A review of Mud Masons of Mali at National Museum of Natural History
Tucked back into the corner on the main floor of the National Museum of Natural History is the exhibition African Voices. Within this section of the museum, is the exhibition on the Mud Masons of Mali. This exhibition was originally launched in 2013 as part of a larger project the Smithsonian “Earth Matters” initiative as a temporary exhibition. The Mud Masons of Mali show focuses on five masons in the UNESCO world heritage site Djenne in Mali, West Africa. These five men are just a few of the masons in Djenne who construct houses, stores, and the town mosque out of local mud. This construction technique is thousands of years old and one makes up one of the last earthen cities in the world. The people and masons of Djenne are a fascinating group to read and learn about, but the exhibition designed by the National Museum of Natural History leaves much to be desired when exhibition a culture vastly different from the United States
First, the location of gallery space within the museum is problematic. As stated at the beginning of the review, the African Voices space within the museum is located in a back corner of the museum next to the Ocean Hall. This is already an off-putting and unusual choice as both the Hall of Mammals and the Hall of Human Origins are also located on the same floor. I could not help but ask myself why this gallery space was located where it was because it appeared to an afterthought, or at least a decision to use previously unused space. It seems unlikely that the African Voices section of the museum actually receives much traffic, both because of its obscure location and emptiness during my visit on a Tuesday evening.
The Mud Masons of Mali exhibition is a small single-room gallery right at the beginning of the African Voices galleries. The gallery space is perfect of a small, temporary exhibition that would be around maybe six months at the most, but it is far too small for an exhibition that has been around for over three years. When I first entered the exhibition I was really excited to see what the National Museum of Natural History had put on display about such an incredible group of people. I had previously heard of the Mud Masons of Djenne during my undergraduate studies, so I walked into this gallery expecting a lot more than what I encountered.
The exhibition consisted of one room with a smaller center divide in the middle of the room. The walls were covered in photographs from Djenne with only three small cases with a total of 9 objects. My initial reaction to the exhibition was one a disappointment because, to be honest, I assumed that since the National Museum of Natural History made the decision to put on an exhibition about the Mud Masons, there would be more than a few panels with photographs and the occasional physical object.
The very first wall you encounter as a visitor has a brief opening statement about the Mud Masons and displays the five portraits of the highlighted masons. This is a clear attempt to make a personal connection to the faces from the other side of the globe. To reflect the portraits of the highlighted Masons, the exhibition has four videos playing on the opposite side of the gallery. These videos cover the major topics of the exhibition: the ancient architectural style, the challenges of the changing world, the trade secrets, and finally the travels and troubles of the five masons. These videos played on a continuous loop and battled with the noise of a video coming from the rest of the African Voices exhibition. The videos consisted of interviews with the five masons, which took place in the Netherlands, as well as footage that the masons shot themselves in Djenne. What I couldn’t quite get over from this initial interaction was this immediate sense of difference and quaintness that permeated the gallery.
As I moved to the next wall in the gallery the title struck me as a little odd given the context “Ancient Traditions in the Modern World.” Now that title in and of itself isn’t necessarily an issue, but as I continued to read the panel text, I couldn’t help but sense a feeling of otherness that didn’t sit well with me. None of the panels delved deeply into the cultural and historical context of Djenne and its building traditions, but rather just offered a quick, and very basic, snippet of information. By not offering greater cultural detail and context, the exhibitionary panels came off as “look at how quaint these people are” rather than “here is a culture that is different from ours.” Perhaps the best example of this was on the center divide. One side was entitled Blessing the Building, which dealt with the traditions and rituals the Masons followed in order to bless their constructions with good fortune and strength. Located on this panel were samples of various seeds, grains, and crops that would be blended into the building wall as a means to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. Similar blessing traditions can be found throughout various cultures yet the sub-text for the panel was entitled “Secret Spells.” This caption connotes, at least for me, a mysticism that is not necessarily as validated within Western Culture, and therefore diminishes the importance of this ritual in Djenne culture.
After spending time in this exhibition watching all the videos and reading all of the text panels, I came the conclusion that the Mud Masons of Mali exhibition appears as less of an exhibition and more of an exhibition proposal. There is enough information present throughout the gallery to intrigue the visitor, but it seriously lacks the depth to do the masons and people of Djenne justice. Perhaps if this exhibition was expanded to the entire African Voices section as a temporary exhibition there, with each original panel being a topic explored in depth, the Mud Masons of Mali exhibition would be more of a success. Because as of right now, it feels very unfinished.