africa—a nice idea in theory. What I found though was a weird mix of thought-provoking questions and inquiries into the stereotypes of Africa matched with only historical artifacts and accounts.  So while I wanted to analyze the juxtaposition of ideas and concepts, I felt met only by history.

                Now don’t misunderstand me, the history of Africa is rich and entirely valuable. The masks, baskets, traditions discussed are beautiful and unique and inherently valuable. What was missing was the recognition that many of these pieces are a part of Africa’s history. Just as we had carriages and old colonial clothes that are artifacts of our history that juxtapose the abstract art and electronics that make up our world today, so there needs to be an acknowledgment that Africa too is evolving. They have beautiful artifacts of their past that are entirely relevant and valuable but they also have artists making coffins out of coca cola bottles and cities and a mix of old and new music and old and new history.

                While I know all of this about Africa, my concern is that the average observer might not think hard enough to remember. They might romanticize the exhibit, romanticize the rituals and the rites of passage and the religious practices and forget that just as American history has evolved so has African. Thus while I enjoyed the exhibit I left confused. I think for the exhibit to be beneficial and fair they need to pick a side. Either embrace the anthropological/archaeological nature of the museum and acknowledge with full disclosure that this presentation of Africa is a historical representation or create an exhibit with controversy and question, but do so with an appropriate juxtaposition of the past and the present, exemplify what is beautiful about African history and artifacts while also showing the present beauty and change. I just do not want the exhibit to unintentionally continue the “single story” because they have not figured out their own thesis first.


alesnick's picture

exhibit as argument

This is so interesting!  I had read it at the time but didn't respond. I am wondering about you as an academic reader of the exhibit, looking for a thesis, a side -- this is an interesting example of your bringing certain literacy practices and a literate persona to bear on experience. 

Do you think the exhibit designers' pedagogy was too open-ended, trusted too much to the reader to form interpretations? 

Maybe the goal wasn't to foster or promote an interpretation as to invite dialogue and collect data? Maybe they needed to make this more transparent?

I appreciate your taking the opportunity to make a claim, thus offering a take-off point for other claims.  In this way, you model what you are calling for.