16.00 Objects and Communities: Re-Engaging African Collections at the Royal Ontario Museum
This paper will address some of the historical and recent developments of a troubled exhibitionary and relational history involving African objects, images, and communities in Toronto, Canada. In 1989, the exhibition “Into the Heart of Africa,” meant to critically explore the colonial premises of museum collecting in Africa, generated harsh controversy that altered the life of many people and created a very strong fracture between the African Canadian community and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Since then, large segments of this community have continued to feel estranged from the ROM in ways that have become visibly at odds with the museum’s institutional rebranding as a “space that connects people to their world and to one another.” This paper will reflect on the complicated intellectual, relational, and affective issues that have informed my thinking and practice as curator of the African collection in the last six years. In particular I will discuss the “Of Africa” project, a three-year multiplatform initiative, introduced in 2014. Inspired by James Baldwin’s insight that, “to accept one’s past… one’s history—is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” “Of Africa” challenges monolithic representations of Africa, museum collections, and colonial histories by engaging communities and broadening the discussion and presentation of what constitutes Africa and African art. In particular, I will focus on some recent work done to reconnect communities with the collection, interrogating the materials beyond scholarship. By moving the discussion from the conference room to the collection room I seek to interrogate the actual meaning of the objects and their ability to function as community catalysts or connectors. Can collections built under very specific historical premises be effective communicators in today’s complicated cultural landscape? What are the stories worth telling? What are the limits of museums’ material holding? And how can these be overcome to invent new spaces and opportunities of dialogue and exchange? While these are the driving questions of this on-going project, the paper will report on the preliminary insights gained through the work with the museum’s African-Canadian community advisors.
While this work is carried out within a mainstream museum, it is closely inspired by the concerns raised by the activist protest surrounding “Into the heart of Africa.” It also aims to re-engage communities that have been alienated since and bring to the museum segments of the Toronto population that have historically been noticeably absent from the visiting public of one of Canada’s large museums.