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Royal Ontario Museum apologizes over racist exhibit … 27 years later

The Royal Ontario Museum issued a formal apology on Wednesday for a 1989 exhibit that angered many in the city’s black community for its portrayal of African societies.

The apology stems from an exhibit called Into the Heart of Africa. 

Mark Engstrom, the museum’s deputy director, read the museum’s formal apology aloud at a special event at the museum where some guests were flown in from as far away as Ghana.

“The exhibition displayed images and words that showed the fundamentally racist ideas and attitudes of early collectors, and in doing so unintentionally reproduced a colonial, racist and Euro-centric premises,” he said.

Doing so, “perpetuated an atmosphere of racism.”

Toronto ROM Mark Engstrom

Mark Engstrom, the museum’s deputy director, delivered the formal apology Wednesday. (CBC)

The museum also apologized for the suffering endured by members of the African-Canadian community as a result of the exhibit.

Members of the Black community called for an apology at the time, but the ROM`s then-director John McNeill refused. “We put on a very good exhibition, a first-class exhibition,” he said in a 1991 interview. 

ROM Into the Heart of Africa masks

Some of the artworks displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum’s 1989 exhibit “Into the Heart of Africa.” (CBC)

ROM officials now say the exhibition was intended to “critically examine” how art and cultural objects from African societies had entered museums, but they acknowledge it backfired. They have been in talks for two years with some of the original protesters, who formed a group called the Coalition for the Truth About Africa, to arrange the formal apology.

Rostant Rico John

“We insisted that it must not be a hollow apology,” said Rostant Rico John, chairman of the Coalition for the Truth About Africa. He was involved in the negotiations with the Royal Ontario Museum. (CBC)

Members of the Coalition for the Truth About Africa have been invited to accept the apology, including poet and historian Afua Cooper and filmmaker and television producer Geraldine Moriba.  

“We insisted that it must not be a hollow apology,” said Rostant Rico John, chairman of the coalition, in an interview with CBC Toronto on Tuesday. “We worked very, very meticulously with [museum officials] to arrive at a good decision, and that decision was that the ROM would unequivocally apologize.” 

Into the Heart of Africa

The exhibit “Into the Heart of Africa” launched at the Royal Ontario Museum in November 1989. (CBC)

John says the group is satisfied that the apology shows “humility” on the part of the ROM.

He recalls the exhibit as “racist and insulting” when he first visited it.

“So disrespectful of our community, the assumptions that were in it and the overt racism that was coming out of it,” he said.

“It was so bad that we thought the first reaction might have been, ‘Let’s break this thing down.'”

Full text of apology

“The Royal Ontario Museum produced the exhibition Into the Heart of Africa, which opened at the Museum in November 1989. This exhibition was intended to critically examine the colonial relationships and premises through which collections from African societies had entered museums.

The exhibition displayed images and words that showed the fundamentally racist ideas and attitudes of early collectors and, in doing so, unintentionally reproduced the colonial, racist and Eurocentric premises through which these collections had been acquired.  Thus, Into the Heart of Africa perpetuated an atmosphere of racism and the effect of the exhibition itself was racist.  The ROM expresses its deep regret for having contributed to anti-African racism. The ROM also officially apologizes for the suffering endured by members of the African-Canadian community as a result of Into the Heart of Africa.”

Article source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/rom-apology-into-heart-africa-royal-ontario-museum-1.3840645?cmp=rss