Newly-Renovated Galleries That Acknowledge Their Colonial Roots

The Africa Galleries:

On November 14, 2019, the Penn Museum unveiled historic renovations which included the completely reimagined Africa galleries. In the forefront of those galleries: the legacy of European colonialism and looting. The majority of the artifacts in the Africa collection were created in, or taken out of, Africa during periods of enslavement and colonization, and the new galleries in the collection provide a critical lens that analyzes the issues surrounding those acquisitions. Many of the descriptions explain the journeys of the objects as they were bought and sold with the intention of decolonizing the museum space. Rather than simply displaying objects on their own, the interactive exhibits walk the viewer through the entire story of the artifacts from when they were first taken (collected) to their donation to the Penn Museum.

An example of that process of decolonization within the museum space is the exhibition from the Benin Royal Palace. The objects in the exhibition were seized by British soldiers during an 1897 invasion of the West African nation. On display is a handwritten letter by the brother of a British army doctor offering items to the Penn Museum, and objects from the palace shrine (including an exquisitely carved ivory amulet) are included alongside that letter.  

The Africa galleries as a group have been redesigned to explicitly welcome conversation between the past and the present: a key theme underscored throughout ANTH-002. Maintaining the goal to completely decolonize the museum space (and all of the objects and entities it holds), the galleries challenge the conceptualization of Africa and attempt to decolonize the visiting minds that view the galleries.

Tukufu Zuberi, curator of the Africa galleries, has played a key role in the aforementioned renovations. Prior to the museum’s reopening, Zuberi had worked for two years on artifact reconceptualization, and the renovated collection shows pieces from across the continent. Those pieces are importantly in the context of their cultures and in conversation with each other. In addition to highlighting the colonial realities of the artifacts within the galleries, Zuberi has also commissioned a series of contemporary artists to create pieces that compliment and interact with the historic objects displayed.

Furthermore, the Africa galleries importantly display an interactive touchscreen titled: “From Maker to Museum.” That touchscreen provides an important context for the objects in the Africa collection, covering spirituality, kingdoms, design, ivory, currency and exchange, and instruments of both battle and music. Moreover, the African names of the objects are displayed alongside the English descriptions and are accompanied by narratives to tell their stories. Tukufu Zuberi articulates that “the presentation of this material culture is a statement as much about the collectors as it is about the items. We are looking at the makers, the people who created these things, as well as the University, and why are these items here at this time, and why did we make the decisions we have made to put the specific items there in the exhibition.”

The Mexico/Central America Gallery:

Maintaining that key interactive element that the Africa galleries strive to maintain, the newly-renovated Mexico/Central America Gallery attempts to show its visitors both a glimpse of the ancient world and also how those visitors fit into the ancient world themselves. Light projectors shine on stone carvings to help decipher what the figures actually look like, a touch screen station allows visitors to learn about and digitally create their own hieroglyph name, a new sound bench allows visitors to hear ancient languages still spoken in the region today, and videos show contemporary dance and weaving styles and explain the meaningful contexts of their continued expression.

Touch-screen tablets have also been added that show drone footage of the actual archaeological sites from which the artifacts have been collected, providing an important context that acknowledges colonial roots.

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