A Trip to the Museum
This seemingly innocuous story begins with rain. A downpour and too much downtime. A Saturday trip downtown to a museum with two small girls to fill a late fall afternoon. A friend had recommended we go. My daughters, you must understand, are of Afro-European descent and that friend had mentioned that our museum boasted an entire wing of West African art and cultural artifacts. My husband fled his first home country during a brutal civil war and took nothing with him. His family lives elsewhere, out of the country. Enter parental guilt. I worry about what my girls might lack. Imagine how my eyes light up when my friend tells me that a means of connection exists here in Calgary. All I need do is pay up.
The light in the West African wing of the museum was darker than the main foyer. I swear this is true. It made the yellow stone countertops appear grey and more shadowed than they would have in actual sunlight. There were spoons on the wall. Actual wooden spoons. There was music too. Low pulsing drumbeats that my children picked up and began to move in time to. It was all very tribal. I use this word “tribal” not in a deliberately pejorative sense, nor in opposition to notions of civility, but in the way some white dude with dreads points to his tattooed bicep and tries to explain its significance. It was beautiful art and artifacts made authentically African, country/culture not specified.
John Willinsky describes the way museums as imperial archives create a “fantasy of knowledge” (1998, 11). The displays are constructed, set up just so to pique a Western eye, and both create and perpetuate truth presented through the colonial gaze. Museums are exotic representations of a place not here, a place made into spectacle and preened artfully to suit the tastes of paying viewers such as myself. As Thomas King explains, “once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world” (2003, 10). This story of West Africa is meant to be consumed. We consume it as we idly move from one piece to the next, past the dregs of real lives explained on index cards and put to the beat of a rotating set of drums.
Here I will offer up a conundrum: my children loved it. They saw a large picture of a village near where my husband grew up. They saw the color of the plant life and soil that was a shade of red they could not have imagined as dirt. My husband tells stories of having to make sure his sandals were clean before entering his school building. That red dirt must have stuck. The red, chalky dust would have made an untidy child obvious. My husband had few pictures growing up and when he left his village, two breaths ahead of the rebels, he had none. What my girls see on the walls and behind the glass are fantasies, colonial taken-for-truths. When we have nothing, an image, however disconnected, must stand in for all that is lost.
The glossy stories in that museum spoke of a physicality of displacement, of time and space removed. Willinsky explains that museums impart more than just the included specimens and place, they “teach visitors about past and present civilization and empire, about their place within that order” (1998, 63). Museums tell us to privilege our own positional standpoints. Visitors come away with a reinforced understanding of where they sit and a reified sense of their own superiority. The connections between each carefully displayed item create a comfortable kind of difference by way of safe distance. Willinsky notes that this “difference … [is] always read against the extreme polarities of primitive and civilized East and West” (1998, 27-28). Museums thus underpin the colonizer/colonized dichotomy that holds Western civilization as the unachievable pinnacle of humanhood.
I can tell my daughters this story. I can point to the masks and the carvings and explain that this museum tells a story which they challenge by their existence and occupation of space. I want them to follow the echoes of stories untold, but this requires an extensive unlearning of what has been made normal. I am constantly caught in the effort to expand this potentiality. Sensoy and DiAngelo argue that “oppressive beliefs and misinformation are internalized by both the dominant and the minoritized groups, guaranteeing that overall each group will play its assigned role in relation to the other, and that these roles will be justified as natural” (2012, 45). Museums tell a regulating story of presumed Western superiority and all I can do is make these limits visible and available to question. To fight the internal with all that the external space has left out.
Here is another bit of hypocrisy. Our trip to the museum was fun. My children had a great time. There was light, color, and sound. There were small stools they could stand on to reach some of the objects placed higher off the ground. Their path to ancestral recollection was laid out with such tidy accessibility. But the practice of discreet, polite voyeurism obscured “the imperial violence, symbolic and otherwise, that has afforded this ethnographic display” (Willinsky 1998, 67). I don't know how the masks and spoons and clothes and baskets got here. I don’t know who took the pictures and how the people in the photographs felt about them being transported to the West. Questions of ownership and authority are invisible and exist apart from the neatly paraded specimens and their subsequent descriptions of purpose.
While our museum tames tumultuous otherness, it also gives place and physicality to my husband’s stories. It’s easy for me to turn away from questions of imperial violence when my daughters see the shape of the house their grandmother once lived in. In a small corner of the exhibit my children touch a woven basket that my husband said would have likely been carried to market on top of someone’s head. They touch with their hands the incarnation of something they had previously known only through other people’s words and had understood largely without any connection at all. I feel as though I am in a Western yard sale of West African artifacts, feeding my daughters a frenzied attempt at bi-culturalism. I understand the perils of beginning our story here, but can find no other way in.
Museums dictate what is worthy of education and display, and why this education is itself important. I also do this with my children. What they need to know is contingent upon my perception of whether it will help them navigate a sometimes murky, unordered middle space. I ponder the actual function of a fancy spoon that someone has hung up on the museum’s wall. My oldest wonders why it is there. I can’t tell my daughters how to use it. To them it is something to look at, or to look past. Removing something from its original context, from the place where its story made sense, is akin to removing all discernible meaning. But there is also a story about how the spoon got here which, not completely apart from the hands and mouths it once knew, is about the relationship between center and margins. This is the story that needs to be told. King writes that, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (2003, 32). I must ensure that I allow the telling of all sorts because, as a privileged white Canadian, I owe my children their right to exist in storied multiplicity.
King, T. 2003. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto, ON: Dead Dog Café Publications and the Canadian Broadcast Corporation.
Loy, D. R. 2010. The World is Made of Stories. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Sensoy, O, & DiAngelo, R. 2012. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Willinsky, J. 1998. Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.