The Museum of Afrofuturity: Meta Museum

In Spring 2022, Elizabeth Chin and Elise Co designed and taught the studio “Meta-Museum.” In partnership with Jacklyn Lacey, then a Senior Scientific Specialist at the museum, our aim was to critically explore questions of history and politics in the Hall of African Peoples.

Course poster background image is a closeup of the statue that used to be at the entrance to the museum -- Theodore Roosevelt on a horse, walking beside the horse are on the left, a native american man and on the right and African man.  Both have naked torsos.  Information for the course is provided; full course description :Globally, museums are increasingly tasked with re-contextualizing themselves and their historic entanglements with racism, colonialism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. As museums try to craft new narratives thy must wrestle with the question: What happens when the museum itself becomes and artifact/ How can problematic histories be made visible, and how might justice be served?  What new narratives can be crafted, and to what ends? What forms could they be?  What forms do they take? 

This studio partners with the American Museum of Natural History in New York Citiy to explore these questions.  Focusing on the existing "Man in Africa" hall, which opened to the public in `968, we will prototype ways to contextualize and understand the hall.

Design education too rarely directly addresses questions of race, colonialism, exploitation, and politics. One purpose of this studio course was to ask students to directly confront these issues, with and through design.

The first day’s lecture began by critically framing of museums, collections, and categorizations of art v. natural history, among other themes.

Why the Hall of African Peoples?

The Hall of African Peoples opened in 1968, and has not seen curatorial updates since that time. Jacklyn Lacey and Enid Schildkrout have already examined the history of the hall, describing the important collaboration between Colin Turnbull and his partner of more than 30 years, Joseph Towles. It is significant that Towles was African American, and it is also significant that he and Turnbull were in a longterm same sex relationship. His erasure from the hall’s official history is the result of both homophobia and racism on the part of the museum. This “hidden” history served as one of the springboards from which we asked students to consider a variety of narratives and points of view relevant to visitors’ experiences of the hall. How might we, in the 21st century, find ways to make this history visible, and/or to materialize the complexity of overlapping and competing narratives that inevitably inhabit such spaces?

About the students

The majority of students in the course — and the majority of students at ArtCenter — are foreign students from Asia, primarily China and Taiwan. Four Latinx students enrolled, along with several Asian Americans, and one white student. Thus from the outset there was no “common knowledge” we could assume in terms of how the class had themselves experienced questions of race, racial politics, or Africa. Let’s also be clear that such “knowledge” takes the form of anti-Blackness, and that the site of our enquiry in fact institutionalizes and materializes these ideas quite powerfully. Such anti-Blackness is unarticulated, but embedded in received notions of Africa’s darkness, primitivity, etc. These ideas are too rarely discussed at ArtCenter, which itself is an institution mired in white supremacy in ways typical of both design itself and the academy more broadly.

Much of our pedagogical task was to equip students with conceptual and critical tools that would allow them to confront complex and contradictory histories and dynamics in ways not often encouraged in design education.

Some logistical challenges

This was never a formal, institution to institution partnership. Our project partner, Jacklyn Lacey, is a colleague of Elizabeth Chin’s. As Senior Scientific Specialist, Jacklyn was curatorially responsible for the Hall of African Peoples, and deeply interested in exploring questions that framed this studio course. Our plan was to have Dr. Lacey participating regularly in class sessions as a collaborator and sounding board. The studio was entirely speculative in that there was never any plan or expectation of bringing any of the projects proposed to the museum.

There were many reasons for this stance, among them our shared agreement that stepping away from a client-oriented stance would allow students to experiment more broadly than would otherwise be the case. We particularly wanted them to bring difficult challenges to the table, even confrontation, and Dr. Lacey would be the “voice” of the museum for our purposes. Her strongly articulated sense of possibility and politics was a strong foundation.

However, early in the fall Jacklyn Lacey, came down covid, then long covid, which left her unable to join us until the final class (and from which she still has not recovered nearly two years later). The museum’s artifact database was also inoperable through the crucial early weeks of the course when students were tasked with learning more about specific artifacts. Understandably, students found these real-world challenges very frustrating. At the same time, being tasked with creative problem-solving was a test of and testament to their determination.

