MIA's African Art Galleries redesign: Less walls, more iPads and touch screens

African Galleries at the MIA

African Galleries at the MIA

Last weekend, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts unveiled its newly redesigned African Galleries, which offer a more open and interactive layout. The project -- led by curator Jan-Jodewijk Grootaers with a team or architects, IT people, educators, and advisers from the African community -- brings the collection into the 21st Century.

One of the main goals of the redesign was to create an open display. This means that some of the pieces are shown without glass protection. "It's risky, but we hope people will behave," Grootaers says. The museum has also knocked out walls so that, rather than a series of smaller rooms, most of the art can be seen in one big space. There are columns throughout that contain glass cases where art can be viewed from more than one direction. For the one smaller room that's still separated from the rest, the museum has created a window into the main gallery so that visitors can see the weapons contained in the case from either room. 

Scattered all over the exhibit at benches and small tables are iPads, where visitors can find out more about each of the objects displayed, watch interviews by various experts and community members, and check out maps, historical information, and lots of other nuggets. There's also a large interactive touch screen that gives lots of educational information, though it's a bit too high for very young children to use. 

Finally, all the labels on the walls contain small drawings of each object to help match the description with the piece you want to find out about. The MIA uses an English description of the item only, rather than including the African names for things, which is too bad because it would be nice to know what the objects are actually called in their language of origin. 

One thing you may notice in the new galleries is the inclusion of both ancient and contemporary artists. As the space is now organized thematically rather than chronologically, one room features a pot by contemporary potter Magdalene Odundo next to much older traditional work. There's a piece by Kara Walker amid photography and older sculptural work. Pieces from different countries and areas are often presented together. On the one hand, this allows the exhibit to embrace a more diverse array of African culture and art, and fights against notions of African people and artists somehow being "in the past." On the other hand, there's also the danger of simply lumping all of Africa, the world's largest continent, into one culture. However, the museum does a pretty good job of labeling all of the work, and the iPads help provide context as well.

Another touchy subject that museums all over the world are dealing with right now involves objects of questionable origin. At the MIA, there's one particular piece, an ivory tusk (c. 1750) that comes from the Kingdom of Benin, in Nigeria. In the late 19th Century, the Kingdom was ransacked by the Royal British Army, and much of the art was destroyed or taken. According to Grootaers, the descendents don't want the art back, but do want documentation and access through images. 

"There's no one way to deal with it," Grootaers says. In some cases, the museum has returned objects when the origins could be proven, such as a Roman vessel they returned to Italy in 2011. In one case, the Louvre in France made an agreement with the Nigerian government to say that a piece would be owned by the Nigerian government but shown at the Louvre. Some of these issues are dealt with at the MIA's new space through interviews and other information in the iPad program, Grootaers says. 


African Art Galleries Redesign

Minneapolis Institute of Arts


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