The people behind museums: Ngaire Blankenberg, Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
January 14 2022
By Adrian Murphy
My strategy here, my vision for a more global and distributed museum, is that we provide experiences for people all over the world
When Ngaire Blankenberg walks through the National Mall in Washington DC – bookended by the Lincoln Memorial and United States Capitol – she is mindful of the huge museums that dot the park including the ones belonging to the Smithsonian Institution, such as the National Museum of Natural History and the five-year-old National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), as she makes her way to the modestly sized (also Smithsonian) workplace at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA).
Blankenberg became the director of NMAfA in July 2021 and brings with her three decades of experience working in design and consultancy for museums around the world and wants to make the museum more visible and more global.
“At times I’m envious of my colleagues with their big museums along The Mall and at the same time I’m like, it’s fine we’ve got a lot of space,” she says. “We have to do some work around visibility and reorganise the space, absolutely. But my strategy here, my vision for a more global and distributed museum, is that we provide experiences for people all over the world and that doesn’t have to be from a big building.”
Established in 1964
NMAfA was established in 1964 in a house on Capitol Hill and subsumed into the Smithsonian Institution in 1978, moving to its present location on The Mall in 1987. The museum is partly underground, which is why Blankenberg talks about improving its visibility, but its collection of 9,000 works of traditional and contemporary African art and 300,000 photographs is the most significant of its kind in the US.
“I knew Washington and I knew the Smithsonian but I didn’t know NMAfA so well. I am South African, and NMAfA has such a great collection of African art that really is one of the only institutions that has such a breadth to its collection from classical art to contemporary art encompassing the full continent.
“So, for me it was a fantastic opportunity to really push the boundaries of what is a museum in the 21st century and what is an African art museum in the 21st century in America.”
Native South Africa
Before being appointed as director of NMAfA, Blankenberg was working as a consultant and an independent consultant. She started her museum career creating museums in her native South Africa and became a consultant with Lord Cultural Resources for eight years.
“Straddling exhibitions and management consulting is where I learnt pretty much everything,” she says.
She then joined Kossmanndejong, a design agency focusing on exhibition design based in The Netherlands, to work on the implementation of projects.
“[By this stage] I wanted to work much more closely with the end stage of an exhibition project, and I have a huge respect for design and its critical role in what museums are trying to do,” she says.
Working in Saudi Arabia
The past few years have seen Blankenberg work on varied projects before joining the Smithsonian, for example, working with a French team called Manifesto on a contemporary art strategy and artistic residencies in Al-‘Ula in Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, she was working with the National Gallery of Canada helping them form a decolonisation strategy and also working with the Canadian Museum of Human Rights to complete a Black Content Audit, which was responding to allegations of bias and racism in their museum (she was also part of the development of that museum ten years previously).
“Facing the challenges of the job I am doing now, I am using every single skill that I have ever accumulated during my career and I am so thankful that I have had such a varied path to get here.
“I have worked on projects all over the world and learnt so much but as a consultant you are in and you’re out, you work at a different pace – a lot of breadth but not depth. And now it’s a lot of depth.”
Blankenberg had also worked in the planning teams for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in her role with Lord, as well as with architectural teams in some of the very early stages of that museum.
“I worked with the Ralph Appelbaum Associates’ exhibition team and also worked on some of the education strategies for that museum.”
An apt challenge
Becoming the director of a museum of African art felt like an apt challenge, she says, particularly post-Covid and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent activism.
“I’m not sure how to describe that moment, but without a doubt the kind of racist colonisation that is in the museum sector has been under scrutiny from that time based on the incredible activists.
“I think the confluence of Covid and a consciousness around the needs to really address this issue of colonisation and racism has created an almost perfect storm to rethink everything. And that’s what I’m doing.
“White people are dominant the museum sector in the UK and the US and I think there has been a reckoning. I think it’s different if you are a person of colour in either country and your perspective around this will have changed a lot recently. And I think we are seeing a new era where many of us are taking advantage of, I don’t know what now, possibly guilt, but whatever it is we are seizing it.”
She points to the fact that there have been very few black people, people of colour or indigenous people who have been cultural leaders in either the UK or US, although NMAfA has bucked the trend.
“Now there is a whole bunch of us. We are very conscious, although I don’t know if I can speak for everyone, of our positions and the precarity of our positions but we are also very conscious because we have lived them [these positions] through our own careers in terms of what needs to change and the urgency by which we need to do that change.”
She says this does not come from an ideological point of view but from a desire to make it so much easier for other people to feel that they belong and have a place both in the sector and also in museums in general.
One of the ways to do this, she says, is through storytelling. “We have some great curators at NMAfA who I am learning a lot from and I think that the museum has done a really good job over the years of telling different kinds of stories.
“I suppose I have a wide understanding of different sectors or ways of thinking that can be brought to address a particular problem.
“So, in a way I guess rather than me thinking there are more stories that need to be told I’m curious as to how many more storytellers we can bring into the room.”
Blankenberg says that art museums have not traditionally made good use of designers, so this is another area she is focusing on, and she continually asks: ‘What is the relationship between design and art?’ ‘What are the different ways African art should be experienced from Western art:’ This, she says, is a design question: a sound design; a lighting design; motion design; digital design and exhibition design.
“I am bringing in those kind of design storytellers and spatial storytellers to the conversation. I’m thinking: What is the role of performance? What is the role of performance on the continent? What are the roles of performers in our understanding of art or African art? And so, I want to bring those guys around the table.
