Pro-Africa activists lament that the Smithsonian’s new “African Voices” exhibit is funded by blood money.
Deep in the gut of the National Museum of Natural History, you’ll find the Smithsonian’s latest gem. Past the ethnographic exhibits on Pacific and Asian cultures, past the mastodon skeleton and plesiosaur paintings, lies “African Voices,” Natural History’s newest and most modern exhibition. Fresh from a face lift, the gallery contrasts sharply with the rest of the museum: Most of Natural History’s exhibitions look old and dusty, but “African Voices” buzzes with life and technology.
The exhibition begins with a video on a gigantic screen boasting of Africa’s diversity and natural wealth. The exhibition ends with a video, too—a chronicle of freedom struggles by Africans and their descendants abroad in the 20th century. In between are installations exploring a panoply of African arts and humanities, from the way West African mud cloth has influenced the fashion industry to sculpture by Nigerian artist Lamidi Olonade Fakeye. The show, in its sheer scope, is groundbreaking for the museum. So, its creators say, is the idea driving it. Whereas most of Natural History’s exhibits look as if they were put together by some curious but clueless British hobbyist, “African Voices,” from its name on down, suggests “Africans speaking for themselves,” says Sulayman Nyang, one of the project’s chief researchers.
But if Nigerian citizens had been asked about the exhibition’s sponsorship, they probably would have vetoed the contribution of the Shell Oil Foundation. Shell kicked in $250,000 to fund the planned African Voices Resource Center. But in recent years, the foundation’s parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, has come under fire for its corporate history in Nigeria. Shell has been accused of poisoning rivers with oil spills, exploiting Nigerian workers, supporting the country’s various dictatorships, and otherwise helping corrupt a country that should be one of Africa’s richest—but instead ranks among the more checkered of the developing world.
“To see Shell sponsoring an Africa exhibit,” says Randall Robinson, head of TransAfrica, a Pan-Africanist lobbying group, “when it has no meaningful concern about democracy for Africa’s most populous country, is painfully ironic.”
Shell’s representatives see no conflict between the company’s actions and its charitable contributions. In a response to media inquiries, Shell released a vague statement affirming its support for the project. “For well over 15 years, Shell Oil Company has been supporting a number of organizations and projects of interest to African-Americans,” the statement reads. “The ‘African Voices’ exhibit at the Smithsonian is an example of such a project.”
Certainly the organizers of “African Voices” engaged the corporation for compelling reasons. The entire Natural History museum is undergoing a $100 million makeover piecemeal; Congress has allotted only $2.5 million to the renovations. The rest comes from fundraising, which has gone well in some parts of the museum: In 1991, for instance, a California businessman donated $20 million to overhaul the museum’s Hall of Mammals. “African Voices” should be so lucky. Of the $5.5 million the exhibition cost, fundraisers came up with $377,500. The rest of the money had to be borrowed from the Smithsonian’s own funds.
But paying back the money to the Smithsonian may be the least of the funding problems for “African Voices.” Now it also has to reckon with having repaired the museum’s colonial image with the help of accomplished colonialists.
Inscribed on the wall near the beginning of “African Voices” is a proverb from the Temne people of Sierra Leone: “Unless you know the road that you’ve come down, you cannot know where you are going.” The saying is quoted often by Afrocentrists and black people in general when explaining the importance of studying African history. But Mike Fleshman, a consultant to New York’s Africa Fund, a policy outfit that supports democracy in Africa, has a more cynical take on the proverb: “If you don’t know where your pipeline begins, you don’t know where it’s going,” he says.
Fleshman has taken two trips to the oil fields of Nigeria to verify reports of Shell’s business practices. “Shell has operated in the [Niger River] delta for many years with little or no regulation,” says Fleshman. “They operate in ways that they would never operate in Europe or America—they’d be fined out of business. They bribe the local chiefs with work contracts, and when somebody starts complaining about an oil spill, it’s the chief’s job to shut people up.”
Shell’s funding of the exhibition reveals either a terrific blind spot or a gross compromise on the part of the Smithsonian. Either way, it’s no wonder the institution takes constant criticism for its representations of race and culture. For starters, the Smithsonian chooses to lump most of its “ethnic” (read: nonwhite, non-Western) exhibitions in a museum that otherwise features animals, insects, plants, and minerals. Don’t expect to find exhibits on Charlemagne or the Middle Ages or modern America in Natural History. It’s a symptom of an institution whose cultural vantage point is flawed.
In 1991, the museum shut down its Africa exhibition after a broad coalition of insurgents charged that it promoted a negative and Eurocentric view of Africa. In those days, the exhibit was called the Africa Hall, but it might as well have been called Bizarro Hall, reflecting as it did a Western fascination with Africa’s exoticism. It paid almost no attention to human society on the continent, and when it did, it referred to Africans as “heathens and cannibals,” one person who works with the museum says. The rest of the exhibition focused on African weaponry and tools as well as the continent’s flora and fauna.
