Afua Cooper went to see the Royal Ontario Museum’s Into the Heart of Africa exhibition four times when it ran in 1989 — and it wasn’t because she enjoyed it.
She had quite the opposite reaction to it, in fact. She found it so disturbing on first visit that she returned for a second look with pen and paper in hand. A master’s student in history at the University of Toronto at the time, she then enlisted some colleagues and friends to join her on the subsequent visits to see if they shared her view.
“It showed Africans always in a subservient position,” says Dr. Cooper, now the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie. “What I remember is feeling a range of emotions: sadness, anger, frustration.”
She was so upset by the exhibit’s overtly racist tone that she was moved to protest, first through writing letters and sending petitions to the museum administration to open discussions about problems with the show. When those efforts failed, she and others who shared her sentiment took to the sidewalk outside the museum with placards.
A formal apology
Dr. Cooper returned to visit the ROM last week, 27 years after the protests she helped lead, this time as one of the individuals invited to attend a reconciliation event that included a formal apology from the museum for the exhibit.
"The exhibition displayed images and words that showed the fundamentally racist ideas and attitudes of early collectors and, in doing so, unintentionally reproduced the colonial, racist and Eurocentric premises through which these collections had been acquired," the ROM said in a statement, which was read aloud at the event by Mark Engstrom, the museum’s deputy director.
The museum added that the exhibition “perpetuated an atmosphere of racism” and expressed “deep regret for having contributed to anti-African racism” that caused suffering for members of African-Canadian community.
Other museum officials, including its CEO and the chair of its board, attended last Wednesday’s event, as did several other members of the Coalition for the Truth about Africa (CFTA) that Dr. Cooper helped form in 1989 to lead the protests.
While museum officials insisted at the time that the show was created in an “ironic tone” and was actually meant as a criticism of imperialism, Dr. Cooper says the irony was lost on everyone, including the many white school-age children who went to the museum. To her and the many others, it was a perpetuation of the racist stereotypes of Africa as a dark and lost continent.
“People were devastated, I think because it was the modern, post-colonial age,” she says. “It felt like a throwback to 1885 Berlin conference when Africa was divided.”
Dr. Cooper says the protests had several significant impacts at the time. Four other major museums in North America that had reserved the exhibition cancelled it after the outrage, and the ROM itself began to consult closely with different cultural communities in planning its exhibits thereafter.
Advocacy work remains an important part of Dr. Cooper’s life and her mission as JRJ Chair at Dal. In the fall of 2014, she was motivated to renew CFTA’s efforts to push for a formal response from the ROM during an impromptu meeting with colleagues in Montreal. That’s when the idea of approaching the ROM for an apology arose.
“It means a lot to me, personally,” she says of the museum’s willingness to issue such a strong statement, adding that it has removed a burden from the African-Canadian community and allowed people to exhale. “It’s an acknowledgment that a wrong happened.”
Dr. Cooper is also pleased with a number of other initiatives that have arisen out of the two-year reconciliation process that led to the apology. The ROM has committed to taking steps to strengthen collaboration with African-Canadian communities by improving partnerships with Black educational networks, creating opportunities for training Black youth interested in museums, and by providing continued support of events and lectures centred on themes of Africa and the Diaspora.
Dr. Cooper hopes that initiatives such as these will ensure better representations of African history and societies in the museum of the future. Indeed, as she says of Into the Heart of Africa: “We could have used the same artifacts and told a different story.”
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