“Displaying Historical Ivory in Museums: Let’s Talk about the Elephant in the Room”
In this free public lecture on 10 October 2019, international scholar, educator and humanitarian Dr Johnnetta Cole will discuss historical African ivory art, wildlife conservation and museum responsibility, about which she is a passionate advocate. Dr Cole is past Director of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art, and has held formative positions at several colleges and universities across the United States, where she headed and established African-American and black women’s studies programs. Dr Cole’s lecture is followed by a conversation with Dr Shannen Hill, guest curator of “The Art of African Ivory.”
Supported by the Brockington Visitorship Fund and the Justin and Elisabeth Lang Fund, Queen’s University.
Johnnetta Betsch Cole is a noted educator, author, speaker and consultant on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion in educational institutions, museums and workplaces. After receiving a Ph.D. in anthropology, Dr Cole held teaching positions in anthropology, women’s studies, and African American studies at several colleges and universities. She served as President of both historically Black colleges for women in the United States, Spelman College and Bennett College, a distinction she alone holds. She also served as the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, as a Principal Consultant at Cook Ross, and as a Senior Consulting Fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Dr Cole is currently the Chair and Seventh President of the National Council of Negro Women, an advocacy organization for women’s rights and civil rights. Throughout her career and in her published work, speeches, and community service, Johnnetta Betsch Cole consistently addresses issues of race, gender, and other systems of inequality.“Displaying Historical Ivory in Museums: Let’s Talk about the Elephant in the Room”
In this free public lecture on 10 October 2019, international scholar, educator and humanitarian Dr Johnnetta …
Historical Ivory Arts and the Protection of Contemporary Wildlife
Historical Ivory Arts and the Protection of Contemporary Wildlife
Historical Ivory Arts and the Protection of Contemporary Wildlife
The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
Repatriation of Objects to Africa
Repatriation of Objects to Africa
Repatriation of Objects to Africa
Use CTRL+F to find key words if it is a longer transcript.
>> Good evening! >> [Unison] Good evening. >> I would also like to acknowledge that
we are here on land that belonged to
and was sacred to Indigenous people.
Someone once said, “To feel gratitude and
not to express it, it’s like wrapping a gift,
putting a nice big red ribbon on
it, but never giving the gift.”
Well, I am feeling so much gratitude
that I assure you I want to express it.
I know that my husband joins me in being
grateful for this opportunity to come to a place
that we have never visited before, to walk
into a museum that has now stolen my heart,
and I hope you’ll not give it back. So to you, Director Jan Allen, to
you, Chief Curator, Alicia Boutilier,
I say not from the top, not from
the middle, but from the bottom
of my heart, thank you for this opportunity.
I also want to express what a joy it
is to reconnect with Dr. Shannon Hill.
We are connected by certainly an
institution, the Smithsonian’s National Museum
of African Art, but I would say we are mostly
connected by our passion for respecting,
studying, preserving the amazing visual arts of
the continent from which we have all descended.
So I guess I should be greeting you
all as my African sisters and brothers.
There’s a well-known African proverb that says,
“Until the lion,” I must add, “or lioness,
tells the story of the hunt, the
hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Now I want to create my own proverb
because as you may well know,
African proverbs are constantly
in the process of creation.
Here’s the proverb that I want to present. [Clears throat] “Until elephants tell the
story of being hunted for their tusks,
the story of ivory arts will never be complete.”
Now in this talk, I am going to draw on an
article that I published in 2018 entitled,
“Historical Ivory Arts, and the
Protection of Contemporary Wildlife.”
That article and this talk are connected to
my training as an anthropologist with a focus
on African studies and connected to my work as
a museum professional, including, as you heard,
serving as the Director of the National
Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian.
In working as the director of a museum
that houses historical ivory, my colleagues
and I were not only aware of the
exquisite beauty of ivory works of art,
but also the reality of how the ivory
trade continues to ravage Africa and Asia.
