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Christine Barrera

The Power of Museums

“Into the Heart of Africa” was a very controversial Royal Ontario Museum exhibit

because it was a historic exhibit that presented an important time in history, Canadian

colonialism, yet it presents this in a way that, Michel-Rolph Trouillot would agree,

contains many silences of Africans and acts of power by the dominating white Canadians.

The exhibition, created by curator Jeanne Cannizzo, displayed the 19th century

colonialism of Canada in Africa. Many of the artifacts came from missionaries who

brought back meaningful African artifacts in a spirit similar to one who buys a Mickey

Mouse hat from Disney Land; they were souvenirs. “Collectively, they left nothing in

Africa which struck them as valuable” (Totor, 39). These stolen artifacts, as well as

photographs glorified Imperialists such as Dr. Livingstone and the suffering Africans,

were put together to recreate the racist views of 19th century Canada. Cannizzo explains

that the goal of the exhibition was to present the ludicrous views of Canada’s past as they

were, through irony of racist terms as might have been used in Colonial Canada, as

Cannizzo quotes Globe and Mail, “One had to be very literate and sophisticated to

appreciate the show as the curator intended” (Cannizzo, 158). Of course this was not the

presentation that the curators, Cannizzo and Young, intended for the exhibition. It opened

for Black History Month along with other types of planned events that celebrated the

month through dance or lecture.

The exhibition opening went well, in fact multiple groups of people of the black

community in Canada were consulted before the exhibition opened, and the museum

made changes they felt to be adequate. The curators, Cannizzo and Young, felt the racist
aspect was taken care of, and once the exhibition opened they were willing to negotiate to

a certain extent. In fact, the negotiating is what Young feels was a mistake made by the

museum, “We should have defended the exhibitionion more vigorously and probably we

should have politely ‘attacked’ the coalition. Yet we hoped to negotiate with them to

solve everyone’s problems…” (Young, 184). What was so unthinkable about the protests

to Cannizzo and Young was “the issue of intellectual freedom for institutions like

museums… We do not give this kind of power [of the protestors] to our elected

governments…” (Young). The curators felt that it was ridiculous of the public to think

that negotiations concerning the exhibition should happen because museums have the

liberty to display anything they please. That the exhibition was racist and demeaning was

not the entire community’s opinion, and in fact those who completely disagreed with the

exhibition were a relatively small amount, Cannizzo quotes, “Few of these 20 groups

[protesting] appear to be fully constituted and broadly representative organizations”

(Cannizzo, 157). The fact that the exhibitionion caused protest was alarming, and

unthinkable to Young and Cannizzo. The exhibitionion asked a question the curators may

not have realized, a question predating the Enlightenment which is “what is man?”

(Trouillot, 82). In Medieval times a social hierarchy was formed in which white men

were on top, and through time it only gained momentum and popularity. The Colonial

period, of which the exhibitionion presents, “provided the most potent impetus for the

transformation of European ethnocentrism into scientific racism” (Trouillot, 77). The

protesters felt to present this backwards viewpoint is not moving forward, but Cannizzo

felt they had moved forward enough to objectively remember this Canadian past, with

detachment.
The exhibitionion is only a display of how things were in Colonial Canada, but

the seemingly simple display contains many silences that have remained through modern

times. Because the ROM exhibition used what Trouillot calls the constructivist history

method to create the exhibitionion, they included mainly one-sided personal or possibly

fictional accounts of missionaries and soldiers of Canada’s colonial history in Africa. This

type of history includes many silences of the African viewpoint because it is a very

biased viewpoint. Many of the African artifacts were included in the “Into the Heart of

Africa” exhibitionion, and Cannizzo is appropriately a specialist in African art so a

general identity of the objects could be included like “material, function or significance in

the originating African culture” (Cannizzo, 154). This information is very general,

however, and silences many aspects of the culture from which the objects came.

“Through this process of acquisition, the true meaning and significance of these artifacts

in the lives of the African peoples was decontexualized and lost” (Totor, 38). Like

Trouillot suggests, Colonialists in Africa were only interested in the “perfectibility of

subhuman.” The Colonialists concentrated on making the black African people into

Christians, or they concentrated on taking the Africans over as slaves which kept

everyone in their appropriate spot in the social hierarchy. Either way, their important

pieces of life and art were silenced in the exhibitionion because, even though basic

factual information was included about the art, the details and feelings were lost. For

example, a pen and ink drawing in the exhibitionion was called “Livingstone’s Last

March” in which he is being carried on a sling by two African men. In the exhibitionion,

there was hardly any mention of the African acts of resistance, or the way they suffered.

