The Fleming Museum’s African and Ancient Egyptian Gallery was installed almost thirty years ago. Outdated maps and labels reflect legacies of colonial collecting and scholarship, in which African art and cultural belongings are decontextualized and framed as curiosities or trophies. Throughout the Fall 2020 semester, we will be rolling out a series of new labels and quotes that acknowledge and share these critiques with our visitors. This intervention is a first step toward being transparent about the racist and imperialist foundations of the Fleming Museum and actively facilitating input from multiple perspectives. “Toward” is a key part of the title of this intervention; much work remains to be done in advance of an ambitious reinstallation of these collections in a new anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist gallery.
Western museums, including the Fleming, have been bearers of racist, imperialist, and colonialist attitudes, reinforced and communicated to the public in the ways that objects are collected and displayed. The circumstances in which objects were originally acquired by donors is often unknown; in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many objects were acquired through the violent and coercive forces of colonialism. Present-day communities of African-descended peoples are rarely consulted in telling their own stories about their material heritage. Museums have often presented global material culture as ethnographic, rather than as fine artistic production on par with that of Western cultures.
What you will see on the walls of this gallery are critiques drawn from the Fleming staff’s own examination of our history, as well as the work of students in Professor Vicki Brennan’s Spring 2020 course “African Gods/Western Museums.” Their pointed comments and questions reflect the key role our UVM community plays in pushing us to change. Visitors will be able to add their own questions, responses, and ideas about this critical intervention, which will inform our planned reinstallation of the gallery.