While historical ivory arts and the ivory
trade include hippopotamus, mammoth,
narwhal and walrus tusk, for this talk, I’m
going to be focussing on the tusks of elephants.
The central question that my
colleagues at the museum and I grappled
with is whether there is a contradiction
in calling for the protection
of elephant populations while
exhibiting historical ivory art objects.
We concluded that these two responsibilities
are not mutually exclusive, and here is why.
If museums thoughtfully and responsibly
present historical ivory art objects,
they can simultaneously call for and
actively support the protection of elephants
and other wildlife while displaying
historical ivory art objects.
For museums to meet these responsibilities,
two important actions must take place.
First, museums must take a strong stance
in advocating for educational programs
about the plight of elephants, and two,
museums must vigorously champion the need
for comprehensive bans on ivory trading,
and advocate for elephant conservation.
Clearly museums cannot do
this essential work alone.
The work requires thoughtful analysis. In addition, sometimes difficult
conversations are necessary,
not only within the art museum community,
but also with other stakeholders,
including relevant conservation
groups, non-governmental organizations,
government agencies, and
multinational government bodies.
Here’s another African proverb. This one says, “If you want
to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.”
Working together, we can help to educate
the public, including museum goers,
about the horrific effects of elephant poaching,
the illegal ivory trade and habitat loss,
and we should not shy away from being very clear
that while the brutal and mass-scale killing
of elephants for the sake of profits is
associated with colonialism as a period,
this barbaric practice continues to happen.
In many ways, museums are well positioned
to advocate for elephant conservation.
In 2017, there were over 67 million
visitors to museums throughout the world.
That’s a lot of people! In this particular slide, you see an
image of the Smithsonian National Museum
of African American History and Culture. It opened in 2014, it’s very
first year of existence.
During that year, more than three million
people walked through the museum’s door.
Imagine what could happen if only some of
the museums that exhibit historical ivory did
so in conjunction with an effective historical–
sorry, did so with an effective
Such a program would ideally
speak to the circumstances under which artists created those works.
The circumstances that put objects made
of ivory into world commercial markets,
and the ultimate impact of
killing elephants for their tusks.
An image, of course, of the
revered President Nelson Mandela.
President Mandela once said, “Education
is the most powerful weapon you can use
to change the world.” It is through education and
awareness that we have the best chance
of changing the public’s desire
to purchase ivory products,
and if the demand for commercial ivory products
can be significantly reduced, or even stopped,
the illegal poaching of elephants
for their tusks will end.
2014 was a watershed year in the United
States regarding the ivory trade.
An official United States strategy unfolded in
February of 2014, when President Barack Obama
and the White House issued what
is called the national strategy
for combating wildlife trafficking. The three-point plan involves
reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife
and products, and finally the enhancement
of international cooperation
through public-private partnerships.
The 2014 strategy was welcomed
and received positive feedback.
I turn now to a discussion of three
topics: the conditions that led
to the United States enacting a
national policy on the ivory trade.
I want to then note the work of
the National Museum of African Art in addressing wildlife conservancy from
a museum perspective, and then finally,
I want to consider ways in which museums
can and must continue to advocate
for wildlife protection through
exhibitions and support
of continued research in
historical ivory objects.
It’s not a pretty picture,
but it is a real picture.
In order to appreciate what led to the
United States national policy on ivory,
it is helpful to first understand the
underlying conditions that preceded the policy.
The ivory trade has existed for thousands of
years; however, it was European colonization
and the exploitation of Africa and Asia as their
resources that brought a dramatic reduction
in the number of elephants
on both of those continents. In 1800, it is believed that there were
approximately 26 million elephants,
spread across the African continent. Within a century, that number was cut in half.
In the twentieth century, the
elephant population was reduced by 97%.
A similar history took place in Asia. The BBC has reported that
over three generations,
Asian elephant numbers have declined by 50%
with only an estimated 40,000
elephants left in the wild.
