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Aimee Ellis February 26, 1992 The Art Institute's African Exhibit: A Conflict of Cultural Standards and Expectations

The Art Institute's exhibition of African art does not create a context through which a viewer can understand the objects on display. Instead, it attempts merely to reflect the

observations of an average Western mind, a mind that would find African culture primitive and African art crude. By reinforcing

the Western attitude towards Africa, the Art Institute doesn't have to take responsibility for the culture that it creates through its display. Every choice made by the museum distances

the museum from the construction of the display and the representation of the culture. As a consequence, the museum's

choice not to create a set of expectations for the viewer signals to the viewer that the art should be judged by Western standards. The role of the museum is difficult to determine in relation to objects created by non-Western cultures. The museum, itself a

Western institution, cannot be separated from Western art and the viewer's expectations of "exhibition value". When a viewer is

confronted with objects from another culture, his expectations do not change. The objects, however, are not made for exhibition.

In their original cultures, most of the objects are used in ritual ceremonies. Those without religious significance are Without a change in orientation,

indicative of everyday life.

the viewer is unable to appreciate, or even understand, the art within the objects. The problem is compounded by the inevitable

consequence that, when non-Western objects are displayed, the museum, in its representation of the art, creates the culture as well. Both the Western viewer and the culture represented are controlled by the museum and by the choices that shape the museum's display. Unfortunately, the museum, especially when its

role is unclear, does not always make the right choices--the choices that allow the culture to be represented as accurately as possible and the choices that provide a way for the viewers to change their expectations. The Art Institute's African Exhibit

exemplifies the bad choices that are possible. The Chauncey McCormick Gallery which houses the African and Ancient American exhibits is in an unnoticeable location. If a

viewer is intent on looking in front of him when he enters the doorway from the main entrance, he might miss the gallery, which is accessible only through unobtrusive openings on the side of the hallway. That the gallery is in the middle of construction

further gives the impression that the area is unimportant. A glance into one of the entrances which reveals neutral, earthtoned colors, not the vivid colors that one might expect or that might draw one's eye, would not encourage a viewer to change his course. By the placement of the display, the museum indirectly The

diminishes the worth of the objects represented.

unimportance of the exhibit is a way the museum distances itself from the exhibit and maintains the viewer's Western response to the art. If a viewer enters the first gallery, he is prepared to view African Art--not Ancient American art. Moving into the next

section of the gallery, however, the transition from African Art to Ancient American Art is hardly noticeable. The artistry in

the second gallery is very similar to that in the African section, and the earth-tones of the pieces are common to both. The area presents a coupling of the African and Ancient American cultures through the placement of the art. This further removes

the importance of the cultures represented and reinforces the Western expectations of primitive or underdeveloped cultures beneath western status. Within the African exhibit, there is no distinction between the different African cultures. Only some cultures, called

"people" by the museum, have descriptions: the Yoruba, the Baga, the Kuba, and the Benun. Moreover, the pieces from different

cultures are displayed randomly; for example, some Yoruba pieces are in one case, some in another. When each culture is not given

its own description or its own space, the viewer will see the individual cultures as unimportant, and one "African" culture is established. The museum refuses to take the risk of describing In its refusal, it is ignoring By not clarifying the

the individual African cultures.

the true nature of the African people.

different cultures, the museum allows the viewers to leave with the misconception of one "African" culture. The museum presents this established African culture as something to be distrusted. This occurs because the choice of

objects to be on display--all but four devoted to ritual--creates a conflict between Western values and African values. Western viewer doesn't respect ritual in the sense of "witchcraft" or "witchdoctors," connotations which African ritual is likely to have. When the museum doesn't clearly explain the The

use of the objects in the ritual, the objects tend to become more suspect. That practical life is negated by its exclusion from

the display also gives legitimization to the Western view of African cultures as primitive or undeveloped. exhibit opens with a carving of a royal couple. Furthermore, the The woman,

dominating and powerful, stands behind her husband who is sitting on a chair. To introduce the display to a patricarchal world

with a symbol of women's importance creates a value conflict for some Westerners. All of these interactions take place in a sparse, long, narrow gallery. The cases along the walls, or depressed in the

walls, are smooth, mostly glass; what is not glass is a sandcolored wood. It is as if the museum has eliminated its presence The lack of description, the brief names such

from the exhibit.

as "Butterfly Mask" and "Dance Figure," and the uncertanity of dates further remove the museum's presence. The arangement and

organization chosen by the museum is minimal, allowing the viewer's misconceptions of African art to control his response to the exhibit. The Art Institute's attempt to remove all of its

influence from the exhibition--an impossible task, given that the display is constructed by choices made by the museum. Because

the museum does not admit its role in taking ritual objects from one culture and placing them as exhibition objects in another, the ordianary Western viewer judges the African art by Western standards and Western expectations: the viewer's expectations are the remain the same for the African Art gallery as for the Reinassance painting. The museum doesn't attempt to change these expecatations or standards through the display. The choices made by the museum serve only to heighten the differences between the African culture and the Western world. African culture is mystified and subordinated. The museum should accept the responsibility for the creation of a culture. It

should, through its display techniques, represent the culture as accurately as possible not by trying to eliminate itself from the construction, but by revealing the control it uses. Extensive

labeling and descriptions, or even a warning to signal that the viwwer should suspend his standards for Western art, are ways that the museum can use to help the viewer change the orientaion of his expectations. What is important is that the museums don't

remove themselves from anthropological exhibits: the choices for location, arrangement, and labeling in the African Exhibit serve

only to distance the cultures from the Western world and to maintain the misconceptions of the viewers. The museums should

try within the display to challenge the viewers; they should try to re-orient the expectations. If museums did take the responsiblity to change viewers' expectations for a gallery holding a different culture's art, it could be argued that the museum would have too much control over the representation of the other culture. However, the power to

control the display exists already; it is an inherent feature of the museum as an institution. To help Western viewers better

understand and be receptive to other cultures might be a constuctive use of the museum's power. Perhaps Westerns

standards can never be completely suspended from the museum, and art from another culture will always be subjugated to standards which it was not meant to meet. Ultimately, learning about other

cultures is the only way that viewers can maintain control over the museums and the only way that viewers can understand the art. Unless viewers take responsibility for understanding their roles as viewers and the museum's role as presenter, the realities of the cultures and the expectations of the viewers will always be in conflict in the exhibitions of other cultures.