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Black Panther and the Ethics of Representation in Museums

Black Panther and the Ethics of Representation in Museums

By: Hannah Gaston

Who has seen Black Panther? Better question, who hasn’t seen Black Panther?  For all the museum professionals out there who have seen the movie, we all know that it caused a stir in the museum world over the issues of ethics and representation in museums. For those of you that haven’t seen the film, Black Panther follows T’Challa as he prepares to be crowned the new king of Wakanda, a reclusive yet technologically advanced African nation. However, T’Challa finds that his position as king and Black Panther—the protector of Wakanda—challenged by an old enemy named Killmonger, who wants to claim the throne for himself.  In short, it is a classic, superhero movie.

So, why should museums professionals care about Black Panther?   Well, the movie has a scene in it that takes place in a museum and brings to light some ethical issues in the field today.  In this scene Killmonger visits the fictional Museum of Great Britain and is met by a white female curator, drinking a cup of coffee, to discuss some of the African objects on display in the museum.  The curator responds to Killmonger’s questions in a rather condescending manner, telling him the origin location and dates of the objects.  Then Killmonger leads her over to an ax head which she labels as “from Benin, seventh century, Fula tribe.”  Killmonger contradicts her saying, “It was taken by British soldiers from Benin, but it’s actually from Wakanda, and it’s made out of vibranium.”  In response to the curator’s surprise, he adds, “Don’t trip, Imma take it off your hands for you.”  The curator tells Killmonger, “These items aren’t for sale,” and then he responds: “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take them, like they took everything else?” When the curator asks Killmonger to leave, he responds, “You got all this security in here, watching me, ever since I walked in, but you ain’t checking what you put in your body.”  In fact, her coffee has been poisoned, she falls down dead, Killmonger takes the vibranium ax head and leaves the museum.

Watch the full scene here:


This scene got a lot of museum professionals talking—especially about why a curator would bring coffee into a gallery, but more importantly about the serious issues of representation in the museum field.  One museum professional, Timothy Anne Burnside, asked in a Twitter conversation about this scene, “Does being an expert in a particular field also mean claiming ownership over the content you curate?”

This scene and this ongoing Twitter discussion around it highlight three issues of the museums field today: 1) Many museums lack senior staff with diverse backgrounds; 2) People of color are less represented in museums, and often experience undue discrimination while entering gallery spaces; and 3) Many African artifacts were taken from their home countries under suspicious circumstances.

From those three issues I derive three ethical questions facing museums: 1) Who gets to tell the stories in museums?; 2) Who belongs in the museum?; and 3) What should museums do with the objects acquired as treasures of colonialism?

While perhaps lacking in subtlety, Black Panther touched upon these major issues of decolonization and representation in museums, and in part, due to its popularity, the film refueled this discussion in the museum field.  So, what can museums do to respond to Black Panther?  Well, museums should use this movie as an opportunity to help visitors navigate complex, historically fraught issues such as repatriation, cultural appropriation, and under-representation.  Pop culture is a safe space where people on any side of an argument can find a common denominator.  The movie can help discussion flow more easily because it is often easier to talk about Superheroes than under-representation outright.  Finally, for the museum, hosting discussions about these issues, framed in a way that is comfortable for visitors, can help the museum gain valuable insights and inform audience-centered strategies that increase inclusivity and maintain relevance.

The stance of the curator in Black Panther represents an old idea of the “museum” and its objects.  However, museums have new ideas about how they need to act ethically regarding their collections.  There is a great deal of work to be done, but as Princess Shuri puts it: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” That is what the museum field can work towards, improving their understandings of representation, diversity, and repatriation in their museums.

#decolonizemuseums #museums #museumethics #blackpanther


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