Listening to the silences: Dr. Augustus Casely-Hayford delivers lecture on state of African museum sector

Dr. Augustus Casely-Hayford
2019-03-14 11:09:00

“African art has become cool,” Dr. Augustus Casely-Hayford declared to a packed audience in Henry R. Luce Auditorium on March 4. “But as ever, the main beneficiaries are collectors and institutions beyond the continent.”  (view lecture)

In a lecture titled “New voices, renewed sector: Fostering an African art museum sector that is more at ease with itself,” Casely-Hayford spoke about current inequities affecting both African art and African museums. The Council on African Studies organized the event in conjunction with the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Africa Initiative.

Casely-Hayford, the newly-appointed director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and a frequent on-air contributor about Africa, he began his lecture with thoughts on objects in the museum’s collection that “seem to draw me again and again.” He directed the audience’s attention to two wooden figures—a man and a woman—made in the early twentieth century by an Mbembe artist in present-day Nigeria. The pair would have once sat on either side of a slit gong. Casely-Hayford said that one finds in the simplicity of these types of drums “their wonder because they transmit percussive energy.”

Casely-Hayford connected what he called “the active silence” between beats played on the drum with the omitted histories, lost narratives, and marginalized stories of African history. The Global South, he stated, has become a site for objects but not museums—the most renowned collections of the former being found in the United States and Europe, rather than in Africa itself.

“The silencing of African voices is still evident,” he maintained.

According to Casely-Hayford, museums in Africa face challenges of display and storage, and suffer from chronic under-resourcing. African art institutions, however, have important stories to tell. These stories can surface and proliferate from the continent through sector-wide partnerships.

“We could for the very first time unite communities of interest, separated geographically but united by passion,” he said. 

Casely-Hayford’s advocacy for African museums comes on the heels of a report delivered in November 2018 to French president Emmanuel Macron. The study endorses the repatriation of colonial-era African art taken to France between 1885 and 1960. Casely-Hayford argued that, if the report’s recommendations were followed, “profound and massive changes” would need to take place in African museums to accommodate the influx of objects. These changes include larger storage units, climate-control displays, larger budgets, functional websites, and additional staff trained in art history.

“The paucity of art history courses,” Casely-Hayford said, “means that African narratives are crafted by figures beyond the continent.”

While the task at hand may appear daunting, Casely-Hayford proposed that repatriation movements provide an opportunity for the global museum sector to grow. Indeed, his talk spoke directly to two Yale initiatives undertaken within the last decade. The first is the Yale Africa Initiative, announced by University President Peter Salovey in October 2013, which aims to “foster new directions in research on Africa, identify new partnerships with those on the continent, and strengthen our recruitment efforts, all while emphasizing teaching and learning.”

Casely-Hayford also discussed the Yale-Smithsonian Partnership, launched in 2016. The program offers undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to conduct innovative research through both institutions. Yale, Casely-Hayford said, can support African museums by providing legal, developmental, and management advice.

Throughout his lecture, however, Casely-Hayford reiterated that support for African museums does not equate to transforming them into replicas of their European or American counterparts.

“Mostly we need to listen to learn how to be better partners,” he said, adding that listening begins with having conversations.

Prior to his lecture, Casely-Hayford participated in a private tour of the African Art gallery in YUAG with a handful of Yale professors and students. Participants discussed the exciting challenge university museums face in communicating the multiple art histories of objects—from their provenance to their aesthetic achievements. James Green, curator of the African Art collection, spoke about the changes he aims to realize in the gallery space over the next year. Among them: a rotating exhibition space in the front of the gallery, which, he said, would “offer something new and energetic.” Yale students would have the opportunity to curate their own displays, and place pieces of African art in dialogue with works from other gallery collections.

“That’s the wonderful thing about this collection—the quality,” Casely-Hayford said in response to the discussion. “You can come here multiple times and read the collection in various ways.”

Written by Nathalie Miraval, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences 2024 (History of Art).