The continued and unsustainable decline in
elephants populations, caused by the demand
for their ivory, ultimately led to
an Asian elephant ivory ban in 1975,
and an international ban
on all ivory trade in 1990.
However, subsequent special exemptions
to the ban and domestic sales
in some countries have once again placed
elephants in a perilous situation.
In the two years leading up to the 2014 US
policy on ivory trade, the United States Fish
and Wildlife Services organized
what are called ivory crushes,
events which attracted the attention of the
international media and in fact many citizens
in the United States and around the world. Following the example of the Kenyan government,
which organized the first of three ivory burns
or crushes in 1989, the US Fish and Wildlife
Services organized its first ivory crush event
in Denver, Colorado. At that event, six tons of
ivory were pulverized.
Subsequent ivory crush events were
held in several of the US major cities.
The New York Times wrote a
ground-breaking interactive series entitled,
“The Price of Ivory.” That series detailed ivory trafficking and its
relationship to international organized crime,
the illegal arms trade, and the
destabilizing of relatively young,
independent governments in Africa and Asia.
The United States was an initial partner in
fighting for and implementing an ivory ban.
However, the United States is not alone
in combating the illegal ivory trade.
Numerous countries have or will
shortly institute national ivory bans.
In the chronological order in which
it happened, you see the listing
in that slide of these countries.
In spite of the progress that has been made in implementing national ivory
bans, serious challenges remain.
The European Union still allows ivory
sales between its member states Countries
such as Canada and Japan have still not
completely banned the sale of ivory.
In 2018, the Trump Administration reversed
President Obama’s ban on trophy ivory imports
from specific African nations, despite large
protests from the United States’ public,
protests from foreign governments
and other interested parties.
Currently, several African countries,
including Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia,
and Zimbabwe are strongly lobbying for
an end to the international ivory ban.
It should be noted that these countries are
home to the majority of Africa’s elephants.
I want to turn now to the work of the
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art,
which you see on that particular slide, the role
of the museum, or the role the museum is taking
in addressing wildlife conservancy. Beginning with its founding as an African
art museum in 1964, through the period
when it became the National Museum of African
Art at the Smithsonian, there has been a sense
of responsibility to always see African art
objects within the context of the people,
the environments, and the
cultures that produced the art.
This is why in 2006, the National Museum
of African Art began to present labels
and educational programs to draw
attention to elephant poaching in Africa
and the importance of elephant conservation.
The Artful Animals Exhibition, curated by
Brian Friar in 2009 looked at the historical
and cultural significance of animals in
the verbal and visual arts of Africa.
In addition, we organized collaborative
programming with the Smithsonian Network,
committed to education about
wildlife protection. The collaborating museums included the Zoo,
the National Postal Museum, the National Museum
of Natural History, and Discovery Theatre. In 2013-2014, the Museum presented an exhibition
entitled, Earth Matters: Land as Material
and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa,
curated by Dr. Karen Milbourne.
This exhibition raised a number of
critical questions including climate change
and wildlife protection. In the catalogue that accompanied
the Earth Matters exhibition,
contemporary Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu,
contributed a short essay about themes
that she addresses in her artwork. With these words, she vividly
described contemporary interactions
with wildlife in Kenya’s National Park. You see her picture there.
“Black rhinos, leopards, and
lions saunter right up to your car
because of successful controls
on poaching in recent years.
The elephants are more wary. They are aware of the slaughter of past
generations in their strong collective memory.”
Wangechi Mutu’s haunting description of
Kenya’s elephants points to the responsibility
that contemporary audience
have with respect to the past.
Wangechi Mutu’s artwork offers further critiques
of contemporary poaching and commodification
as she collages images from fashion
magazines with images of wildlife.
For example, you see here Mutu’s 2012
collage from The Family Tree Series.
