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Behind the Scenes at the National Museum of African Art

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Today’s guest blog post is by AAA Summer Intern, Jalene Regassa.

Earth Matters! That is the title of a current exhibition at the National Museum of African Art (NMAFA). During my first week as a curatorial intern at the museum, I walked through this exhibition as any tourist would do. I read some of the tablets explaining about the artists and their art works in order to get the general idea of the exhibition and how each piece fit into the bigger message. Of course, I was also trying to make use of my critical eye afforded to me by my Anthropology education. However, I left the exhibition feeling unsure about some of the pieces and wondering if I understood their meaning to the full extend. Lucky for me, I was not left to wonder for too long as I was given the opportunity to join a guided tour by the curator of the exhibition, Karen Milbourne.   It was surprising, exciting, and inspiring to discover the level of depth of meaning that each piece held on its own and within the context of the exhibition. I was amazed by the amount of research Ms. Milbourne had conducted in order to be able to present the art pieces in a meaningful manner that asserts their historical context and maintains their integrity.

Thus, for me, the most exciting part of my experience interning at the NMAFA has been discovering and learning about all the work that is involved in putting an exhibition together. As you walk through museums glancing at the spaciously displayed art works, it often seems as though they were effortlessly put together. Consequently, I never seriously thought about or realized the amount of time and effort that goes into preparing an exhibition. This internship allowed me to see the activities that take place behind the scenes of the museum in corners that I never knew existed. The staff members at NMAFA graciously organized a guided, behind the scenes tour of the museum for the interns and volunteers, in which we had the opportunity to learn about the various departments of the museum and their responsibilities. For instance, I had no idea that there was a wood workshop where NMAFA makes its own cases for displaying objects or a library where curators can find books and archived documents to conduct their research.

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From the conception of an exhibition idea to its realization it may take up to a year to finalize everything and open it to the public. The in-between processes include deciding on a theme, researching artists and their creations, acquisition of the art pieces (with plenty of paper work), and preparation of the exhibition area (which often includes painting walls and building special display cases). Though I got a glimpse of what everybody does, as a curatorial intern, my focus was on the curating process of an exhibition.

Fortunately, the project I am working on is in the beginning stages, so I have the great opportunity and pleasure of working with curator Christine Kreamer to help refine the exhibition plan and observe as it takes shape. This particular project aims to bring African American art from a very important private collection and present it in conversation with African art to highlight some of the common themes and issues that the artists addressed in their work.

My job is to conduct research on the art pieces that have been chosen to be displayed from the private African American Art collection and learn when, how, and why they were made. In other words, I need to find out about the artists and their motivations or sources of inspiration: What themes interested them? What issues did they seek to address? By doing so, I will assist in the selection of compatible African Art pieces to be included in the exhibition.

2meI thoroughly enjoyed working on this exhibition project for many reason. One of the main reasons is that I never had an opportunity to learn about African American Art from as far back as the 1800s before. Thus, it has been fascinating to not only learn about their art work but also their struggle to make it in their profession. Many of the African American artists became activists out of necessity to claim their right to equal treatment. Some were subtle and showed their activism through their art and others were overt as they established or joined organizations that worked to advocate for African American interests.  In many cases, understanding their struggles was essential in comprehending the depth of their work, titles, and comments.

Overall, this has been a wonderful and fascinating experience.

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