Categorizing at the Museum

Marabou wonders, can hierarchies of value be challenged or completely shattered if museums reconsider their methods of categorization? Why not tell the story of Africa, the entire continent, in one hall? Why not include all American objects in “The American Wing”?

How might we think differently about history when all the objects of a geographic location are together? When these objects share space, how might the narrative they create challenge the stories that are currently perpetuated?

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Marabou looking at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first floor & mezzanine map and thinking about the physical and curatorial distances among objects that come from the same geographical areas.

When walking around encyclopedic museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Marabou is curious about the way a museum decides to categorize its collections. The Met has the Hall of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. But it also has the American Wing. And the Egyptian Halls. There seems to be some overlap, right? There has to be a more efficient, or accurate way of organizing and labeling, but this is more than just changing signage and label copy. Marabou knows there has to be some type of rationale behind this grouping and separation.

The Hall of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas is at the southernmost part of the Met, accessed through the Greek and Roman Wing with its marbled floors and walls illuminated by natural light. Marabou imagines the geographic enormity of the how much space Africa, Oceania, and the Americas take up on the earth’s surface. But when you arrive at the Hall, it is three long exhibition galleries that blend together, geographic distinctions sometimes signaled very subtly through change in wall color and flooring. As the title suggests the hall encompasses Africa (more specifically sub-Saharan Africa), all of the islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans including New Zealand and Australia, and North, Central, and South America. Why group these land masses and islands together, when in total they represent hundreds of different cultures? And why are some cultures left out who belong in the geographic grouping, like Egypt and Morocco in Africa? The American cultures represented are all indigenous, no reference to European colonizers. Going into the American Wing on the other side of the museum tells a very different story than the American stories told through the objects in the Hall of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. There is an old way of thinking that still permeates the southside of the Met, a mindset that believes the cultures of Western and Sub Saharan Africa, Samoa, Papúa New Guinea, and indigenous America somehow all share a common thread. Marabou sees the old hierarchies of culture and art in action. What is being done to shatter the western and Eurocentric mindsets and to offer new perspective on cultures historically marginalized in museum spaces?

An upcoming exhibition at The Met (4 October 2018 – 5 October 2019) entitled Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection will display artwork from over fifty North American indigenous cultures in The American Wing. Will this exhibition be a step towards challenging and changing the old value hierarchies that place indigenous art and Western art on opposite sides of the spectrum? Will the Met’s curators present a more representative American history when objects from indigenous and colonizing cultures of North America are displayed in the same space? How will colonization be addressed? Will the museum explain “pioneering collectors” (as The Met describes them) Charles and Valerie Diker’s methods and means of object acquisition? (Marabou finds “pioneering” an interesting choice of words.) When these disparate “American” objects share space, what nuanced narratives will they create beyond what is told to visitors through museum labels and catalogs? Marabou is looking forward answering these questions in October. [Read Marabou’s thoughts on “Art of Native America” here.]

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