It features the outline of an elephant’s head,
but the skull of this elephant is an image
of a black model with closely-cropped hair,
an image of butterfly wings comprises
the eye sockets, and human eyes peer out.
By employing botanical drawings around
either side of the elephant’s tusks,
Mutu appears to indicate that the tusks of
this elephant have been tragically removed.
Like many of the artists featured in the Earth
Matters project, Wangechi Mutu presents artwork
that prompts audiences to consider the
effects of consumerism across the globe,
and its threat to wildlife populations.
Do not throw out the baby with the bath water.
This popular but instructive saying
introduces the next point that I wish to make.
Namely as we work to protect Africa’s
elephant populations, we must be careful not
to destroy resources that chronicle
Africa’s history and her story.
Here you see an image of an ivory
work of art created centuries ago.
It can tell an important
story in the life of a people, long before such stories were routinely
communicated through written language.
For example, between the sixteenth and
eighteenth centuries, in what is now Nigeria,
Owo, a Yoruba artist, carved this bracelet
from an elephant tusk and embellished it
with images of a Alowo, a Yoruba divinity.
On the bracelet, Owo’s carvings of land
and sea creatures surround Olokun’s figure,
and thus a reference is made to
the divinity creation of the earth.
Now while government organize ivory crushes
and bans do attract public attention
to the ivory trade, care must be
taken not to destroy priceless
and irreplaceable works of historical ivory. As the 2014 US ivory policy indicated,
the goal is to protect African elephants
without preventing US art museums from carrying
out their responsibility to preserve, interpret,
and share works of art in
all mediums, including ivory.
Brian Friar who I mentioned a moment ago, a
curator at the National Museum of African Art,
received photographs of piles of
ivory prior to the Time Square crush.
She was able to identify and save from
destruction two works of historical ivory.
These works were created
in Sierra Leone and Nigeria in the early to the mid twentieth century.
The National Museum of African Art’s collection of historical ivory art emphasizes the cultural
significance of ivory as a material of status
and prestige in many parts of the continent. For example, Loango [inaudible] ivories of
Central Africa illustrate the value placed
on ivory within and outside of Africa and
point to a much larger, systematic economy
in which exploitation of humans
and animals has gone hand in hand.
Recent research on Loango ivories
also points to the significant
of keeping Africa’s historical
ivory arts on display in museums.
Such displays remind our audiences which include
current adults and future young museum-goers.
It reminds our museum-goers that the
ways that they choose to participate
in the consumer economy shapes our world. From Nigeria, there is this Yoruba proverb.
It says, “One sees all sorts of
knives on the day an elephant dies.”
For this purpose of this talk, this proverb
helps to point to wildlife destruction
as a very broad and systemic
issue that we need to work
on in order to cause change for the better. The history of ivory as a valuable
global commodity has been so ingrained
over the centuries, and has
led to the proliferation of poaching African elephant
ivory in recent decades.
To address this, museums currently have a lot
of work to do and a lot of history to remember.
In the ongoing struggle to protect
elephants and other wildlife,
we will need effective media campaigns to
educate the public about the catastrophic damage
and destruction caused by the ivory trade. These campaigns can be simple
and yet quite effective.
An example of such an effective campaign
is the one involving large billboards
in a Beijing airport as well as
hundreds of other locations around China.
The billboards, an example
of which is shown here, is an image of former NBA star
Yao Ming with an elephant.
The message is clear: the
public needs to be aware of the destruction caused by
purchasing ivory products.
The effectiveness of that campaign is reflected
in the results of a public opinion poll,
funded by the World Wildlife Fund. One year after the campaign was launched,
the number of Chinese citizens surveyed
who indicated that they would no longer
purchase ivory products increased by 22%.
As a Duala proverb from the Cameroons states,
“It is not the elephant who wants for ivory.”
The African American writer,
James Baldwin, once said,
“Not everything that is faced can be changed.
