Though I subscribe to a great deal of nerd culture in my private life, I must confess that I’ve not gotten into the Marvel movies in any significant way over the past ten years. That might have changed with Marvel’s latest film, Black Panther. It is rare that I find a film that I out and out love but with Black Panther I found a refreshing film that is fun, visually stunning, diverse, and has poignant messages woven throughout. In other words, it’s fantastic and I highly recommend it for anyone and everyone. But this blog post is specifically about why museum professionals should go and see this film. So what is it about Black Panther that we need to see?
Before I get into that in detail, I’m going to put a spoiler warning here. I don’t think much of what I’m going to say will ruin the film but for those who prefer to see it before they know too much about the plot should do that before reading further.
As stated previously, Black Panther is a film that everyone should go and see for a multitude of reasons. The way in which the film deals with race and the discussions around race — which methods are best in dismantling systemic racism, what are our responsibilities regarding the suffering of others, and what is the role of an ally, to name but a few — is quite sophisticated. These messages are not always subtle and nor should they be.
Such is the case of the scene I’m going to talk about. The scene takes place in the fictitious “Museum of Great Britain” in London. A white female museum director played by Francesca Faridany, an expert on the objects in the African gallery enters the scene where a young black man is peering into one of the cases of objects. A number of gallery attendants in black suits stand in the background. The young man, Erik Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan, begins to ask excitedly where the objects in the cases are from. He comes across as enthusiastic and curious and there is the classic museum director bestowing her expert knowledge upon him until they get to one object in particular — an artefact from the fictitious east-African country of Wakanda and the reason for Erik Killmonger’s presence.
The scene is a set up to steal this artefact (perhaps another blog post topic should be about the depiction of museums in films as repositories for powerful objects and heists but that’s for another day). Killmonger is working with the cold-blodded Klaw played by Andy Serkis. In short order the curator is poisoned, the guards are shot, the case is broken and the object stolen. But before all of that there is a brief but important conversation between Killmonger and the museum director. It’s this conversation that prompted me to write this blog post.
Calls for the decolonisation of the museum have been made for years in the sector. The introduction of co-curatorial projects, artist interventions, and re-imaginings of collections and displays have been part of the process of trying to confront histories of colonisation and the central role that museums play in colonisation. Despite these endeavours, museums still struggle with this complicity and, more often, the continued complicity in colonisation. A brilliant article on Media Diversified written by Sumaya Kassim called “The museum will not be decolonised” is an example of the complexities around decolonising movements.
In Black Panther, Killmonger confronts the museum director about this colonising power of museums. He confronts her about how these objects ended up in cases in a London museum. He further confronts her about the security that has been following him since he entered the museum — a statement which resonates with the experience of people of colour when they enter conventionally white spaces. In a film which is full of commentary on the experiences of people of colour and a film which is perfectly paced, this scene becomes even more poignant.
Granted, the scene is a vehicle for the plot. At the end of the day this is still a superhero movie and there have to be car chases, fight scenes, and (as it turns out) a museum heist. But think about how this scene could have been written. The commentary on the place museums have as colonising institutions could have been taken out in favour of a straight action or heist sequence. The filmmakers made room for this discussion in the film. They thought it was important and we should too.
Decolonising the museum is an important conversation. Whether or not museums can be decolonised is not clear. Films like Black Panther offer us an opportunity to further these conversations. We need to open our spaces but more importantly, we need to open ourselves to the notion that our work is inextricably linked to traumatic pasts and systemic inequality in the present.
Sumaya Kassim said this better than I can in her article and further, the quote from Nana Oforiatta Ayim is starkly reminiscent of the scene in Black Panther:
“For many people of colour, collections symbolise historic and ongoing trauma and theft. Behind every beautiful object and historically important building or monument is trauma. As the historian and writer, Nana Oforiatta Ayim has said: “In the British Museum, you have the African galleries, and it’s like, ‘This drum is from 1500 Ashanti,’ but there is nothing else about it. You don’t know what it is used for, what context it’s from, how it was brought here, who stole it. The museum as it exists today is so much an imperialist project and is so much about power”. The craftsmanship, the display case, the beauty of the institution that collects and protects its imperial hoard: the way items are described, the way they are catalogued and what gets shown and what remains hidden; all work to deny, retreat, and forget.”