There was much more going on beyond the view of the classroom. Jacklyn was also lead organizer for a unionization campaign at the museum that was being met with the full force of museum administration in an effort to disempower the union. Dr. Lacey was fired for not appearing at an HR meeting, a meeting her doctor had deemed her too ill to attend. We chose not to share all of this with students, though in hindsight perhaps we should have. From their point of view, the course seemed at times disorganized. Certainly, it did not meet their past experiences (if they had past experiences) with studios of this type, where partners typically play quite a different role and have quite different expectations as to final deliverables.

To clarify: sponsored and/or partnered studios at ArtCenter are overwhelmingly client oriented and intended to deliver design solutions or propositions. This client stance is further ingrained as sponsored studios usually require a payment of $100,000 to the college. As a collaboration of an entirely different type — one of shared politics rather than client deliverables — the dynamics and expectations were new for students. When circumstances made Dr. Lacey’s participation impossible, students were unsure to whom they were responsible. As faculty, we had to keep running the course, and for me, as a close colleague of Dr. Lacey, I was confident I could represent her POV at least adequately.

The Google arts and culture walkthrough of the Hall of African Peoples became an important resource for us. The museum does not have curatorial visual documentation of the hall. Rather, the “case files” contain only the names and identifiers of case contents,as in this example:

For designers, the lack of visual information was incredibly frustrating. How could they design when the only information they had was in text? The museum was still closed to the public, our partner was unable to work, and there was no visual documentation available from the museum. Our course TA, Audrey Murty, found a detailed walkthrough of the hall in Google arts and culture. Janky though it was as a way to experience the hall, it was was a huge resource that allowed us to see in detail how the hall is organized, and what individual cases look like. Click here to try it yourself!

Developing a Point of View

An assignment in week 5 of the term asked groups of students to “slice with a point of view” based on four themes we had identified 1. Romanticization of Africa; 2. 1968; 3. Collection as Colonization and 4. Africa is not a Country; Africa is not stuck in the past.

Invest in developing a point of view, exercised through design proposal(s) that are aimed at creating opportunities/incentives/imperatives for exploring the hall differently and even against the grain.  How does the POV engage and/or critique these themes?

Remember: “Everything a museum does is speculation”

One group noted that the hall’s dioramas show no sophisticated architecture and that this allows a stereotyped image of people who live in huts. The group found it difficult to translate this critically informed insight into an equally sharp design idea, however, proposing an AR experience that was quite generic, and including visuals that had no relationship to the project. (This group’s final project grew exponentially from this starting place!)

The sketch by Yining Gao, below, is working to bring energy to a static case.

Another group had developed this POV statement by midterm: “The majority of the objects in the Hall of African Peoples were obtained through the violence of colonization. The museum is responsible for giving those objects back to the people they belong to.  Those objects should be the ghosts in the museum, rather than carrying with them the ghosts of violence and colonization.”

Among their proposals were lenticular blinds designed to remove certain objects from view. This early prototype was ultimately central to their final project.

Here is video documentation of the final blinds as installed in the studio at the end of term:

A central aspect of our pedagogy was recursive refinement of the POV statement, with expectations that the design itself needed to materialize the values articulated in the POV.

One group’s midterm POV was this rather generalized set of ideas:

This is the POV they provided in their final:

African people have continued to show that tradition and technology can coexist alongside one another and go hand-in-hand on a daily basis. Social media and the internet have allowed and provided deeper first person connections that move these static objects beyond the eyes.

The design ideas, similarly, grew in refinement and sophistication. Leaving behind the laundry list of 3D printing, space exploration and VR, their final project included ideas for integrating social media feeds from the contemporary people depicted in the Pokot diorama, and collaboration between the museum and Pokot people today.

To see students’ final projects in more detail click here

To read ArtCenter’s overview of the course and see images from the term’s work click here