But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
The first step in turning around the destructive
consequences of the ivory trade is to admit
that killing elephants for their tusks,
in order to make objects out of ivory,
is incredibly cruel to the elephants and
destructive to the natural environment.
Clearly the ivory trade is an
assault on basic human values.
Canadian-born American journalist,
Edward Graydon Carter once said this,
“We admire elephants in part because they
demonstrate what we consider the finest human
traits: empathy, self-awareness,
and social intelligence.
But the way we treat them puts on display
the very worst of human behaviour.”
I believe that we can change human behaviour.
Indeed, I believe we can
change the world, as my shero,
the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said,
“Never doubt the ability of a small group
of committed citizens to change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.”
Thank you so much for listening. [ Applause ]
>> Thank you, Dr. Cole. That was really fantastic.
I truly appreciate that I get an opportunity to
sit with you after knowing you for a few years and actually ask you some tough questions,
because I know that you love tough questions.
And so do I. When we sat down in our seats, and there
was a sign that said, “Reserved,” I said,
“I don’t think either one of us can
wear this as a name tag, do you?” She said, “No, nope.”
[Laughter] So let’s begin. Education, of course, has been at the
[inaudible] of your distinguished career.
From teaching to leading colleges, you went on to lead a national museum,
devoted to African art.
Whereas we expect difficult conversations
to take place in higher education, and I really must applaud the Agnes
for continuously offering us difficult
conversations, creating a space for that
and the resources, again and again. Many museums tend to shy away from
difficult questions, and that responsibility.
When you directed a Smithsonian
Institution, you also served as the President of the American Association of Museum
Directors, so I have two questions.
How willing are museum directors to
engage in discussions of this kind? Or how did you encourage you to do that?
And what can we do as museum-goers
to let directors know that we really want this kind of programming?
>> I don’t think there’s any question
about a new group of museum directors
who very differently look at the
question of the mission of a museum.
This new group of museum directors,
and I wish I could give you numbers,
and tell you it’s x-percentage
of all museum directors. I am prepared to say it is a small group.
Then we must grow. But it’s a group of museum directors that
understands that a museum has a mission
that certainly involves presenting human
creativity that takes the form of the arts.
But that museums also have the responsibility to
make sure that what is presented are the stories
of all [inaudible], not some, and that museums
have the responsibility to be convening places
for conversations, many of
which will be difficult.
I actually want to applaud The Agnes.
Today when [inaudible], this little group
of us got to walk through The Agnes, I was,
I was genuinely, not just impressed
but pleased about upcoming– .
[ Inaudible ] Because here at The Agnes, I don’t know what
else to say but these sister folks sitting
in front of me, [inaudible] with their hobbies
are willing to take on difficult issues.
Look at the exhibition on sex.
I will say even the exhibition on ivory
which you so brilliantly curated, so of the,
the challenge is to socially
reproduce both like my sister director
and my sister curator [laughter], so that around the world we have courageous
leadership in our museums.
>> Yeah, we do. So among the nations, I’m going to jump forward
a little bit to reference one of your slides
and get us back to Africa a little bit. I was struck that Kenya was not listed
among the nations that you listed
to have signed the international
ban on treaty, ban on ivory, rather. Afterall, since it was the first to draw
global attention to elephants’ plight
by organizing its public
destruction of ivory in 1989. So Southern Africa aside, and I’m very
disappointed about that, how are governments
and museum professionals elsewhere on the
continent addressing this vital issue? >> Let me say that I wish, I’m
going to do it, is that good?
Let me just say that I wish I
could describe this vigorous,
committed band across the continent of museum professionals taking
a position on the ivory trade.
I can’t. But just as I commented
on your first question,
I can say that there are some
museum professionals who are very,
if I can try to be hip, woke
on the whole question
of historical and current African art objects.
We’ve got to grow that group of professionals. >> Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Thank you. The United States followed Kenya’s
example, and I love, I love that.
