When the new Africa galleries at the MIA open to the public on Sunday, November 10, you may wonder where these objects have been all your life. These drums, these masks. Some, in fairness, you never knew: they were recently acquired. Others you just never saw for what they were: objects meant not to be hung on a wall but danced, played, worn. And now, for the first time, you can fully appreciate them.
That doesn’t mean they’ll be worn or played. But the designers of the new African galleries have pulled the masks off the walls and set them in glass cases for a nearly 360-degree experience, then arranged them in a kind of wavy spine, evoking movement, as if in a dance. And they’ve broken other art museum taboos—namely the white gallery box—painting the walls, raising the ceiling and exposing it. You can’t just stand in the gallery, spin around, and see everything there is to see; you have to move, dance if you like. It’s a brave new immersive art world.
Also part of this re-installation is the first use of iPads in the galleries, something only the Art Institute of Chicago has done in a major way, offering virtual interaction with the objects and video backstories. And there’s a giant touchscreen to play with, a map of Africa you can tap to reveal photos and context on everything from ivory carving to dancing to the slave trade. As looking at screens becomes the default way to gather information, expect more such technology up front in galleries, not just tucked into carrels.
Of course, it’s the art itself that’s most memorable. When the museum’s curator of African art, Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, arrived at the MIA in 2008, there were no drums in the collection (there are now four), and religious art was divorced from the African displays (both Islamic and Christian art now factor heavily in the new galleries). It’s a sea change in a community with growing African connections, and it should challenge any preconceptions you have about art museums.