When the Brooklyn Museum announced its appointment of Kristen Windmuller-Luna as a consulting curator of African Art in late March a heated debate ensued about the lack of diversity among curatorial staff in American museums, and the “tone deaf” nature of hiring a white scholar to oversee a vast collection of African art in a borough that has a sizeable black population. Several academics came to Windmuller-Luna’s defense, however, including UCLA professor of African and African American art Steven Nelson, who told Newsweek magazine that the problem lie not with the museum’s hire but in art history and curatorial fields in general, where structural issues such as the “very poor” recruitment of people of color makes for a glaring lack of diversity.
Many detractors, among them community activists and cultural workers, pointed to the Brooklyn Museum’s predominately white curatorial department, reproaching its administration for not earnestly addressing this inequity despite recent efforts to go beyond the usual lineup of market-verified white male artists. Without a structural overhaul that aims to correct over a century of institutional bias, they argue, such progressive programming only serves as a veneer. Speaking to the online arts magazine Hyperallergic, activist Amrit Trewn clarified these concerns by stating, “It’s not only about who is holding the seat of power but what their commitments are and what they’re doing from there… We’re not saying we don’t want a white woman, but we want someone with a commitment to communities.” Trewn belongs to a coalition of more than a dozen organizations such as Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, Chinatown Art Brigade, and NYC Stands with Standing Rock, which issued an open letter to the museum following Windmuller-Luna’s appointment.
Initiated by Decolonize This Place, an artist-run, action-oriented group, the co-signed letter proposes that the museum create a Decolonize Commission in order to address “deeply rooted injustices.” Moreover, activists detail seven points that could structure the commission, including a formal acknowledgment that the museum occupies Indigenous land, the diversification of its curatorial staff and administration, and an inventory of its African and Native American collections with the aim of settling unresolved reparation and repatriation claims. The list of demands also takes into account the museum’s role in shaping the social fabric of Brooklyn with an emphasis on the gentrification crisis affecting its surrounding neighborhood given that its board president, David Berliner, and other trustees are real estate developers contributing to the rapid transformation of the borough.
The final point of the proposal for a Decolonize Commission connects these issues to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, calling on the museum to acknowledge settler-colonialism in Palestine and the complicity of Israeli institutions that benefit from the illegal annexation of Palestinian territory, emphasizing how segments of Brooklyn’s population play a key role in the settler movement.
While the group’s seven points run the gamut of political issues, their proposal reflects the concerns of previous protests and actions against the Brooklyn Museum. The issue of BDS, for example, was raised in 2016 when the museum hosted This Place, an exhibition that “art-washed” the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and was funded by groups with ties to the Israeli Defense Forces. Essentially, the central argument of the open letter is that the recent controversy surrounding Windmuller-Luna’s appointment requires a broader structural response as the museum has yet to acknowledge the extent to which the legacy of colonialism continues to inform its daily operations. By doing so, the museum would not only begin the process of decolonization but also establish a standard for other institutions across the United States.
Although the Brooklyn Museum contains one of the largest collections of African art in the U.S. with more than 5,000 objects, the story of its collection remains murky in that the bulk of its artifacts were purchased in London, Paris, and Brussels in 1922, when these cities served as the capitals of colonial empires that had seized large portions of Africa. The European market for African artifacts emerged in the late 1800s as communities were pillaged and scoured by colonial forces and traders in pursuit of “trophies” and “curios.” Many of these objects were placed in the ethnographic collections of museums or were used for the displays of international expositions, such as the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, where they served as props in the live performances of “natives” or “primitive” people.
“Human zoos” and the ethnographic “villages” of international expositions were popular in late nineteenth-century America in part due to the ethnographic displays of natural history museums, which often produced shocking or intriguing content in order to attract visitors. Early examples range from the Peale Museum of New York founded in 1825 by painter Rubens Peale, where animal specimens preserved through taxidermy were exhibited with period paintings and ancient artifacts, to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, which served as the brick and mortar location of his well-known entertainment business. In both cases, visual culture enhanced displays, whether in the form of nineteenth-century panoramic landscapes that invoked Manifest Destiny, and American imperialism more broadly, or the exoticism of certain artifacts like the mummies Peale imported from Cairo. Seeking to cause a stir, Peale unwrapped one of the mummies as part of a live event. He later featured a young Chinese woman known as Afong Moy in a life-size diorama described as an “authentic” chamber.
Moy was brought to the U.S. as part of a shipment of Asian artifacts and toured American museums between 1834 and 1850, including the Brooklyn Institute, which later became the Brooklyn Museum, and Barnum’s American Museum. Barnum, forever the controversial showman, focused on the nascent culture of spectacle. Among his exhibits were hoaxes such as the fake skeleton of a mermaid and live animal and human displays, where men and women with physical abnormalities were showcased as “freaks” alongside “exotic” performers in residence like a Chinese family and a disabled African American man who dressed in a fake tribal suit and grunted for visitors. This early period of museum building reinforced the white supremacy that underlined American exceptionalism, namely through a process of othering, or the literal and figurative objectification and dehumanization of people of color.