This case models the kind of interaction many
of us devoted to African art would like to see, a deep engagement with people on the
continent, and a serious commitment to listening
and collaborating rather than leading a charge. I know that you’ve done some very significant
work in that regard, so could you please tell us
about a project you’ve undertaken,
or more than one, if you would like, that exemplifies how museums can listen
to their African-based colleagues
and their counterparts there
and develop collaborations? >> I’d love to. I’d love to share a particular story that
says something beyond what you’ve asked.
>> Okay. >> It says listen to the people.
It says respect the people. It says work with the people.
So a number of years ago at the National
Museum of African Art, a purchase was made
of the photographs of a well-known
His name, Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge.
He grew up, was born and grew up in Nigeria
in a part of that nation called Benin City.
For 60 years, he was the official
photographer for the oba of Benin.
The oba is the most revered, both
religious and political leader.
So imagine what he captured. Among his famous photographs is in fact
the day the Queen of England came to Benin,
and you see the oba and the queen. But Alonge, in addition to
being the official photographer
for the court also set up his own little shop.
Quite an entrepreneur was he. So in the city of Benin, you
could come to his studio,
get all dressed up, and have your picture taken. It was an amazing chronicling of the
life of ordinary people of Benin.
So the museum where you work, where I worked, the museum bought this collection
from Alonge’s family.
I think under Amy Staples with the
assistance of Brian Friar, an amazing
and grace-filled exhibition was presented. We could have left it there.
We were having wonderful
experiences because people from Benin
in the African immigrant community in
Washington, in Maryland, in Virginia, would come
and see the exhibition, and
we’d often hear a scream. And somebody would look at a
photo and say, “That’s my uncle!”
[Laughter] So it was a great exhibition
connecting the African immigrant community
to the museum. But we had listened to the people of Benin.
We had worked with the people of
Benin, and what the museum did was
to literally make a copy of the exhibition.
You can do this with photography, alright? And literally sent it to Benin
through a Memorandum of Understanding
between the Smithsonian and the Commission
on Museums and Monuments of Nigeria.
Now you could say that was enough, okay? But we did something else, and what we did was
to go into partnership with people in Benin
to literally raise enough money to renovate
the museum to which we gave this exhibition.
That to me is an example of genuine
partnership where we respectfully sent back
to Benin what really belonged to them, and
we did more than just return something.
We helped to raise the resources
that made presenting
that exhibition not only more beautiful
but safer, because we were also able
to raise enough money to improve the
climatic conditions of that museum.
A long response, but I think it really is a very
beautiful example, and I would say, Shannon,
it’s of all the exhibitions
during my directorship,
it’s the one that I am the proudest of
because it wasn’t just an exhibition.
It was an expression of a partnership.
>> Thank you. I love that project. I admire it greatly. The next question then relates.
It’s a question I know many
people have on their mind. We discussed it in the galleries earlier today. It has to do with this question of repatriation,
returning objects, say other than photographs.
So now I’m sure, I’m going to give a little
bit of this story if any of you are unfamiliar with what’s been discussed
in the past two years.
Almost two years ago, President Emmanuel Macron
of France ignited an international debate
that centred on the repatriation
of objects to Africa when he said that France would do exactly this.
The report he commissioned came
out one year later, November 2018. And since then, museums around the world
have been grappling with this question of how
and whether to return art to Africa. Museums in France, Germany, and England, as
you know, have either laid plans to do this,
or have actually done so, so it’s happening. And I’d like to ask you what’s
missing in the conversation?
What’s at stake? What’s worthwhile? And then to really bring it home to all of us
here, what steps might museums take to assure
that they participate meaningfully? And I know that the Smithsonian had the
resources and clout, being a national museum,
to engage Nigeria’s national
museums in that way. But smaller institutions, what might
they do to have a meaningful impact?
