The Black Body - Research Seminar 15 January 2007 with Dr. Joan Anim-Addo

One of the issues museum professionals and academics in the museum field continuously need be aware of, is the production and reproduction of the ‘real’, which happens inside the museum walls. With the task of selecting, persevering and displaying objects, the museum is placed in a role where ideology, representation and power are concepts, which need to be taken seriously. Joan Anim-Addo has devoted most of her carrier to engage with these subjects, and at the research seminar she presented her ideas about the black body in museums. Joan has been working intensively on especially the black Caribbean body and how it is represented in museums.

As an entrance to the topic, Joan asked us to produce a museum label for an African object continuing to discuss how these objects often are seen as representing something primitive or naive, essentially understanding African culture as lower and less complex than the Western culture. This is a very racist understanding and by sustaining this categorisation the museum is in fact a place for racial oppression. Well aware of these implications, as the good museum researchers we are, none in the seminar actually produced labels implying this, however perhaps it was significant that most of us had great difficultly in actually saying anything about the object, relying instead on open questions such as ‘what do you think it is?’, leaving the museum guest with the dilemma of creating the representation herself. Are we in a stage where we afraid of making misrepresentation and therefore shy way from making any at all? Or perhaps this exercise just showed the newer approach within museum learning to engage the visitor in meaning making?

Joan continued discussing the need for (quoting Jeanne Cannizzo, guest curator at the Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibit Into the heart of Africa) ‘studying the museum as an artifact, reading collections as cultural texts, and discovering life histories of objects’. When investigating what the museums do and what narratives are told, it becomes clear that many museums only make meaning for specific people. The perspective from which culture and history is seen belong to the European white male, often other people and races cannot recognize the representation they see displayed in the museum. First of all what is need is an understanding of the bias and racism of many museum collections and the ideologies and perspectives that they represent. Secondly an investigation of the complexities of cross-cultural encounters and how they can be displayed in the museum. Joan presented her own work in the research group ‘The Black body in Europe’ explaining the fact that the black body is viewed very differently across Europe.

The seminar was very interesting and it is clear that even though the museum has been subject to a lot of deconstruction and discourse analysis the past 20 years the issues of race and also gender is still important and need to be addressed.


Hi Mette - many thanks for doing this review. It sounds like it was an inspiring and thought-provoking seminar. Sad to have missed it.

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