Katchka: I find your reference the ROM as “encyclopedic” curious, Chika: for my part, when I have used the descriptor encyclopedic, it has been in reference to that classical model of art museum that encompasses vast regions and time periods, but always within the rubric of “art”… as opposed to material culture, I suppose.  Are you thinking of the ROM as an encyclopedic museum in the vein of ethnology/ethnography?  (I know curators there considered it as such). I can see where large ethnographic museums are encyclopedic as well given their expansive scope, though it has a distinctly scientific bent with its enormous collection of flora and fauna, insects, dinosaurs, etc…as well as objects/material culture/artworks from formerly colonized regions of the world. Just curious.

This thread of the discussion calls to mind museums with two different disciplinary orientations in my mind: one allied with anthropology, the other with art history. This is my perception, at least, in no small part because the distinction was very rigid when I was in graduate school. As an anthropologist, I was eligible for a position at the university’s museum of ethnology, but there was virtually no mechanism by which I could hold a position at the university art museum–those positions reserved for art history grad students–even though my research interests and theoretical terrain were more in keeping with the latter. The hybridizing of museums that Marla & Chris have discussed brings to light the fact that there is not only the notion of contemporary African art to reckon with, but also the boundaries/categories of types of museums that are perhaps as pigeonholed as notions of African art itself, and I applaud their initiatives to call the conventions into question.

Leaving aside hybridization for the moment, if we assume a distinction between ethnographic museums and art museums, I think each offers different possibilities and drawbacks. When I think of ethnographic museum, I think of the National Museum of Natural History, where there is a history of flora and fauna, and humanity in evolutionary terms. In that sort of context, contemporary African art helps dispel the notion of the ethnographic present long criticized in museum practice (dating back to the colonial period, no?) But these galleries/collections tend to be region-specific, so in that sense it retains an attachment to a particular place and frames it in a dynamic, ongoing regional history of the continent (though the entire continent is a rather large chunk…)

Art museums are complicated by the geography-temporality discontinuum (I think I alluded to this in an earlier post). Up to a certain point, geography figures prominently in art museums, as collections are carved up internally along such lines, then at mid-20th century the temporal framework often prevails. In this model, contemporary African art may be either torn or neglected absent a clear place within the existing structure. A relatively early instance in which contemporary African art was systematically folded into an art museum, I believe, was at the Indianapolis Museum of Art under Ted Celenko–in the African galleries and as part of the African collection (in the mid-1990s). More recently at the IMA, the current contemporary curator prefers to privilege the “contemporary” aspect. In my (perhaps limited) experience, it is not uncommon for curators of contemporary art trained in eras before more globalized contemporary art history was standard to consider geographic associations akin to ghettoizing. Any comments on this? On the one hand, it isn’t desirable to segregate; on the other, one doesn’t want to do away with an artist’s background, regardless of her/his origin…or is that the anthropologist in me?

In any case, this points to the fact that, now that the arts of contemporary Africa (whether the artists are based on the continent or not) are being more systematically collected, there is often a conflict within the art museum about where it should be placed. For many years, I noticed that El Anatsui’s work, though it was collected more and more frequently, was exhibited in public spaces and spaces of passage rather than squarely situated in a particular collection’s gallery. I know that in some cases this was the result of disagreement over where it should reside.

Many years ago I proposed the acquisition of a work by another major African artist, a work and artist that would be a significant step in globalizing the collection of contemporary art and contemporizing (?) “Africa” in the museum. The proposal met with hesitation at the upper echelon since it was both “African” and “contemporary”–where would it go? My argument was that the essential was to get it into the collection while it was still within reach, then sort it out. Because that was the direction things were headed, and where the collection needed to go–that is, collecting contemporary African art (as well as other non-Euro/American regions). The reply was, “is there any way to get around it?” I will never forget that moment; the clear conundrum and desire to avoid it. In this case, adherence to longstanding art museum categories and internal territoriality could easily have impeded collection development. (I’m quite certain this scenario is not unique.)

My sense is that ethnographic museums, which generally have regional collections, don’t face the same obstacle–would you agree? That is a benefit of the National Museum of African Art, as well–geography is demarcated, provides a point of departure and orientation that can be explored and interrogated. And, compared to museums of ethnology, NMAfA’s scope is narrow enough that no insects and botanical specimens reside in adjacent galleries to create awkward and perhaps perplexing, juxtapositions… although at the Newark Museum where there are such radically diverse collections, these have served as fabulous points of departure for artists’ interventions and site specific projects. So any context offers possibilities and challenges that provoke museum professionals, artists, and visitors to think creatively about subjects and materials at hand. (Kudos to to Christa and her colleagues).

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