Home Arts The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art is looking for a new director

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art is looking for a new director

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For the third time in six years, the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution is looking for a new director. Ngaire Blankenberg, a museum and cultural consultant who started work in July 2021, left the museum at the end of March, a Smithsonian spokeswoman confirmed. Although the institution declined to discuss personnel matters, sources said The arts journal that Blankenberg was pressured into resigning.

Writing by email from South Africa, where she is now based, Blankenberg says she “learned so much” during her time at the museum. “While there was a lot of frustration, I came away with much deeper insights into the pain points of transformation,” she says. “If we’re still committed to changing museums for the better (which I am), it’s important to have a clear idea of ​​where the resistance is and how it manifests,” said Blankenberg.

The National Museum of African Art is one of the smaller institutions in the Smithsonian network, but it has been at the center of some major movements in the museum world. More recently, it was among several American museums restore its collection of Beninese bronzes in Nigeria, after having remove the works from the exhibition. At the time, Blankenberg said The arts journal“We cannot build for the future without doing our best to heal the wounds of the past.”

In a memo sent to all Smithsonian directors in mid-April, Kevin Gover, the undersecretary for museums and culture, said Blankenberg “served as a catalyst for the return of the Benin Bronzes to the National Commission.” of Nigerian Museums and Monuments She also played a leading role in shaping the Smithsonian’s new Ethical Returns Policy, which allows museums to return collections to communities of origin based on ethical considerations. .

The decision to return the works, which were among 10,000 items looted by British soldiers from the royal palace in Benin in 1897, has been hailed as the long-awaited redress of a violent historical wrong. And Ngaire considers this comeback her greatest achievement as a director. “I showed it could be done,” she says.

But the situation has been complicated in recent months, first by a lawsuit brought by a New York-based organization called The Restitution Study Group to keep Benin working in the United States. Then, in April, the outgoing President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, issued a statement transferring ownership of all items removed from the royal palace, including those “already repatriated and those to be repatriated”, to the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II, the traditional leader of the Edo people. This caused great confusion among European museums that have been involved in the repatriation of works from their collections, as well as the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, which has overseen the international effort.

Blankenberg’s personal mission was based on “repositioning the museum for an international audience, especially Millennials and Gen Z”, and she kicked off her tenure with a 24-hour event in Lagos involving artists and curators commissioned by the Smithsonian. “My vision is to create, with an international presence in Africa and in the African diaspora,” she said in a Smithsonian Magazine interview. “This museum has long been about Africa, and it should be for Africans in Africa, celebrating global creativity.”

Ngaire tells The arts journal she is proud of her attempts to open the museum. “I don’t know if many of the initiatives that I have put in place will continue: the institutional partnerships in Nigeria and South Africa, the study advisory committee, the African museology project, the Live Art series, the showcase of African design, the Research Gallery to provide a space for the art community in DC, but I’m really proud that I tried and showed how much richer the museum could be if it just let others people make real contributions,” she says, “in this case artists, curators, designers, scholars, architects and the public who are both African and American and global!”

Blankenberg says the biggest challenges she has faced in her efforts to bring about change in the museum system “are individual and institutional resistance and then backlash.” She adds: “In my experience, most people in museums are very well-meaning and are the first to recognize problems in the sector. But that’s rhetorical. Few people are willing to struggle with their own unwitting complicity in a system that benefits them, or rewards them for professionalism that is actually quite harmful. It is hard to admit that many of the practices you have been trained in are violent in that they render different forms of knowledge and people invisible or invaluable. So there is a resistance that manifests itself in all sorts of ways. But no one will come out and admit they don’t support change because they’re more afraid of being called a ‘racist’ or ‘colonial’ than looking within at what they can subconsciously do that supports a racist colonial system.

“Despite widespread public commitments to ‘change’, few seem to have the courage to ride out the inevitable waves that any change necessarily entails,” says Blankenberg. “There’s a lot of pressure and hope put on individual leaders, especially black women, but at the first sign of trouble… well, she becomes the problem. It becomes a cliché. Too much fear of lawsuits and not enough fear of becoming irrelevant or helpless, especially for a new generation that is pretty good at seeing through platitudes.

However, Blankenberg’s focus on ideological issues and international outreach, rather than collaborating internally and building consensus within the museum, would have created a clash between staff as well as with the Smithsonian administration, according to an anonymous source close to the museum.

Perhaps adding to the tensions was a history of complaints by former staff and board members alleging a culture of racism in the museum’s hiring practices and demanding the removal of Deputy Director and Chief Curator Christine Kreamer. The claims came shortly after the departure of former museum director Gus Casely-Hayford, who left in 2020, after only two years in the position, to take over the management of the V&A East in London. Respected Smithsonian administrator Deborah Mack was named acting director, and the institution’s head, Secretary Lonnie Bunch, stepped in personally to investigate the charges. Mack attributed the museum’s problems to “chronic understaffing”.

The museum’s acting director is replaced by John Lapiana, senior adviser to the undersecretary for museums and culture, who has also served as deputy director since last spring (following Kreamer’s retirement in January 2022). He will stay on while the Smithsonian conducts an international search for a permanent replacement, guided by Greg Bettwy, chief of staff to the Smithsonian secretary.

In a statement, Lapiana said his priorities at the museum “are to ensure that the development and presentation of public programming and collaborations remain ambitious and uninterrupted (we just opened a major exhibition, From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya with Ayana V. Jackson, last week) and that the transition for the new director will be as smooth as possible. The staff and I look forward to the permanent manager being able to ‘take the lead’.

Additional reporting by Daniel Grant.

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