'Black Panther' raises difficult questions in museum community

SPOILER ALERT — If you haven’t yet seen “Black Panther” and want to be surprised as the story unfolds, stop reading right now. We aren’t kidding.

Casey Haughin never expected to find herself rooting for the bad guy.

But when Erik Killmonger, the villain in the “Black Panther” movie, slaughters a museum’s entire staff after they have treated this particular black visitor with unbridled condescension, Haughin, a junior at the Johns Hopkins University, had to suppress a cheer.

In one five-minute sequence, “Black Panther” raises issues central to the modern museum world, including cultural appropriation and repatriation, the racial composition of museum staffs, and lingering stereotypes regarding visitors of color. Some of these concerns have been in the public consciousness since the 1980s, when the Greek government began campaigning forcefully — and so far unsuccessfully — for the British Museum to repatriate the Elgin Marbles, a group of classical sculptures removed from the Parthenon. But these issues have a fresh relevance today as society increasingly shifts away from a Eurocentric points of view and gains a renewed appreciation for the indigenous culture of formerly colonized nations.

The scene begins with Killmonger inside a museum looking at a collection of African artifacts. He is made to feel unwelcome by the museum’s security guards, who watch every move their black visitor makes. A white female curator hurries up to explain the provenance (or ownership history) of the objects on view, and then adds insult to injury by being inaccurate as well as patronizing. Killmonger informs the curator that the museum had used underhanded means to obtain the artifacts, which originated from the (fictional) Wakandan culture.

Slight piles on top of slight — and Killmonger announces that he’s just poisoned the curator’s coffee.

“Watching that scene, I felt a powerful sense of discomfort,” Haughin said. “I really felt for Killmonger in that situation. When he took his revenge, there was a sense of vindication. This movie is a fantastic opportunity to start talking about these issues on an international stage.”

Other people obviously agree.

On Feb. 22, Haughin wrote an article titled “Why museum professionals need to talk about ‘Black Panther’ ” and posted it in The Hopkins Exhibitionist, an online journal. In less than a week, the article has been shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook. It has been viewed roughly 80,000 times on the website, Haughin said, and one Tumblr post with the article contains 22,000 notes.

She’s thrilled, if a bit dumbfounded, that the article published in a relatively unknown academic website is getting that much attention.

“I was thinking the article might get shared a few times,” she said. “I had no idea this would happen.”

Nothing about that scene struck Paul Rucker, a Baltimore-based African-American artist, as unrealistic. Rucker collects shackles once worn by enslaved people. He has amassed a collection that includes shackles from Middle Passage slave ships, shackles worn by enslaved people during the U.S. Civil War and branding irons. He also reads every book and journal article about these pieces that he can find. Recently Rucker visited a history museum that he declined to name, and discovered shackles that were mislabeled. He brought the error to the staff’s attention — not once, but twice.

“The labels said they were wrist shackles, and they were actually ankle shackles,” Rucker said. “They’re still mislabeled, and it’s really insulting. When you put black African art in white institutions, more of an effort should be made to find someone who has a connection to these artifacts.”

He suspects that when he approached the desk clerks, they didn’t realize that Rucker is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, or that he will bring his own set of slave shackles along when he delivers a TED talk in Vancouver next month. They just saw a black man who they assumed was uneducated and misinformed, he believes. Instead of contacting a curator, they nodded politely and dismissed what he told them.

“People make a lot of assumptions about who you are based on skin color,” Rucker said. “The experts sometimes don't know as much as people who actually visit museums.”

Walters Art Museum director Julia Marciari-Alexander hasn’t seen “Black Panther” yet, though she’s planning on attending with her husband and twins. But when the scene shifts to Killmonger’s encounter in in the museum, she expects to feel at least a twinge of discomfort.

“Crowning Glory: Art of the Americas,” a small show of terra cotta, wooden and ceramic artifacts from Mexico and Central America spanning more than 2,000 years is currently at the Walters through Oct. 7. The exhibit includes several pieces donated by the late John Bourne. All told, Bourne, who died in 2016, bequeathed 300 pre-Columbian artworks from a vast territory ranging from Mexico to Peru, and $4 million to the Walters. Marciari-Alexander acknowledged that for many of these pieces, the record of archaeological excavation is unknown, raising the possibility that they may originally have been stolen from the sites of ancient ruins. According to published news reports, looting in Latin and South America has been widespread since the mid-1980s.

The Walters has already participated in the return of one artwork from the Bourne collection that had been pilfered from Peru, a gold pendant of a monkey’s head studded with turquoise and lapis that dated from between A.D. 100 and 800. According to a press release issued by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, the pendant was owned by the New Mexico History Museum but was on a long-term loan to the Walters. Both museums cooperated in restoring the pendant to its home country in December, 2011.

Marciari-Alexander said museum staff members are working to establish the provenance of each object in the Bourne collection. In addition, the Bourne collection artworks have been posted online for the better part of a decade on an object registry maintained by the Association of Art Museum Directors. In that time, Marciari-Alexander said, the Walters has received no requests for repatriation. Should such requests be made in the future, they will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“These are complicated issues,” Marciari-Alexander said. “These are really hard, hard conversations to have, and this country has its own set of laws around cultural patrimony. But they’re also really useful and important conversations to have. We can use the past to make a better tomorrow.”

As part of its Constructing Cultural Contexts lecture series, the Walters is hosting a discussion on Museum Displays and Power Dynamics on Thursday.

Most U.S. museums were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and for about 100 years, individual collectors and institutions happily snapped up cultural treasures from the world’s great civilizations without asking too many unpleasant questions about the circumstances under which those objects been obtained. Attitudes began to shift in the 1970s after UNESCO adopted provisions allowing for the seizure of stolen artworks if corroborating documentation could be provided. Many museums will say now that they have a policy of not acquiring artworks unless a clear chain of ownership has been established; whether they always adhere strictly to that policy varies by institution.

Jackie Copeland, the director of education and visitor services for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, joked that just one aspect of the scene of Killmonger in the museum struck her as inaccurate.

“You would never have a curator carrying a cup of coffee inside a gallery,” she said.

Upon reflection, what struck her about that scene is that the wholesale massacre of her fictitious colleagues might have been avoided, had the museum staff engaged in a few more conversations about the artworks they acquired.

“It’s important for museums to listen to people who are from those countries whose cultural artifacts they are,” Copeland said. “Just because you have a Ph.D. doesn't mean you know everything there is to know about an object.”

Minnesota’s Walker Art Center, where Copeland worked for a decade, became embroiled in a similar scandal last Memorial Day regarding a sculpture called “Scaffold” by the artist Sam Durant. The sculpture was erected in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on former Dakota land, and evoked the hanging of 38 Dakota Indian men in 1862. When “Scaffold” went up, protesters described the sculpture as culturally insensitive, and the controversy made headlines nationwide. Eventually, “Scaffold” was dismantled with Durant’s permission and buried during a Native American ceremony. The Walker Center’s director, Olga Viso, resigned in November.

“The museum staff never talked to tribal leaders before the sculpture went up,” Copeland said.

“It could be that if they’d had that conversation, everything would have been fine. It’s an example of what can happen when you don’t have the right people at the table when cultural artifacts are concerned. You need to make sure you understand what story you’re really telling.”


If you go

The Walters Art Museum will host a discussion on Museum Displays and Power Dynamics at 7 p.m. Thursday, as part of its Constructing Cultural Contexts lecture series. Free. https://thewalters.org/events/event.aspx?e=5108


mmccauley@baltsun.com

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