Even in photographs the Africans “seemed not to be contesting their oppression in any
way… yet many times… African peoples resisted imperial domination both physically

and in writing” (Totor, 44). The omission of African resistance in the exhibition easily

suggests that their resistance was non-existent, and such a presentation trivializes their

struggle and even the whole historicity of their oppression. The lack of human aspects of

Africans in the exhibition shows racist images that support the argument of inhumanness

of Africans, and even 100 years after the photos are taken, “worldview wins over fact”

(Trouillot, 93). The modern presentation of colonialism was and can be easily persuasive

to a more racist view. Irony was used in the exhibition as a supposedly obvious and easily

decipherable silence. Though irony clearly and purposefully shows bias in the

exhibitionion, it was neither clear to everyone nor politically correct in such a public

space. School children were likely unable to recognize the irony used in the captions on

exhibits, and it is especially difficult for them when the tour guides do not understand the

irony or have their own biased opinion, and were “unable to explain or interpret the

exhibits without sharing their racist assumptions and understandings of the displays”

(Totor, 44). Since the tour guides did not understand the irony and may not have even

thought the exhibition to be ironic, the exhibitionion becomes a real display of racism. As

Trouillot says, “how literally can we take the claim that there is no life beyond the text?”

(Trouillot, 145). The simple punctuation marks that provide the boundary between irony

and fact which gives the exhibitionion a whole new meaning. The small marks

completely change the perspective with which the exhibit captions are read. “Irony

requires a degree of coolness, a measure of distance on the part of the perceiver in order

to succeed. That distance comes easily to those whose history has not been one of brutal

oppression” (Austin-Smith, 52) The majority of the viewers, white people, were able to
look at the exhibition with more detachment and see it more as a historical insight to

Colonial Canada. Others, like the racist tour guides found it an authentic example from

the past, of truths of the present. It is more complicated for people of African descent to

feel detachment because their horrendous past is still close to the present in their minds.

This is because even though everyone is free and of equal status in the present, it is not so

in everyone’s mind. Trouillot gives an example of racism in the United States, which is

comparable to the blacks in Canada, “Slavery here is a ghost, both the past and a living

presence; and the problem of historical representation is how to represent that ghost,

something that is and yet is not” (Trouillot, 147). Slavery happened a long time ago, but it

has influenced life today in many ways, even if only as the memory of that past event. In

that way, slavery is a ghost, and it is still here today. It is something that is dealt with

everyday in some form whether it is through discrimination or remembering what

happened. Slavery was ended many years ago, and is over, but there is a challenge still of

how to acknowledge the memory, the ghost, of slavery.

Trouillot would agree that for this reason the exhibition is too close to the present

for it to be successful. Through the many layers of silences and photographs the

exhibitionion is proving the inferiority of blacks. A Klan member would find the

exhibitionion as an honest remembrance of history, and accurate and truthful. It is an act

of power by whites, though Cannizzo and Young did not realize they were creating yet

another act of power over blacks. There are many different ways of presenting history

and many methods of collecting it, Cannizzo and Young take a manipulated view of

history and change it yet further so Africans are silenced in modern times as well. “This
does not suggest that history is never honest but rather it is always confusing because of

its constituting mixes” (Trouillot, 140).

Bibliography

Cannizzo, Jeanne. “Exhibiting Cultures: Into the Heart of Africa.” Visual Anthropology

Review 7(1) 1991, pp. 150-160.

Totor, Carol; Henry, Francis; Mattis Winston. 1998. “Into the Heart of Africa.” In

Challenging Racism in the Arts: Case Studies of Controversy and Conflict.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Touillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past – Power and the Production of History. 1995.

Beacon Press, Boston.

Austin-Smith, B. “Into the Heart of Irony.” Canadian Dimension 24(7) 1990, pp. 51-52.

Young, T.C., Jr. “Into the Heart of African: The Director’s Perspective.” Curator 36 (3)

1993, pp. 174-188.