Red, Black, and Blue: Huey Copeland Talks with Frank B. Wilderson III about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian

By Copeland, Huey | Artforum International, September 2017 | Go to article overview

Red, Black, and Blue: Huey Copeland Talks with Frank B. Wilderson III about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian


Copeland, Huey, Artforum International


NEARLY ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened to popular excitement and critical acclaim, joining the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), inaugurated in 2004, as one of the only racially specific institutions on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Both museums, especially when considered against the dearth of official engagements with black and Native histories, offer vivid testimony to the artifacts, cultures, and struggles of the peoples on which they focus. Yet their presence also raises vital questions about such national projects--Who, ultimately, are they "for," given what they are museums "of"?--in an era that has witnessed the rise of Black Lives Matter in response to police violence, and ongoing contestations over Native sovereignty and environmental justice at Standing Rock. To take stock of these tensions, art historian and Artforum contributing editor HUEY COPELAND joined theorist FRANK B. WILDERSON III--author of the influential Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (2010)--in a candid conversation about the structural logics shaping both museums, in which these scholars at once echo and extend their long-standing dialogue about radical approaches to contemporary culture.

HUEY COPELAND: These two museums are prominently placed on the Mall, among the other museums representing national culture, and much has been made of the "inclusiveness" of those gestures. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, for starters, enacts a particular spatial intervention, whose semiotics aren't subtle: As many have noted, it's a big, beautiful brown thing interrupting a series of white-marble buildings. The National Museum of the American Indian, on the other hand, doesn't offer much chromatic contrast. But the undulating lines, unlike the rectilinear structures of most other buildings on the Mall, are almost aerodynamic, so your gaze travels over the surface and keeps on going.

Inside, the spatial logics of each institution are even more divergent, and I think these differences speak volumes about the questions you and I are engaging today. What's striking when you go into the NMAI is that if you start at the top floor, there is a wonderful multiplicity of pathways before you. The institution really tries to represent a wide, if not exhaustive, range of tribal identities and histories that then come together when you get to the current exhibition about treaties with the US government ["Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations"]. There's a respect for these tribes and their many internal distinctions as peoples, who each have a relationship, a claim, to a particular land. In fact, one of the first things you see when you enter the building is a sign reading welcome to native america. That is, of course, a kind of fiction, but it's about claiming the space of this museum as a land that belongs to peoples who have a right to it and a right to be recognized as such, even if the exercise of those rights is more limited beyond the museum's walls.

Now, the NMAAHC's logic of display is, more or less, about a voyage toward personhood and "culture"--or the ruse of that narrative. You start in the basement with slavery and you move upward from there in a path that spirals up to Oprah and Obama. So it's a teleological movement--from slavery to personhood to presidency--that is effectively cleaved from actual history. This narrative allows you to blithely think that a certain kind of historical project has been achieved, when the black body continues to be anything but a person, continues to be this thing that can be murdered, violated, appropriated, reified, and repurposed for any reason whatsoever. And that logic--perhaps more subconsciously than anything else--continues to inform the displays in the "Community" and "Culture" galleries, which are, in one sense, completely about the commodification of black bodies: whether in the sports section, where you have gleaming silver statues of the Williams sisters and the space feels like a Foot Locker, or the music section, which took me back to the days of the Sam Goody record store (but where, amazingly, the museum has given P-Funk's Mothership pride of place). …

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