“It’s not so much me telling the story, it’s me thinking there are so many ways to tell stories and now in 2022 what are the ways that museums should be telling compelling stories for our audiences?”
One of the big changes she is looking at is redefining the museum’s audience into what she calls a global African audience of Gen Z and Millennials.
“Which is really an insane challenge I’m giving myself and my team because it’s certainly not a segment of the population that is well-serviced by museums.”
NMAfA is currently working on a project with Benin Museum and as part of that they have had intergenerational conversations about new forms of engagement – whether people need to be physically together or not and what constitutes bringing people together.
“My plan is very much around putting us in the global Africa diaspora and very much seeing us as part of multiple narratives that have many things in common.
“So that Nigerian Brits and Senegalese Senegalese and Cameroonian Washingtonians and people who are São Paulo South Africans will be part of this conversation, this whole community because Africa is global historically and contemporaneously.
“I’m straddling two sectors, which intersect with the museum but there’s the art world and the museum world and they’re not necessarily the same thing. Both are relatively racist, they have systemic practices, both are Eurocentric.”
Because of the museum’s very nature this Euroscentric lens is something that the museum avoids by its focus on Africa and the African diaspora.
24 Hours of Smithsonian in Lagos
In November NMAfA organised an event called 24 Hours of Smithsonian in Lagos, a move to expand its international reach, which was a collaborative interactive art experience in partnership with Art X Lagos, the African International Film Festival, the African Artists’ Foundation and the David Adjaye designed venue Alára.
The event brought together communities in Nigeria, the African diaspora and internationally through the worlds of film, art, photography, food and fashion.
This 16th- or 17th-century copper alloy plaque — one of the ten Benin Bronzes removed from view in October — depicts a high-ranking warrior flanked by musicians and a page holding a ceremonial sword
This African lens also means that the museum has no qualms about repatriating objects in its collection and Blankenberg has already initiated a process to repatriate the Benin Bronzes in NMAfA’s collection.
She says for her this is not a big deal but something that has to be done in order for the museum to do what it need to do.
“I think it’s certainly been made a bigger deal in the media, for good reason, than it should be. It shouldn’t be a story because everyone should just do it, it’s a no-brainer.”
She says the whole of the Smithsonian Institution including Kevin Gover, Smithsonian Under Secretary for Museums and Culture and director of the National Museum of the American Indian along with Lonnie Bunch, Director of NMAAHC who became the first African American Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 2019, are completely in alignment over this issue.
“For me it’s an incredible opportunity as my sister museum of the National Museum of the American Indian has been involved in repatriation for decades and is very experienced in that conversation and Kevin Gover is my boss.
“Lonnie Bunch has been the first African American secretary and very successful in addressing widespread erasure of African Americans in museums with the new museum of African American history. And for all of us you have to build trust and belonging among people of the African diaspora, and all people of colour frankly, in museums.
“And we can’t do that if we’re owning stolen loot no matter how we got that. The Smithsonian isn’t the British Museum and NMAfA’s title deeds are traced, we follow a very strict process for acquisitions. But I don’t think that’s really the point. The point is, if we have stuff we are displaying that we shouldn’t have for various ethical reasons, we need to right the wrongs of the past.”
Understanding the provenance of the collection
NMAfA is now working on understanding the provenance of everything in its collection, and Blankenberg says as soon as we discover an object that has been looted they will act to repatriate it.
“Even with the bronzes we initially took down a chunk that we knew definitively were from 1897 and I asked the curators to dig even deeper, so now we have taken down chinks that are likely or most likely.”
Provenance research is a process, she says, and NMAfA is erring on the side of caution at this point.
“I am definitely thinking if it has a whiff of something [being taken inappropriately] we definitely need to not have it on display until we know what the source communities would want us to do with the stuff.”
Celebrating the arts and creativity of Africa
Portrait of Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji by Iké Udé for his exhibition Nollywood Portraits launching next month
But repatriation is not the only thing that the museum needs to be doing she says. As well as repairing and building relationships, the museum instrumental in celebrating the arts and creativity of Africa and the African diaspora peoples.
The museum works with many contemporary artists and its next exhibition, opening in February, is called Nollywood Portraits. This will see portraits of Nollywood Celebrities by portrait artist Ike Udé, who positions these famous people in very regal forms and is very considered about the props he puts with them and the poses.
“For him it’s really part of a reclamation of African beauty and African identity.”
Rethinking the space
NMAfA is also working on ways to rethink the space and that includes the working space, congregating space and exhibition space.
“Our museum isn’t defined by its architecture necessarily and I think we are looking towards new models of everything including regenerative art ecosystems and what is our role is in that.
“We don’t have to own everything and we don’t have to inhabit the biggest physical space. The mental space we take up is so much more important.
Regeneration and joy
“We are thinking a lot about regeneration and joy, one of the pillars is how art, the museum and the museum people can make a positive impact on people’s lives.
“We have a collection, we have our people and we have our spaces, virtual and in real life. And those are the resources museums bring to creating value and I think our space has to work harder on that.
“Sometimes I wonder if there’s value in museums. As a museum consultant looking at museums my whole career, I sometimes think it’s a lost cause. But, I actually believe it’s not a lost cause because museums are incredible spaces. They are public spaces where people can come to, which is a rarity and is really important. We are valuable entities for the world but I think we do have to rethink how we do what we do and that’s what I’m doing.”