Out of Africa

Harvard’s African art deserves a permanent exhibit in the new Quincy Street museum

A recent student-made petition has brought to light the fact that Harvard art museums, while displaying an impressive collection of traditional Western art, have no permanent exhibitions of African art. The dearth in exhibits cannot be attributed to a dearth in African art itself—the Fogg and the Peabody museums are both home to several collections of African art that have remained in storage for years. The survey calls for a permanent African art gallery and condemns the “archaic, racist views that are causing these collections to be ignored.” As the Harvard University Art Museums move forward with their plans for the organization and development of new museums, we echo the survey’s call for a permanent gallery for African art, though we find the claim of “archaic, racist views” to be extravagant.

While many of our peer institutions like Yale and Stanford have permanent exhibits, many structural considerations seem to have hampered the Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM). According to Daron J. Manoogian, the Director of Communications for HUAM, only one percent of the nearly 260,000 pieces in collection are displayed in galleries. Given the limited space, significant structural constraints have also led to the exclusion of Native American, Latin American, and Oceanic art collections.

The Fogg is the only museum out of Harvard’s three that is not devoted to a specific region, while the Busch-Reisinger houses Northern and Central European art and the Sackler houses Islamic and Asian art. Despite this regional freedom, however, the Fogg is still limited by various space constraints and endowments that come with stipulations. For example, the Winthrop Collection, the largest of several important donations, was given to Harvard under the condition that a certain portion be displayed at all times. Thus, the absence of African art exhibits at Harvard is more a matter of structural limitations than overt racism, as the petition charges.

While the past museum arrangements may not have been conducive to the inclusion of African art, there is no better time for change than the present. HUAM has announced the consolidation of its three museums into one newly renovated museum at the current site of the Fogg on 32 Quincy Street, slated for completion in 2013. It is also developing a museum of modern and contemporary art for the planned Allston campus. At a time when the entire structure of the museum is being reshuffled, the creation of a permanent African art exhibit is more feasible today than it ever will be. Although we acknowledge the complexity of the museum structure, we would encourage the creation of such an exhibit, as well as a curator of African art, who would assume responsibility for the purchase and exhibition of Harvard’s sizeable African art collection. So long as there are no advocates for African art within the museum system, there will be no voice to speak for the artistic merits of exhibiting of African art.

Elizabeth S. Nowak ’10, the creator of the petition for the exhibition of African art, says that displaying African art at Harvard would be a powerful testament to the validity of African art. “A lot of statements the university makes resonate throughout the world,” Nowak says. “If we only emphasize the significance of art in certain cultures, we perpetuate racism.”

Whatever its intentions, the museum system as it exists has indeed been responsible for the exclusion of numerous collections of ethnic art. If the problem is not rectified in light of the new Quincy Street museum, Harvard is complicit in the neglect of art that is viable, interesting, and worthy of public viewing.

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