A Too Brief Trip to Mali

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.

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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.

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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.

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Let’s Get Digital?

When I think about museums, I don’t typically think about all of the digital technology that creates the most memorable experience. There are so many aspects that are taken for granted when the modern visitor enters the museum, or even before they step in the door. Think about your last museum visit, any type of museum will do. How did you know when it opened? Did you look and see what the exhibitions currently were? If you needed tickets, did you buy them in advanced? Its pretty likely you checked the museum’s website for all of these questions. There is already so much information about a museum ready at your fingertips without even entering a physical building. That doesn’t even begin to cover what digital technology is at play once you arrive at the museum. Things like security, climate control, member services, audio guides, Wifi and so much more are influencing how you experience a museum.

In an increasingly digital/technological world, visitors expect a certain level of the present to be incorporated in the “old world” of museum visiting. For many, museums are meant to be a break with the everyday, a way to transport yourself to another world and time. What is the museum’s place in the 21st century if the visitor has the outside world sitting in their back pocket in the form of a cellphone?  It is not enough to come to a museum and look at objects through glass because nine times out of ten, that exact object can be seen in HD on a computer in the comfort of your own home. Museums are now tackling how to get visitors truly engaged with the objects lining its walls, even if that means bringing the outside world in.

 

My most recent experience with digital technology in the museum setting was at my last trip to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) this past Sunday. I didn’t plan on going to the museum that day, and I definitely wasn’t planning on writing a post about its use of technology throughout the galleries but my class discussion in Museums and Digital Technology this week got me thinking about how museums are embracing, or not, the digital age. More importantly, it got me thinking about if this incorporation of digital technology really enhanced my experience at the Museum of Natural History.

Views of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins crowded with Museum visitors.
The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History

It had been a very long time since my last visit to NMNH and I wasn’t really sure what they had on display so I first check their website (linked above) to see if this was really the museum I wanted to visit that day and just how late they were open.  Already I was experiencing the museum’s first layer of digital technology and interacting with their most obvious digital presence. Upon arrival however, NMNH’s digital presence became a lot subtler.

Throughout the Hall of Human Origins, I encountered signs encouraging me to touch casts and models of different skulls and bones that were found throughout the world. Although not an obvious use of digital technology, some machine had to copy the original bones and then another machine was responsible for fabricating them into a durable material.

As I continued to wander through these galleries I came across a few touch screens that allowed visitors to learn a little more about certain subjects. These screens were not massive of widely advertised; instead they were tucked into the text panels in front of large display cases. They were there as an additional resource if a visitor wanted, but could easily be ignored or overlooked by someone breezing through a gallery.

While I think these touch screens offer an opportunity to learn more, I found some of them frustrating to work with. More often than not, these touch screens were not very reactive and I found myself jabbing my finger at the screen in order to go to a different screen. Instead of being able to easily learn about how lions hunt in the savannah, for example, I spent most of my time figuring out where the screen thought my finger was so I could compensate and click on the information I wanted.  Perhaps that comes with being a very well-visited institution that deals with numerous visitors a week.  Machines get worn out, touch screens often need to be re-calibrated, or maybe there was something on my fingers that made it hard to recognize on the screen. Whatever it was, the interactive touch screens definitely can aid in enhancing a learning experience (if you can get past the potential frustrations).

Of all the screens and models I walked past during my visit, I never encountered a wait time to use or touch something except in the Hall of Human Origin. Right next to the 3D models of our genetic ancestors were two photo booths that allowed visitors to see what they would look like as one of our ancestors with the option to email the image to yourself after. On two monitors in between the photo booths, images of past visitors rotated on the screens with the most notable facial features super-imposed over the grinning faces of visitors. I must admit, I was curious about what I would look like as an ancient human, so I began to wait in line along with about seven other people. After 5-10 minutes, however, I hadn’t really moved in line and the intrigue had worn off so I went on my way and explored the rest of the museum.

The irony of the only place in the museum encouraging a photograph having a waiting line is not lost on me. Instead of waiting in line to get to touch an object, people are willing to line up to take a picture with what is basically a Snapchat filter. What does that say about us a visitors? The notion of “the selfie” has become so mainstream that having a photo to prove that you went somewhere, rather than just enjoying the experience of being there has altered how we interact with the world around us. Instead of trying to break with this notion of “pics or it didn’t happen” and keep the museum visit about interacting with the objects, it seems that NMNH is trying to embrace the digital age one selfie at a time.

I just can’t help but wonder what this means for the museum purists like myself. Will my preference for the object-based learning and exploration be pushed aside for the addition of photo booths and touch screens that might not work?