As ethnographic displays provided some of the first instances where the American public encountered a wide variety of non-Western art and visual culture, most encyclopedic collections adopted similar standards of value and interpretation as natural history museums when determining which objects to display and acquire. This was perhaps most true of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was founded in 1870 but did not begin to assemble a significant collection of art from sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas until Nelson Rockefeller donated his collection in 1969. Devalued as “primitive,” the Met declined the Rockefeller collection at least once before. Earlier inquiries about the donation of such artifacts were directed to the American Museum of Natural History, where part of the Met’s initial cache of Pre-Columbian art was on long term loan.
The remaining portion of the Met’s Pre-Columbian art was on display at the Brooklyn Museum, one of the few American art institutions to exhibit examples from sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, or the Americas in the early twentieth century. Another was the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco, which opened in 1895 with a collection of Oceanic art assembled from the California Midwinter International Exhibition a year before. The San Francisco exposition had several ethnographic “villages” where participants lived and performed for months at a time. The racist and stereotypical imagery of these displays did not go unnoticed, however, and several local communities publically condemned them.
A prominent critic of international expositions in the U.S. at the time was the African-American abolitionist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass, who rebuked organizers of the Chicago World’s Fair for their inclusion of an ethnographic display of men and women from colonial West Africa. Douglass, alongside other activists like Ida B. Wells, issued a trilingual pamphlet in protest at the fair, linking the patent racism of the 1893 Dahomeyan Village to the widespread exclusion of African Americans in national exhibitions, and other issues such as slavery and lynching, which continued until the mid twentieth century. The Chicago exposition was a contested space in general, given its organization as part of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. As institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned violence were on display as celebrated outgrowths of colonialism, civil rights activists understood that these forms of representation could not be left unchallenged. Today, calls to decolonize museums are growing as U.S. institutions have yet to effectively address this history.
In the 2018 summer issue of Artforum, Decolonize This Place members Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon explain that in organizing protests and actions at large institutions like the Brooklyn Museum or the American Museum of Natural History the group aims to expose the “structures of power that they actually help to legitimize and reproduce” despite the progressive values they claim to promote. The group’s 2016 actions against the American Museum of Natural History challenged its ethnographic displays featuring Native American and African artifacts, which were acquired in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The museum’s marred past also includes the deaths of four Inuit men and women who were brought from Greenland to New York in 1897 as part of a study for the creation of its Northwest Coast Hall. After contracting tuberculosis while “in residence,” their remains were kept as part of the museum’s permanent collection. In late 2017, Anthropology Now reported that the museum still contains 2,700 Native American remains despite a number of reparations.
Decolonize This Place also targeted the equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History, arguing that it embodies Roosevelt’s white supremacist ideology—evidenced in the ways the late president viewed and addressed racial inequality and the domestic and foreign policies he enacted. The bronze sculpture commemorating his legacy as a naturalist and conservationist was unveiled eight years after the museum hosted the Third International Congress of Eugenics—a scientific conference exploring topics like selective sterilization and the preservation of racial integrity. A coinciding exhibition at the museum surveyed similar themes. According to Husain, the museum was initially responsive, meeting with Decolonize This Place activists on several occasions, but has been slow to proceed with decolonization.
The Brooklyn Museum, however, has yet to engage the proposal of a Decolonize Commission. Instead director Anne Pasternak issued a statement through Hyperallergic that accused activists of launching a personal attack on Windmuller-Luna. Several weeks after issuing their letter, Decolonize This Place staged a protest in the museum’s third floor atrium, where members of the coalition reiterated their demands and spoke out against “imperial plunder.” As of writing this, the museum did not respond to a request for comment.
In its statement, the Brooklyn Museum stressed how it values “important dialogues,” a sort of non-committal response that has become a preferred tactic of deflection as demands for museums to decolonize increase. How might activists and cultural workers push for decolonization when relatively progressive institutions are reluctant to implement real change?
One approach could be to reexamine the spectacle of othering that was a cornerstone of museum building. Between 1992 and 1994, artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco deployed the theatrics of P.T. Barnum in a series of performances that emphasized the problematic origins of American museums. Dressed in over-the-top “ethnic drag,” Gómez-Peña and Fusco toured museums across the country (in addition to venues in Europe and Australia) as members of a fictional long-lost Indigenous tribe. Shown in a cage and surrounded by fake artifacts and absurd objects like potted plants, a small television, and a portable stereo playing rock en español, the artists recreated the scenography of nineteenth-century ethnographic “villages” and other human displays. As these performances often confused visitors who thought the performance was part of a real display, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West not only formed a powerful institutional critique but also revealed the extent to which this history remains largely unquestioned.
Amin Husain, email message to the author, 4 June 2018
*Main image: detail of Charles Willson Peale's self-portrait An Artist and His Museum (1822) via Wikimedia Commons.