“The Africa Hall was as antiquated as all of the other ethnic halls in that museum,” says James Early, who worked on an advisory team for “African Voices.” “But while [the Africa Hall] shared a general intellectual underdevelopment with the other halls, the fact that it was focused on Africa…led some people to charge that the hall was offering up racist information.”
For seven years, the hall lay dormant as a group of community members, legislators, scholars, and Smithsonian employees debated what form Natural History’s new Africa exhibition would take. The museum enlisted a team of researchers plus an advisory group of about 60 people.
The scholars who worked on the project seem quite proud of their work. “I had not seen [“African Voices”] until the opening, and it was uplifting,” says Linda Heywood, a professor of history at Howard University who helped research the exhibit. “The project is moving—and I mean that, when you’re in there, you literally feel like [Africa] is moving. The past is there, but the present and future are there, too. I’ve gone back twice already, and I sent my class.”
Nyang admits that funding issues came up during the advisory meetings. “We debated [Shell’s funding] internally,” he says. “There were a number of people who were very apprehensive about that. But this was before many of [the allegations] came out against Shell.” Nyang recalls being surprised that Shell had even agreed to provide funding.
By most accounts, including those of many involved with “African Voices,” Shell has historically been an enemy of democracy and self-development in Africa. “During Africa’s independence struggles, one of [Africans’] principal corporate nemeses was Royal Dutch Shell,” says TransAfrica’s Robinson. During the ’70s and ’80s, when some Americans were battling South African apartheid, pro-Africa activists say, Shell repeatedly popped up on the opposite side of the table. “Up until the very last minute, Shell continued to provide fuel for the apartheid military,” says Fleshman.
Bill Minter, a senior fellow at the Africa Policy Information Center, says that Shell’s donation strategy looks to him like the video version of a really bad movie. “Shell has been a target in the past, and they’ve developed a response that they initially tried out in South Africa,” say Minter. “What they have done in the past, and what they did in South Africa, was invest in projects that improved their image. They might put money into a newspaper that is critical of South Africa’s regime. In a sense, it was like trying to buy people off, but people benefited from these efforts, and people that got scholarships or sponsorship were happy.”
Present charges lodged against Shell read like the first chapter in a how-to book on corporate irresponsibility. Fleshman says that on his most recent trip to Nigeria, he got a chance to observe Shell’s idea of environmental cleanup. “I hiked out to a fresh oil spill that completely ruined an Ijaw community,” he recalls. “The cleanup consisted of local men, paid $5 a day and given no safety equipment, wading out into the water with cotton rags and plastic buckets to ‘clean up’ this oil spill. I was out there for three hours and got sick from breathing in benzene fumes.”
Daphne Wysham, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, says that when she traveled to Nigeria last year, she got to see some of the results of Shell’s corporate sponsorship. “I visited a hospital which Shell supports. They were using outdated pharmaceuticals, they had no electricity, and the staff hadn’t been paid in months,” Wysham reports. “Worst of all, they were using contaminated water, because the hospital was forced to rely on a well that was contaminated from droppings from lizards and other animals. So, in some cases, people actually went to the hospital to get better and came back sicker.”
Mary Jo Arnoldi, the chief curator for “African Voices,” dismisses the criticism by noting that Royal Dutch Shell is a huge corporation and that Shell Nigeria is a separate business entity, not the same as the Shell Oil Foundation. “If it had been Shell Nigeria, as Africanists we would have been concerned,” Arnoldi says. “People were less concerned when they found out that it was different. Shell America is really just involved in American enterprise.”
Nyang also notes that if people are mad about the funding, then the African-American community must shoulder part of the blame. “The Smithsonian had to treat this like any other major project. The Smithsonian had to go out and get money [for ‘African Voices’],” says Nyang. “In retrospect, one of things that surprised me was that there weren’t many donations from black businesses. I personally called some of them.”
Others point to the drying up of public funds for the humanities in the ’90s, which has forced cultural organizations to turn to the private sector for money. “We have no public funding to do these kinds of exhibits,” says Arnoldi. “The Smithsonian has to raise its own funds.” With only a fraction of its funds secured, were the creators of “African Voices” in a position to say no?
“In a period when culture is becoming corporatized, we need more public scrutiny and public process,” says Early. “People who raise funds must look closely and weigh contradictions.”
For advocates of Nigerian democracy, the contradictions are entirely too apparent. “This is yet another example of Shell spending more money on public relations than on actual cleanup and human rights,” says Wysham. “And by the Smithsonian accepting this sponsorship, it allows Shell to mislead the public into thinking that they care about the people of Africa.”
“It’s extraordinarily cynical,” says Fleshman. “I have a high regard for the Smithsonian, but it’s hard not to know about the criticism of Shell. It seems to me that the Smithsonian needs to be more sensitive. This just injects something ugly into what otherwise would be a fine project.” CP