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National Museum of African Art

Community, connection and activism at the National Museum of African Art

New director Ngaire Blankenberg on challenges, strategies and priorities in her new role.

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Ngaire Blankenberg, the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAA), has been a consultant for museums and cultural destinations around the world. She draws on a rich experience in finding innovative ways to connect cultural resources to new audiences, and a commitment to re-imagining the museums of the future.

A member of the African diaspora, Blankenberg has a proven track record in the systemic transformation of museums and cultural spaces to become more inclusive and more engaged in the community and society around them.

The National Museum of African Art

She tells blooloop:

“This is a big career shift for me. Prior to this job, I was a museum consultant. I called myself the ‘Museum Doctor’, and had a 15-year career working as a consultant with new museums around the world. Helping them expand their audiences, meet their vision, deal with operational issues, fix problems – the whole gamut. I worked with over 55 clients on all five continents, so a big breadth of experience.”

Before that, Blankenberg was a television producer:

“I keep changing careers every time I change jobs, just about. Now I’m thrilled to be the director of the National Museum of African Art in DC.”

‘The National Museum of the United States’

The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, 9 research centres, and affiliates around the world.

“It is, essentially, the national museum of the United States,” she says. “The National Museum of African Art was started by Warren Robbins, a collector and activist during the civil rights movement, who had a collection of African art.”

“At the time it was amazing that it was called ‘African art’. Many African art collections were called ‘history’ or ‘ethnography’, and not considered to be art, something that went along the devaluing of African peoples. But Warren Robbins pushed, and it became a national museum in 1964 in the US.”

Today, it has one of the most expansive collections in the world of both historical African art and contemporary art:

“It’s one of the Smithsonian’s smallest jewels,” Blankenberg says. “I think that we have an amazing experience. One that is about to get even more amazing with our collection of really quite fantastic African art”

A varied career

Blankenberg, despite a successful career in museum consultancy and planning, was excited to take on this role and to move to the States. She explains:

“Throughout my career, I have always been driven by the perhaps naive idea of making a change in the world. As a consultant, I work with amazing clients to come up with ideas on how to fix stuff or to make things better, but I don’t necessarily implement it myself.”

I have always been driven by the perhaps naive idea of making a change in the world.

“This is a challenge to myself, I suppose, and to everyone else, to see how far we can push the envelope around the transformation of museums. This is something that I’ve been pushing for my whole life. I believe we can do it. I believe I have the experience to do it, but it’s still a huge challenge.”

Developing strategies

Many of the museum projects in the past have involved a similar process to the one she will employ now:

“It is concerned partly with imagining about the future,” she explains:

“There is some research. A lot of it is understanding audiences, or imagining new audiences, looking at a collection, and trying to put together the pieces to find the best combination – for the moment or for the next 10, 20 years – for its audience. Even though the museum seems so disparate, the mental exercise of trying to figure out how to serve different audiences is actually not that dissimilar.”

Prior to this project, she was working on a project in AlUla, in Saudi Arabia:

“They are building something not dissimilar to the Smithsonian. I was working with a team from Paris called Manifesto on developing the contemporary art offer, whether that was public art, art residencies, or a strategy for the art museums.

“That wasn’t dissimilar to the work that I’m doing now. It involved asking, ‘Who are the locals, who are the tourists, who are the visitors? What is the value of this museum and what is the value of art? What is the value of the environment, the context, and how do you put them together?’”

Museums are not neutral

Museums, she says, are not neutral:

“As a consultant, I’m not neutral, either. Of course, I bring an element of my own politics and my own view as to what museums are for to all my projects. The thread that runs through it all is to empower and celebrate people, to bring people together. And, a lot of the time, to fight the powers that be.”

In terms of where the museum lies within the local community, she says:

“Washington is interesting. It is over 50% black, comprised of an African American community, but also an African diaspora community; it has the third biggest African immigrant community in the United States.”

Washington DC Cityscape National Museum of African Art

“We have a humongous constituency in Washington DC itself. This is a community museum as part of this Smithsonian family. One of my strategic goals is to serve a target audience that is a 21st-century global African audience, local in many different places, all over the world, including Washington DC.”

Museums and soft power

Museums, cities and soft power

Published in 2015, ‘Cities, Museums and Soft Power,’ the book Blankenberg co-wrote with fellow museum planner Gail Lord, focuses on how museums and cities address the issues of our time using ‘soft power,’ or the exercise of influence through attraction, persuasion, and agenda-setting.

She explains:

“It argues that museums can’t see themselves as outside of their geographic context, which is cities. Obviously, I see NMAA as being a key part of connecting to the artist community in DC. But at the same time, I also see us as being a local museum for many other places where global Africa resides. It’s about being ‘glocal’ to many different places.”

Learning from Lord

From 2008 – 2016, Blankenberg was European Director, Principal Consultant at Lord Cultural Resources, a global cultural consulting practice offering planning services for museums, art galleries, and other cultural institutions, working with president and co-founder, Gail Lord, of whom she says:

“I learned everything from agreeing with Gail and fighting with Gail. She is someone I still consider to be a mentor and friend. I learned an inordinate amount from her. There are a few actual lessons from her that I remember. One of them is not to under-rate the importance of the small things. I would be setting up workshops, and she would say, ‘Does everyone have paper? And when are we breaking for lunch? And does everyone have pens?’

“At the time, in my naivete, I wondered why the president of the company was occupied with these things. Until I was overseeing events and realised there is nothing like being thirsty, being hungry, having no light or paper, to derail a meeting. Those small things are extremely important.”

