Immediate Things: Material Culture from West Africa questions how cultural artifacts are contextualized and valorized within museum spaces. Culled from the collection of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and the Michigan State University Museum, and featuring a selection of ritual, commemorative, and utilitarian objects originating in West Africa, this display takes the supporting documentation attached to the acquisition of each object as a point of departure. Once acquired, an artifact is transformed from an item of daily use or article for sale into a museum piece that aims to give viewers insight into a specific, and often distant, culture and site. In the case of the former Kresge—from which the Broad MSU has developed its collection—and the MSU Museum, many objects of African origin came into the collection through gifts made by MSU faculty and affiliates visiting or working in the region. This form of collecting, which has strong ties to ethnographic field work, raises questions about the ways in which Western museological practices shape the public’s understanding of other cultures.
What does it mean for cultural artifacts to be displayed in a contemporary art space today, at a time when museums are striving to be ever more attuned to the difficulties of naming and classifying? How can we expand our analytical lens beyond the notion of the ethnographic in order to consider the objects’ complexities? Displaying these objects within the contemporary context of the Broad MSU highlights the tensions inherent in their shifting meanings and uses over time. Rather than attempting to reconstruct their original function in its entirety—not always a possibility, given that much remains unknown and information is sometimes unrecoverable —this display takes a different approach, exploring how acquisition and classification processes add economic, aesthetic, and intellectual significance to objects dislocated from their origins. Immediate Things reads these works from the present point of view, taking into account their contingent status. This exhibition will feature a facsimiles of the object files—which include acquisition reports, provenance, and research gathered about each work—to help to illustrate the multiple, and at times conflicting, histories and values attached to the pieces.
Immediate Things: Material Culture from West Africa is organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and curated by Katja Rivera, Curatorial Assistant. Support for this exhibition is provided by the Broad MSU’s general exhibitions fund.