>> Well, if I may, I’d like to take that
very, very important question which is centred
in your question around the
works of art of Africa and to say
that it really is beyond Africa, and
as I sit here in this part of Canada,
or if I were in any part of
Canada or the United States, I would want us to broaden this conversation
to say that it also is a question,
the responsibility or not of museums to return usually very sacred art
material to Indigenous people.
So I am looking for my new colleague
Sebastian to say that this afternoon,
when we were all together, we had a
very rich conversation about this,
and I was pleased to see that Sebastian
and I, although we had just met,
were really at the same place on this question, and that is the taking either
extreme position is not very helpful.
The position that says, “Send it all back! You stole it, it’s not yours.”
Alright? The Inuit people are waiting
for their ancestors to come home.
The people of Africa want the
British Museum to empty out every one
of those works and send them home. The other extreme says, “Don’t send anything!
Have you been to the continent? Have you seen the conditions in those museums?
Send priceless African art back, and it
will cease to be in a matter of years.”
First of all, you’ve got the challenge
of climate, and then you’ve got the lack
of resources to care for these works. So we agreed, did we not, Sebastian?
That there is a responsibility.
To of course return works
that belong to a people.
And in many cases, we’re
not talking about works. We’re not talking about stuff.
We’re not talking about blouses and chairs. We’re talking about highly sacred works.
It should go back, but we need to also send
or help to raise the resources
to care for what is sent.
We also were reminding ourselves
this afternoon of the role
of popular art in raising a public issue.
How many of you saw Black Panther?
Remember that scene in the film where
a young man says, “It’s our stuff!
You stole it! Send it back.” So in the popular conversation now, the
question of repatriation is very, very alive.
And again, my own position is if we can sit down
and have reasonable conversations about this,
perhaps we can come up with plans. Now you may want to share that at [inaudible],
there is a convening around
such questions coming up. >> Yes, that is right.
The Smithsonian more largely works with Yale
University to create discussions in the hope
of creating resolutions around this topic. So at the end of this month, on the
20th and 21st, there will be the second
of three conversations that
this consortium has been having. And then the next one will be at a location
on the continent, yet to be determined.
We make these steps, lay the plans, and the hope
will be that we get to continue the kind of work
that you did with Nigeria in other contexts. But the desire is there, as you were saying.
Absolutely the desire is there. Another difficult conversation to be had around
museums these days is that just like monuments,
they’re becoming sites of public demonstrations. Now there’s a collective in New
York called Decolonize This Place,
and it has been particularly visible. The organization describes itself this way.
I’m just going to read what
it says on their website. They say that, excuse me,
“Decolonize This Place organizes
around issues concerning Indigenous struggle,
black liberation, Palestinian nationalism,
minimum wage workers, and degentrification.” Much of their work manifests
as place-based protests
within museums and other cultural institutions. Now their effectiveness can be charted in lots
of ways, but one example is the resignation
of a trustee at the Whitney
Museum of American Art. Now you directed a major museum, and you
know well that art institutions contend
with all kinds of competing interests. So this is my question. How can museums best navigate the
interests of their many constituents?
That means visitors of all ages,
patrons, trustees, NGOs, funding agencies.
Activists like those who are very committed, like those who participate
in Decolonize This Place.
How can we navigate all these interests so that
these difficult conversations can take place?
Art matters for lots of reasons. We know that it’s up to museums
to stage it in ways that,
that weigh the fundamental
difficulties of our time.
>> Well, I think that museums will
find it very difficult to respond
to the multiple constituents,
but it’s got to be done.
The particularly situation that
you’re addressing is not the only one
in the United States, and
in fact, around the world. Look at what happened at the Brooklyn
Museum of Art where the relationship
between the Sackler Family that
is very involved in that museum,
and the opiate crisis reached a head, and
in fact, the Brooklyn Museum took a position
that it would no longer be supportive
of that kind of Sackler engagement.
What happened at the Whitney was that
Decolonize This Place raised a reality,
and that is that a member of the board is
the CEO, maybe it’s chairman of the board,
maybe it’s both, of a manufacturing
company that makes teargas
that was used on the US Southern border.
