The Museum as Social Worker and Agent for Change

Juliette Harris

Johnnetta Cole  Photo via American Alliance of MuseumsJohnnetta Betsch Cole was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums (formerly the American Association of Museums) in Atlanta, April 26-29, 2015.

This year’s meeting theme was “Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change.”

An anthropologist, museum director and educator who has mentored students from challenging backgrounds, Johnetta Cole was well-prepared to address the meeting's questions which included the following:

  • What does it mean to advance the social engagement of museums?
  • How are museums addressing human and social needs through their programs, practices and operations? And what kind of training and staff will be required to sustain this effort?
  • How do we identify the social problems that we have the capacity to help solve? What strategies should we employ?

We’ve been reporting on social value in art and social change-oriented museum initiatives, including "Seeing Beauty in Difference," for some time.  And now, prompted by incidents of policing leading to fatal encounters around the country, we want to know what can we learn from other cultures that combine policing and art practices. This question stemmed from a broader one: How can people in largely non-white communities maintain public safety without total dependence on law enforcement by people who are outsiders to the community?

Mask, Mukenga, raffia, hide, trade cloth, beads, wood, cowrie shelles, parrot feathers, animal hair, brass. Collection Hampton University MuseumWe know that in some traditional West African cultures, masquerades were used to maintain order, punish wrong-doing and adjudicate disputes. And from the Hampton University collection, we've learned that the Mukenga mask from the Kuba people of the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) signified strength and its use had a relation to maintaining law and order.  

William H. Sheppard and Kuba woman. Photo: Hampton University Museum ArchivesThe collector of the Mukenga mask, Hampton alumnus William H. Sheppard (1865-1927) explained some of its meanings and functions: The long top represents an elephant trunk, i.e., strength. The palm (fringe) also signifies strength. Therefore the mass of it (is) around the neck. Leopard (skin on the front of the mask) also means strength. Shamba Balongongo (an early Kuba ruler) is said to have founded a secret association whose members served as a kind of police force. One of three high officials of this society wore a beaded mask made of leopard skin and native palm fiber cloth at the ceremonies held for the initiation of new members into the society.

So we’re interested to know whether there is anything to be learned from these traditions as Americans seek to reform policing? if so, how did the secret societies conduct policing? How were masquerades used in law enforcement? Of course African Americans hold differing beliefs than their African ancestors and the problems of policing and justice in the U.S. are rooted in complex circumstances including racism, under-representation of people of color in law enforcement and unemployment. African traditions cannot be indiscriminately applied to problems in this country but do they provide insights into different approaches to maintaining public order and safety? Such questions could form the bases of exhibitions and public programs at museums with African collections.

We posed these questions to Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, a Nigerian-born curator of a U.S. museum, visual artist, critic and art historian. His reply forms the addendum at the end of this article.

We've also learned about this contemporary, creative approach to policing mounted by the former mayor of Bogota, Columbia. Mimes served as traffic cops.

In announcing its “social value” meeting theme, the American Alliance of Museums stated that while “there is no commonly understood practice regarding the social work of museums, we know that our institutions provide experiences critical to social development.”

Keynote speaker Johnetta Cole was appointed the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in March, 2009. NMAfA is the only national museum in the United States that collects, conserves, exhibits and educates about the traditional and contemporary visual arts of Africa.

Pearl Cleague. Photo via American Alliance of MuseumsOther featured speakers at the AAM annual meeting included Pearl Cleague, Mellon Playwright in Residence at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and Spencer Crew, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of American, African American, and Public History at George Mason University.

In her presentation, “Between Engagements: In Search of an American Audience.” Cleague explored the challenges facing artists and audiences as American arts institutions begin to more accurately and joyfully reflect America’s rich cultural mosaic.Spencer Crew. Photo via American Alliance of Museums In “Giving a Voice to Forgotten Americans,” Spencer Crew discussed the challenges of trying to insert the artifacts, stories and contributions of the not-so-famous in the narratives of museum—and why it is important to do this not as exceptionalism but as an integral part of storyline.

Spencer Crew is a Clarence J. Robinson Professor of American, African American, and Public History at George Mason University. He has worked in public history institutions for more than 25 years, including 20 years at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—serving as director for nine years. His most important exhibition was the groundbreaking Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940, which generated a national discussion about migration, race, and creating historical exhibitions.

Can Artistic Practices and Museum Objects Have A Role in Law and Order? 

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is curator of African art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. NzewiBorn in Nigeria, Nzewi trained as a sculptor under the supervision of El Anatsui at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he earned a B.A. in Fine and Applied Art. He received a postgraduate diploma in the African Program in Museum and Heritage Studies from the University of Western Cape, South Africa, and a PhD in Art History from Emory University, Atlanta, USA. Nzewi has published extensively and curated exhibitions in Nigeria, South Africa, United States, and Senegal, including: Transitions: Contemporary South African Works on Paper at the High Museum, Atlanta (2009), Dak’Art (2014) with Elise Atangana and Abdelkader Damani, and Ukara: Ritual Cloth of the Ekpe Secret Society on view at the Hood Museum, April 18 through August 2, 2015.   

When we asked Nzewi about the relation of masks and masquerades and policing, he said that he believes these questions are “very critical considering the spate of unfortunate events in black communities across the country.”  However he feels that the questions send “the wrong message” in that they do not reflect contemporary Africa:

No society in Africa today is adjudicated by masquerades as law enforcers. I think a better way to think of this or to rephrase your question: what lessons can we learn from the ways in which social control was enforced in African societies in the past through African art objects in the museum, and how can we draw insights from them  in reforming law enforcement and in providing equitable justice within our minority communities? 

The period between traditional and contemporary African cultures was shaped by colonial control which imported European forms of policing and adjudication and contributed to the eradication of indigenous practices of social control. 

So our re-phrased question also includes this new one: Can the best practices of contemporary and traditional forms of social control be synergetic?

We are inviting Nzewi and others to reply to these evolving questions. Replies will be the basis of a follow-up article.