Egyptian Art is African Art.
A Call for Museums to Address Problematic Narratives
Egypt is in Africa. So why are “Egyptian Art” and “African Art” displayed separately in most major encyclopedic museums? The answer is complex and problematic.
From their inception, museums have been in the business of constructing and communicating narratives. They are public service institutions designed to educate and hold important art and objects in the public trust. And, they have more influence when it comes to contributing to our sense of national identity than we may think (see “Museums and National Identity”).
Core functions of a museum include the generation, protection, and communication of knowledge through research, conservation, storytelling, and public display. Museums are important and influential educational resources, and, thanks to new digital technologies, they have never been more accessible to a broad global public. Museums are in a unique position to diversify their audiences and serve the public in new ways, responding to audience needs, and also to rewrite narratives in their permanent collections that may not have been touched for decades to advance equity.
Museum visitors experience the stories museums create through multiple and varied touchpoints: architectural placement and structure of the galleries, the classification and juxtaposition of works, informational materials and labels, audio and mobile guides, social media, and more. Together, these touchpoints manifest meanings and functions for objects that they may not have otherwise held.
Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, authors of The Universal Survey Museum, describe what it is like to walk into The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the powerful connotations that can be conveyed through architectural layout, prominence, and juxtaposition.
“Entering the Great Hall, the visitor stands at the intersection of the museum’s principal axes. To the left is the collection of Greek and Roman Art; to the right, the Egyptian Collection …The Metropolitan’s iconographic programme establishes at the outset the overriding importance of the Western tradition, starting with Egypt…”
Duncan and Wallach suggest that the prominent placement of the Egyptian Wing to the right of the Museum’s grand entryway gives it importance and designates it as the starting place for its universal art historical narrative. But where is the other African art placed? It is grouped with the label, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in a more difficult to navigate area of the museum.
In museums around the world, Egyptian art often begins the narrative of Western civilization. We learn how the ancient Egyptians had a complex writing system, organized religion and government, agriculture and city planning, innovative medicine, and awe-inspiring art and architecture. We learn how Egyptian art inspired Greek art, which inspired Roman art, which inspired Renaissance art and art of the modern intellectual world.
African art is too often separated from this story of human advancement in “high art” through segmentation. Encyclopedic museums, including the likes of The Met (“Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas”), The British Museum (“Art of Africa”), The Vatican Museums (“Ethnographic Art”), and many others, have separate departments and exhibitions for “Egyptian art” versus “African art.” Exhibitions of African art tend to display work that has for some time been commonly referred to as “tribal” or “ritualistic,” such as masks and power figures. Sometimes, they carry connotations of appropriation of power by collectors who see the works as objects of fascination and intrigue rather than part of the predominant art historical canon. And, in Western art history courses, it’s more likely that students will learn about these African masks while studying Picasso than in an in-depth discussion of African culture and history.
I think it’s beyond time for museum professionals and board members to ask what it means to have “Egyptian art” separated as distinct from “African art” and lumped in with the story of “Western Art” and civilization. And, on the flip side, what would it mean if we called Egyptian art African art and called attention to the ancient and widely-recognized-as-illustrious history and art of Africa?
Is geography still the most thought-provoking and meaningful way to group art objects in an increasingly global and digital society that can access collections from anywhere? If we are sticking with geography groupings in encyclopedic museums, shouldn’t we make sure we are accurate in our representation?
There’s no better time than now, when museum doors are closed due to COVID-19, to take action to innovate and re-think and re-construct narratives. With the gift of time and with more accessible and interactive communications platforms than ever before, the sky is the limit when it comes to collaboration and the capability to engage meaningfully with audiences and constituents about the narratives and works they would like to see represented. Let’s not waste this opportunity.
“The museum is more than a location. It is a script that makes certain acts possible and others unthinkable.” — Philip Fisher
Philip Fisher, an expert on museums’ roles in shaping modern culture and author of Making and Effacing Art, talks about the power of the museum to re-contextualize objects, thereby reconstructing their meaning and function, “What had been riches became enrichment… As important as what I am calling the democratization of treasure are two Enlightenment forces: the idea of systematic ordering…and the use of special display as a form of education.” Here, he emphasizes the power of museums in influencing public perception through the decisions they make about what to display and how to display it. We cannot abuse this power. We can and should use this platform to advance equity.
When we think about the story of Africa, from ancient to present day, and all of its important contributions to global culture, we only have room to grow and be more inclusive and, in turn, be more inspired. Our shared human history and sense of connection will only be made stronger when Egyptian art is seen as African art.
As a former museum professional with a Master of Arts degree in Museum Studies, I am an avid advocate for museums. I believe they are vitally important, and, while I love them, they need to do better, and we, as a museum community, have a responsibility to do better.