by Casey Haughin, ’19
*Spoiler Warning: opening sequence plot details discussed in article*
The seminal film Black Panther has become an international sensation in the week following its release. Notable for its impeccable dialogue, witty banter, and nearly all POC cast, Black Panther provides a platform to discuss a multitude of topics on a national scale. With issues such as police brutality, the ever-present effects of slavery in Western society, and black identity approached in the film, it is easy to gloss over one of the more exposition-driven scenes of the film that engages with the complicated relationship between museums and audiences affected by colonialism.
Killmonger, the Wakandan-American who aims to take the throne to avenge his father and liberate the black world using vibranium technology, is introduced in the film as an adult while surveying the collection of West African artifacts in a fictional British museum. Clearly, this is referencing the British Museum, but uses the facade of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta for the exterior. A flustered white, female curator runs up to talk to him about the collection, describing the items in a patient and patronizing tone. They move through a few artifacts, him asking questions and her spouting off answers about their “discovery.” When she comes to one item, an axe, Killmonger corrects her assessment of where it is from and states that the item is Wakandan. He then tells her he is going to take it with him. She becomes flustered and tells him that the items are not for sale. Killmonger then becomes visibly angry with the curator, asking her if she thinks her ancestors bought them fairly. He then goes on to say that the guards had been watching him closely since he walked in, more concerned about his black body in the space of the museum than she was about the coffee in her hand that he had poisoned. The scene ends with the museum staff dead, and Killmonger leaving the scene with the vibramium weapon and a mask he dons in later scenes.
The scene takes no more than five minutes of the movie, and the tension between colonial history and race only escalates from that point on. However, we as museum professionals need to talk about the inclusion of this scene, especially regarding its function in a film that was cut from nearly four hours long in its first iteration to a solid two, a film that so many young people will see and one that is poised to become a cultural touchstone. The museum is presented as an illegal mechanism of colonialism, and along with that, a space which does not even welcome those whose culture it displays.
And is there anything incorrect about that?
It is worth considering the aspects of the scene that are realities in the modern museum. African artifacts such as those shown in the film’s museum are likely taken from a home country under suspicious circumstances, such as notable artifacts in real-life Britain like the Benin bronzes which now reside at the British Museum. It is often the case that individuals will know their own culture as well as or better than a curator, but are not considered valuable contributors because they lack a degree. People of color are less represented in museum spaces, and often experience undue discrimination while entering gallery spaces. Finally, museums are experiencing an influx of white women filling staff roles, leading to homogenized viewpoints, and lack senior staff with diverse backgrounds. With these truths represented in such a short but poignant scene, the tension between audiences and institutions is played out to the extreme.
It is uncomfortable for many institutions to even broach the subject of the museum’s complicated relationship with audiences of color, but Black Panther has created an impeccable opportunity for institutions to begin a dialogue with their community. So many people will see this film; the scene may only reinforce their conception of museums, or it may open their eyes to the realities of the complicated relationship between the universal museum and colonialism, and museums need to be prepared to actively engage with this topic rather than avoiding the uncomfortable truths that are now out in the open on cinema screens.
The first step after this movie is to publicly confirm the reality of the situation; museums need to step up and acknowledge the fact that Killmonger’s anger in the exhibition and the experience he had were not entirely fictionalized, but rather a magnification of museum practices in the modern world. The next step is to listen. Listen to people of color, to communities, and to whole countries who see themselves both robbed by and cast out from international institutions. By communicating openly with the audience of a museum, professionals can determine how better to adapt their practices and make the institution a place that is relevant and respectful for all visitors. Until a truly symbiotic dialogue is established, this scene in Black Panther will represent the reality of museum politics where fact is truly more alarming than any fiction.
*Edit: 24 Feb 2018: East African artifacts corrected to West African artifacts.
*Edit: 1 Mar 2018: ‘half-Wakandan’ corrected to ‘Wakandan-American.’