In New York City on Museum Mile, both the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art now feature Afrofuturist rooms. At the Cooper Hewitt, the temporary exhibit is called “Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro Selects” and the museum’s website explainsthat this “Selects” room “is the 19th installation in the exhibition series that invites designers, artists, architects and public figures to explore and interpret Cooper Hewitt’s collection of more than 215,000 objects. The exhibition will be on view [through] Feb. 13, 2022.” A few blocks down at the Met, “’Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room’” opened on November 5th of this year, and will be an ongoing exhibit, nestled amongst other period rooms.
Both of these exhibits are richly imagined and immersive, as one might expect from their hosting institutions. Further than that, I was interested to realize that they both imagine Afrofuturism similarly. Each concocts a speculative scenario in which free, relatively comfortable and homed Black people intentionally enact the role of the museum, adventuring around time and/or space to gather items that are then put on display.
At the Cooper Hewitt, Jon Gray’s premise is that a post apocalyptic future has a Black adventurer gathering artifacts from the ruins, and those artifacts are displayed in this gallery. At the Met, the premise of the room is that the people who lived in Seneca Village discovered time travel and the “period room” is full of the residents’ finds they’ve gathered while time traveling.
Just as Hollywood loves making movies about Hollywood, and authors love writing novels about authors, so too it should not be surprising that the speculative fiction scenarios of museums feature their protagonists enacting the role of the museum. Of course the scenarios envisioned for these rooms make good use of the setting of their fictions, but in doing so they are offering one very specific take on what Afrofuturism is. If either of these rooms was a visitor’s first exposure to the idea of “Afrofuturism,” the visitor would come away with an incomplete understanding of the concept.
By envisioning Afrofuturist protagonists enacting the role of the museum, both rooms seem to imply that Afrofuturism is concerned with collecting and exalting vestiges of the past. In fact, many Afrofuturist visions don’t do that and the relationship between Afrofuturism and museums is more fraught in pop culture than implied by these rooms.
For instance, think of the scene in the 2018 film Black Panther when Killmonger liberates an African artifact held by a western museum, immediately using it. Or even more analogously, consider how Janelle Monae’s music video for Q.U.E.E.N. from 2013 explicitly features time-traveling rebels “frozen in suspended animation” in a “living museum” who break free of these bonds, perhaps the opposite of the premise of the Afrofuturist rooms currently on display on Museum Mile.
Thus, these rooms seem like they are explicitly looking for ways that museums could take part in a Afrofuturist vision. Instead of seeing the museum as the pillaging colonizing force, or a symbol of stultifying repression, the Cooper Hewitt and the Met want to see themselves, and their roles as museums, in more positive ways. Both of their Afrofuturist rooms, therefore, have the effect of putting the museum’s role on a kind of pedestal by imagining the protagonists of their Afrofuturist visions engaging in museum behavior, a “cool” way to see curatorship, and a way to see curatorship as cool.
If the video for Q.U.E.E.N. might be said to be Afrofuturism for musicians, both the new immersive rooms at the Cooper Hewitt and the Met might be said to be Afrofuturism for museums.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Museums or museum spaces you’d highlight?]