Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ontario Royal Museum: Into the Heart of Africa. (An example of Political-Correctness Gone Wrong?) By Christine Albrecht

Twenty-five years ago Jeanne Cannizzo resigned from her position as curator for the Royal Ontario Museum. She had been hired on contract as a guest curator, and the “Into the Heart of Africa” display was her first big exhibit. Cannizzo debuted the collection in November 1989, yet by March 1990, she had submitted her resignations to the Museum as well as the University of Toronto. Surprisingly, her resignations were accepted without question; no offers of financial compensation to ensure she stay. Furthermore, Cannizzo did not pursue criminal action against those who vandalized her home, nor against those who disrupted her class and verbally harassed her from her career.  The latter culminated in a guard escort home from the university, and a faxed resignation. Cannizzo went on to leave Canada to teach in the British Isles. 

I realize that one should never use ‘ignorance’ as defense for one’s actions, but I feel that both Cannizzo and the Canadian public were guilty of reactions steeped in ignorance and naivety. The museum was initially happy with November’s uneventful opening and moderately good reviews. However, by March 1990, a group appeared and publicly denounced the exhibit as profoundly racist. This announcement was delivered by the (questionable) Coalition for the Truth about Africa (CTAA), via Ontario’s Ministry of Citizenship. The demonstrators and pickets initially demanded changes to artifact labeling, along with removal of several violent images. However, by May, the demands became more radical. They were demanding an inclusion of the contribution of specific Africans to medicine, mathematics, science, etc. This did not fit with the premise of the exhibit, to show Canadian colonial attitudes at the time; but the protestors were adamant. Anti-exhibitors also demanded (along with the previous changes) the curator to be someone of African descent, thus inferring a form of reverse racism. Finally, the CTAA demanded a public apology and closure of the exhibit.

To determine what the demonstration was about, or why there was such an extreme reaction to Into the Heart of Africa, one must also take the pulse of Canadian society at the time. Canadians were in the midst of political correctness. Thus, prior to installation, the Royal Ontario Museum intentionally hired a Ugandan-Canadian publicist to assist Jeanne Cannizzo. The Museum also hired an African-Canadian art organizer to help Jeanne plan the exhibit. (Interesting that no one denounced or challenged the exclusion of these men during Jeanne’s public humiliation, or included them during accusations of Cannizzo being racist. Perhaps this is because the hired helpers were African-Canadian, another inclination of the CTAA’s reversed gender and racial bias.

Four months before opening, black leaders were invited to The Royal Ontario Museum’s presentation of the exhibit’s purpose; advertising and promotional materials were tested on a core group of African-Canadians. Thanks to feedback from this proactive approach, the title of the exhibit was changed from “Into the Heart of Darkness”, to “Into the Heart of Africa”. Despite Canada’s claims as being a gun-free, tolerant, society, Toronto was in the public eye because of recent controversy over several police shootings of black youth. Media talking heads were denouncing policemen as being racist. Anything that appeared remotely politically incorrect was routinely held up and publically denounced. All of this was happening at the same time as Cannizzo was attempting to organize an exhibit on Canada’s historic relationship with Africa.

Once Cannizzo received and incorporated feedback from the special interest groups, she could focus on the installation. Her main train of thought was how to show the public how a ritualistic African object could come into missionary hands, then furthermore be determined as museum worthy? What should be the criteria? What was the artifact’s history? Previously, the Museum would acquire and display aboriginal collections, usually chronologically or by regional band. The present African collection was the result of individual donations, over the years, rather than a directed and predetermined acquisition. Subsequently, a single topic, title, focus, theme, or chronology, could not be agreed upon as the objects were from all over Africa, throughout the years.

Cannizzo concluded that the exhibit should reflect the attitudes of the collectors at the time of collection. Therefore the actual wording of the persons involved would become the object’s narrative. The aim was that the viewer would feel shame and disgust at the racist entitlement the colonial collectors held. Again, Jeanne’s ignorance overshadowed reality, as Cannizzo truly believed the viewers would instantly recognize the racist narrative, and is able to understand implicitly it was not present day narrative.

In our current environment of not wanting to offend anybody, Jeanne set about arranging the African collection. She attempted to separate the 375 objects into similar groupings, e.g.: British, Military, Religious, etc. and she displayed the actual text from the artifact’s accompanying historical papers. To ensure the viewer’s understanding, Cannizzo used quotation marks to separate the ‘views of the past’ from the usual museum narrative. Despite all of its politically correct preparation, people actually viewed the exhibit’s quoted texts as being literal and current. Visitors felt that the quotes were merely a re-inscription of racist attitudes that the Museum held! Jeanne Cannizzo mistakenly assumed the Canadian public was intelligent enough to view the exhibit ’s artifacts, and historical texts, for being the misguided, racist arrogance they were. In hindsight, she was na├»ve in her overestimation of museum visitors’ unconditional racial acceptance. By adding a strong moral narrative (that she purposely avoided, thinking people didn’t like being told what to think) to each grouping, Cannizzo could have highlighted the historical level of racism presented.

In its review, The Globe and Mail claimed “One had to be literate and sophisticated to view it as the curator intended”. Jeanne Cannizzo felt so sure that the public would view the many images the way she did, that they wouldn’t even need the accompanying text. In fact, several items clearly stated Cannizzo’s opposition to the racist, Colonial view. She didn’t understand how people could arrive at any viewpoint other than a non-judgmental one.  Again, the newspapers solved some of the mystery by observing that the average Museum viewer did NOT bother to read any of the text. Once again, blame ignorance for Jeanne overlooking a viewer’s refusal to read accompanying text.

This is a solid example of political-correctness-gone-wrong, and I am annoyed that a woman’s career and life was forcibly disrupted because some vocal people don’t understand irony, or cannot ‘read between the lines’. These uninformed protestors were incapable of independent thought, and succumbed to mob mentality. Because a squeaky wheel (CTAA) was demanding politically correct oil, the general Canadian public allowed an exhibit to be publicly censored; ensured the exhibit would not make money via future rentals; and commandeered the departure of a talented curator. The last insult was that the African objects were removed from public view and hidden away.

Ivan Karp wrote a book on such occurrences called, “Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display”. A quote that I appreciate and I feel brings some understanding to people’s personal reactions is by Brenda Austin Smith who says, “It is difficult to remain detached from depictions of racism “in history” when racism itself is not history?”

No comments: