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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When is Right to Say No to Photos?

Respecting the Reverence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Yesterday, for the very first time, I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Memorial Museum had been on my list of museums to visit since my first trip to DC in 7th Grade, and I am embarrassed it took me this long to visit such an important Museum. I have to believe that anyone you talk to, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background, who has been to this Museum will tell you that from the moment you step inside it is a powerful experience which leave you in awe of the strength of the Jewish people in the face of imminent death just as I did after I left Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam.

Being a young Jewish woman with a family member who fled Austria and then Europe during World War II, this Museum has a deeply personal meaning to me. I arrived at the Museum knowing my visit would be a difficult experience and was ready to leave emotionally exhausted at the end of my visit. As the website recommends, I came prepared to spend over two hours inside the permanent exhibition and as it turns out that was an accurate recommendation as I spent just about 2.5 hours walking through the three floors of permanent exhibition space.

What I was not prepared for, however, was being able to take photos inside the Museum. While waiting for the elevator to take me, and the many other people waiting to see the exhibition, upstairs to the fourth floor to begin the self-guided tour, the Museum worker informed us that we were allowed to take pictures throughout the exhibition without flash. This really bothered me and came as quite a surprise. For some Museum visitors, myself included, this is a very solemn, and personal, visiting experience. The Memorial Museum is not like going and seeing your favorite painting at the National Gallery of Art. This space is about commemorating the millions of lives lost and forever altered by the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s and their followers. As the Museum’s mission states, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum “serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust.”  For me, this means that the Memorial Museum is a place meant for quiet contemplation and reverence for the artifacts on display not a place to take pictures at will.  Even though photography was allowed in the Museum, and I knew I would be writing about my experience there for this blog, I couldn’t bring myself to take photographs inside. Any photographs on this post are taken directly from the Museum’s website.

While the Museum’s policy on photography initially put me off, I have to admit that I was extremely impressed with the permanent exhibition as well as the respect of the Museum visitors. After taking my ID card, which lent me the identity of a real person affected by the Holocaust, I arrived at the fourth floor to begin viewing the exhibition. Immediately in front of me was footage of a concentration camp the day it was liberated, a startling first image that shocked everyone around me into immediate silence. The rest of the fourth floor was dedicated to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and then the onslaught of war in Europe. As I moved down a relatively narrow hallway that had display cases on either side, I noticed that one woman next to me kept leaning to either side to take pictures of the artifacts on display such as a Nazi State Police uniform or a pile of books that would have been burned. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of taking those photos was. Maybe she wanted a reminder of what she saw, or maybe she took them in order to look at them more closely later since we were being moved like a pack down the hallway because of the sheer number of visitors? Either way, I was slightly annoyed that she kept getting in my way to take pictures of things that made me sick to my stomach.

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Fourth Floor of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

As I moved through the rest of the floor, and the gallery spaces opened up more, I didn’t notice people taking pictures, but to be honest I was too focused on the destroyed Jewish artifacts around me to care what others around me were doing. In this aspect, the Memorial Museum does a phenomenal job in engaging its visitorship. I became so engrossed at looking at artifacts and reading about growing anti-Semitism that I hardly took into account what my fellow museum goers were doing. I do feel, however, that people were taking fewer photographs as we moved through the exhibition spaces.

This became blatantly obvious on the third floor entitled “The Final Solution.” This floor discussed the Nazi’s planned extermination of the Jewish race as well as other “unwanted” people in Nazi Europe. It was on this floor that I encountered what I see as the most moving artifacts in the exhibition.

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Third Floor of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

About midway through the third floor, in galleries discussing the mass killing and gassing of Jews at concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, there is a cattle car on tracks. This car is a replica of the type of car the Jews were crammed into and transported to their inhumane end. The placard just outside the car notes the train tracks are a section of those taken from Treblinka, one of the main extermination camps in Poland. Visitors are invited to walk through the car before continuing on to learn more about extermination camps. I chose to walk through the train car, but I could not bring myself to stand inside it for very long. It physically made me uncomfortable, which I am sure was the point. As I moved through this space, I cannot imagine someone stopping to take pictures of such an object. While such an object is worth remembering and experiencing, it seems inappropriate to take a picture of what was the cause of millions of people’s suffering and death and besides a photograph was unnecessary because the image will remain in my mind indefinitely.

 

Even more powerful than the train car was a room not too far way. This room was filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of pairs of shoes found at an extermination camp. As soon as I entered this room I broke into tears. The shoes were one of the few artifacts that were not behind glass casing and I could smell the must and old leather. It was such a familiar smell to me and to see such a vast mix of shoes covering the floor was too much for me after having been in the Museum 1.5 hours already. I stood in the middle of the room with tears running down my face as I tried to comprehend what I was seeing meant about humanity when a little boy came in with his parents and said with sheer amazement “Look at all of the shoes!” There was such a sense of innocence about this statement that brought my emotional heartbreak to another level and I realized I needed to keep moving through the Museum. As I moved into the next room, I noticed a man with a large camera hanging by his side. It was this moment that really brought home my discomfort with the Museum’s photography policy. Here I am, emotionally vulnerable with tears in my eyes and someone is able to take a picture of the room and capture my grief without my consent, even if I am not the intended subject.

I know I am not the only person who has cried their way through this space and I know I will not be the last. I would like to believe that most people recognize the reverence this Museum demands and make the conscious choice not to take photographs while inside, but the fact that it is even an option is troubling for me. I would be very interested to know the reasoning behind allowing photography inside the Museum when other Holocaust sites, such as the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, do not allow photography. Upon entering the Anne Frank House you are told in a compassionate way that out of respect for the visitors who will have an emotional reaction to their visit, it would be disrespectful to capture their grief in a photograph and it would diminish everyone’s experience.  I hope there is an ideological reasoning that the Museum permit photography rather than a practical one. Just because it is easier on the Museum staff to allow photographs inside the Museum, does not mean it is right.