Monday, 14 July 2014

A strange encounter in the Museum

Native Congolese 'medicine' man
It was an intensely bright and sunny afternoon in New York City. Perfect weather for a tourist.  And perfect timing for me to strike the Natural History Museum off my bucket list.

Imposing building. Larger-than-life dinosaurs. Gargantuan elephant. First impressions looked good.

I paid for a ticket. Glided towards the Hall of African Peoples, which was one of the opening exhibits.

Time to relish the sights and sounds, and fill my memory bank with fabulous images. Or so I thought.

The next moment, I was scanning the room, looking for witches. Witches? Well, yes...

The little girl beside me had just asked her parents "Are these the witches?"

Her parents chuckled at her guileless question. It did sound funny to be honest. Just that, I wasn't laughing.


I was more curious about the genesis of the question. What connections had she made in her five or six-year-old mind that linked the displays to witches? What factors were molding her thought patterns and colouring the lens through which she viewed the world?

I really didn't want to engage in mental gymnastics, deconstructions and dialectics, so I tried to let it slide. Mark my words: I tried. It was very difficult to achieve cognitive dissonance. Nothing seemed to be value-free: the stuffed animals, artifacts (were they bought, taken, or gifts?), costumes, gods (often vindictive), priests, medicine men, half-truth inscriptions (who wrote these things?) and so on.

African gods (Natural History Museum, NYC)
At the same, the displays from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, NorthWest Coast Indians and other parts of the world, were a refreshing reminder of the beauty in diversity. The intricate designs of the carvings, costumes and relics were a testament to the mindblowing creativity we possess as human beings, and that no one person, people or region have a monopoly of inventiveness and innovation.


As an African, I couldn't help but wonder: why is it so easy to find so much of Africa in museums abroad, but so little of Africa in Africa? My statement might border on ignorance, but I haven't noticed illustrious African museums showcasing relics from Pre-Colonial Africa, past kingdoms, heroic historical figures and national feats. But, I stand to be corrected.

Hunting tools (NYC)
I guess different people place different values on the past and on history. At the end of the day, you can only treasure what you value.

My one hour peregrination through the museum was both fascinating and thought-provoking. I came away feeling good because it occurred to me, regardless of the labels attached to a group of people, their culture, practices and so on, history is like a multifacted prism. It has many faces and interpretations. There is no almighty  explanation of history that supercedes every other translation.
Everyone has the right and the freedom to construe their own meaning.

Please leave a comment - thank you!


  1. Uchenna Felicia Ugwu18 July 2014 at 05:47

    Ha ha ha, thank you Fresh Angle for the fantastic pictures. That the little girl was asking her parents if these were the witches? I don't find so surprising. Simply because a lot of people connect Africa with witchcraft, poverty and disease. (Not that such connections have no basis). However as rightly pointed out, that isn't the summary of what Africa is about. As to seeing so little of Africa in Africa, this stems partially from the lack of infrastructure and institutions in place (such as museums) to record such things, but more I think from the fact that many Africans do not value their culture and traditions. Rather they despise the latter and in their dressing, speech, music and other things do their best to be as un-traditional as possible. Another reason could be that African culture is right here with us: people visit the medicine man every day, they carry clay pots and use mortars in cooking all the time, so there is a lot of Africa in daily African living. Those who are interested are invited for a visit to get an original taste!

    1. Felicia, I enjoyed reading your comments. You made some great points. We live history in our every day lives, so we are not so nostalgic about the past. Would still be nice if we could preserve some relics for posterity. Because, just like you said, culture is very fluid & we are increasingly becoming Westernized. Thanks for the great input.