The National Museum of African Art: a tool for transforming society

gail lord museum influencer blooloop
Gail Lord

“I went into museums. At the time, I was working in South Africa, in edutainment television, and I always wanted to change the world. I was never into art history. Museums, for me, were a tool for the transformation of society.

“I think for Gail, that’s true as well. I was able to learn a kind of diplomacy, a strategy, a maturity; a sense of understanding the link between not activism, but perhaps changing the world, and the minuteness of consulting. I called it in the ‘radical minutiae.’ It’s in the minutiae that change often happens. I learned that from Gail.”

Collections at the National Museum of African Art

In terms of display and collections, she explains:

“NMAA will focus on contributing to a conversation of which Africa is a really important part. I don’t want to reduce that to themes. African artists are engaging, like all other artists, with issues of our day, of the past intersecting with the present, with the future, with issues of identity, issues of discrimination, of climate, of tradition, spirituality, the whole gamut.”

“Different African artists bring different perspectives from across the continent and the world to the work that they’re creating. It is important that those ideas, those images, those feelings, are included in global conversations. And that’s what we’re doing. We are amplifying the voice of our artists.”

Challenging classifications

Museums are, she says, products of the Enlightenment:

“They are a product of slavery, of racism, and of white supremacy. Everything about both museums and art history comes from that point of view. We are in a big process – not just me, but many, many others – of de-centring that.

When we talk about an African art museum, it’s not just about having a collection of art from Africa. It’s also about recentring African ontologies and epistemologies.

“And so when we talk about an African art museum, it’s not just about having a collection of art from Africa. It’s also about recentring African ontologies and epistemologies. It’s about challenging the European or Renaissance artificial divisions between science and art, between faith and reason. The whole exercise of classification is [rooted in] a Western European system of thought that we at the NMAA are being challenged to unravel, to decentre a little bit.”

New strategy for the National Museum of African Art

Blankenberg is setting priorities for the museum:

“Much of what I do is about looking at power, and how power works within institutions. Who gets to define a narrative, which is what museums do; whose conversations are we having? Who creates the public spaces for who to congregate in? Those are all questions that I interrogate: trying to understand how museums work, and how, often, they inadvertently create spaces of exclusion or spaces of alienation for a lot of people.”

She has, therefore, set four key strategic priorities:

“One is to transform the NMAA to a 21st-century global African art museum, with all that means, including decolonising the museum.

“One is about really looking at how art can have an impact on people today, and on things that people care about today. Particularly in the realm of wellness and health, and in the mental health of racialised people across the world.

“One of them is about serving our audiences virtually and physically equally, because we have such a dispersed audience.”

Accountability

“The final priority, of course, is a culture of accountability, responsiveness, and experimentation. My job is concerned with helping us hit those priorities, and looking at how we do that.”

She adds:

“Right now, all the projects that we’ve got going on are about how we document the nature of the job is that the registrar is doing, how the ways and the terms that we use for documentation perpetuate a sense of white supremacy; they are about looking at protocols of care and conservation, and who decides what should be saved and what should not be saved, and how long something should be saved.”

“In the engagement department, who is our target audience? Who do we look out to? In visitor services, who greets whom? What are the spaces of our museum?

“My training in understanding every little aspect of the museum, from what security does, what a conservator does, what the facilities do, what a curator, a librarian, a registrar, does, really comes in good stead now, because I’m interrogating every single aspect of that. I have seen how those pieces can fit together to create unintended outcomes that work against the outcomes that I think our museum, and all museums, should be striving for.”

Technology and museums

She is also defining the museum’s position with regard to the role that technology plays.

Blankenberg, in partnership with Ali Hossaini, edited the Manual of Digital Museum Planning, which came out in 2017. She comments:

“When we talk about the digital transition, it’s not just exhibition interactives. It’s also the way we work, it’s also who has access to our collection. It’s also every aspect of digital. I was working very actively in the nineties when digital was the great panacea; everything was a 100% digitised collection and a bunch of touch tables.”

When we talk about the digital transition, it’s not just exhibition interactives. It’s also the way we work, it’s also who has access to our collection.

“Even before COVID, that was not necessarily true; a conversation can often be more effective than an interactive.

“Technology is incredible in museums, and it’s really important for us with our huge audience all over the world. African youth across the continent are probably the biggest mobile phone users, as their sole medium of accessing a lot of things. We believe in technology, but not for technology’s sake.”

The digital journey at The National Museum of African Art

Technology means museums can give the public access to all their works rather than the small amount they can have on display at any one time. However, Blankenberg says:

“This is something I’m always challenging people about. Just because everybody can access your collection online doesn’t mean they’re going to, and nor do they necessarily want to. Who wants to know this information? Why do they want to know, how can we make it easier, and what are we doing alongside that?”

“I believe in challenging a lot of sacred cows like that. I do find that there’s not a huge amount of thought that goes into the entire visitor journey when it comes to accessing digital. As a sector, we need to boost that.”

Museums are spaces of community

Museums, she maintains, are a combination of the people, the buildings, and the collections:

“We get different things from a physical or a digital visit. You have to go to museums to get the benefit of all those things together. But some art can be seen far better on your screen.”

She is not, she explains, a museum purist:

“I don’t feel you have to be by yourself in a white room communing with the art. I think that these experiences are constructed.”

Instead:

“I believe in museums as being places of community, of connection, of restoration – and of activism.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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