My own position is that these
protests will continue.
The only hope that I have is
that they will be nonviolent.
I think bringing one’s concerns to a
museum, when done in a nonviolent way,
is what’s going to happen and should happen. I also think though that we could handle
potentially difficult situations much
more wisely. I’m going to give an example that’s a little
different, Shannon, from what you just raised.
When the Brooklyn Museum hired a curator
of African art, there was an uproar.
>> That’s right, yeah. >> And the uproar was because the curator
is neither African nor a person of colour.
And those protesting said, “Here we go again.
More white folk in positions
of authority in museums.”
I am willing to bet, if I were a betting woman, that that situation could have
been handled very differently.
If, for example, before making that
appointment, making that announcement,
there had been an outreach to communities
of colour to say, “Come, sit down,
we want you to see the resume of this
individual that we’re about to hire.
We want you to understand that
there is overwhelming evidence
that as a white woman, she’s done the work. She’s done the work to be able
to carry out this position
and to do it respectfully and effectively.” So that’s just an example of what
I’m saying we can be much smarter
by the way that we handle these situations. We could be far more proactive rather
than waiting until Decolonize This Place
or some other protest group
comes to make its case.
>> You know, I’d like to comment a little bit
about this colleague that you’re talking about, too, because she did something that
I’ve never seen before in a museum,
and it shows the respect that
the public was expecting.
She would have done this regardless, I’m sure,
but I will say that there’s an exhibition that focuses on one work of art,
and it was made by a Yoruba artist,
so the entire exhibition
centres on this one piece. But what was unique is that in creating texts,
she created a full text in the Yoruba language
so that, I’m not a Yoruba speaker– it was
that moment of not being able to read it, and that was a really interesting, jarring
moment that I think people experience frequently
when they don’t see their
own languages represented. Okay, I have one last question for
you, and then I’m going to turn it
over to this great audience who joined us. A question that’s going to help us all, I
think, think about our family heirlooms.
In your 2018 essay, “Historical Ivory Arts
and the Protection of Wildlife,” you urged us
to distinguish between cultural
ivory and contraband ivory. Would you please lay out
those distinctions for us?
I ask, again, because many
of you may have objects in your family that have been passed on to you.
What do we do? How do we distinguish?
>> You know, it’s very hard to say
to someone, “This precious possession
that you have is associated with things
that I don’t think you would be proud of.
Don’t you want to give it up?”
And maybe I’m trying to dodge
things, Shannon, but you know,
those types of heirlooms,
that’s not the big, big problem.
>> Oh, I know. >> We’re talking about ivory trade.
We’re talking about thousands
and millions of pounds of ivory.
You know, traded for trinkets. And so, maybe it’s the sentimentality
that revs inside of me
that says I’m really not interested, you
know, in going around to everybody’s house
and saying, “Bring me your heirlooms. Let me see what we can take and
have an ivory crush off of it.”
That’s not where the problem is, and so we’ve
got to really attack this problem where it is,
and it is the hunting and killing of animals. I’ve got to say, I’ve got a special
thing about elephants now, alright?
I’m a feminist, and you, you ought
to understand so are elephants.
They are matriarchal. They are a herding group.
Who leads them? The woman elephant leads them.
Usually the oldest member of the group, and they
move together anywhere from eight or ten to 100.
The guys? They kind of got to, you
know, once they get of a certain age,
they’ve got to go kind of fend
for themselves for a little bit. Because the women elephants are in charge!
These are also incredibly empathetic,
social, wonderful creatures.
And so it’s not, it’s not your family heirloom,
it’s the destruction on a massive scale
of these wonderful, wonderful animals.
Lots of folk have spirit animals. Not just people in Indigenous cultures.
Well, I have two. One is elephants, and the other is turtles.
So. >> Thank you. >> You’re welcome. >> I appreciate it.
No results found