For the third time in six years, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art is looking for a new director. Ngaire Blankenberg, a museum and cultural consultant who took up the post in July 2021, left the museum at the end of this March, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian confirmed. While the institution declined to discuss personnel matters, sources have told The Art Newspaper that Blankenberg was pushed to resign.
Writing over email from South Africa, where she is now based, Blankenberg says she “learned so much” during her time at the museum. “Although there was a lot of frustration, I have come away with much deeper insights into where some of the pain points lie when it comes to transformation,” she says. “If we are still committed to changing museums for the better (which I am), it's important to have a clear idea as to where the resistance lies and how it manifests,” Blankenberg said.
The National Museum of African Art is one of the smaller institutions in the Smithsonian’s network, but it has been at the center of some major movements in the museum world. Most recently, it was among several US museums to return its collection of Benin bronzes to Nigeria, after earlier taking the works off display. At the time, Blankenberg told The Art Newspaper: “We cannot build for the future without making our best effort at healing the wounds of the past.”
In a memo sent to all the Smithsonian directors in mid-April, Kevin Gover, the undersecretary for museums and culture, said Blankenberg “served as a catalyst for the museum’s return of the Benin bronzes to the National Commission for Museum and Monuments in Nigeria. She also was a leading voice in developing the Smithsonian’s new ethical returns policy, which authorizes museums to return collections to the communities of origins based on ethical considerations.”
The decision to return the works, which were among the 10,000 objects looted by British soldiers from the royal palace in Benin in 1897, was lauded as a long-overdue righting of a violent historical wrong. And Ngaire sees the return as her biggest accomplishment as director. “I showed it can get done,” she says.
But the situation has been complicated in recent months, first by a lawsuit brought by a New York-based organization called the Restitution Study Group to keep the Benin works in the US. Then in April, Nigeria’s outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari issued a declaration transferring ownership of any artefacts taken from the royal palace, including those “already repatriated and those yet to be repatriated”, to the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II, the traditional ruler of the Edo people. This caused considerable confusion among European museums that have been involved in repatriating works from their collections, as well as Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which has been overseeing the international effort.
Blankenberg’s personal mission hinged on “repositioning the museum for an international audience—especially millennials and Gen Z”, and she launched her tenure with a 24-hour event in Lagos involving Smithsonian-commissioned artists and curators. “My vision is to create, with an international presence in Africa and the African diaspora,” she said in a Smithsonian Magazine interview. “This museum for a long time has been about Africa, and it needs to be for Africans of Africa, celebrating global creativity.”
Ngaire tells The Art Newspaper she is proud of her attempts to open up the museum. “I don't know if many of the initiatives I put into place will continue—the institutional partnerships in Nigeria and South Africa, the Scholarly Advisory Committee, the African museology project, the Live Art series, the African design showcase, the Research Gallery to provide a space for the artistic community of DC—but I am really proud that I tried and I showed how much richer the museum could be if it just let other people make real contributions,” she says, “in this case artists, curators, designers, scholars, architects and the public who are both African and American and global all at once!"
Blankenberg says the biggest challenges she has faced in her efforts to enact change in the museum system “are individual and institutional resistance and then backlash”. She adds: “In my experience, most museum people are very well-meaning and are the first to acknowledge problems in the sector. But it's rhetorical. Few people are ready to grapple with their own inadvertent complicity in a system that benefits them, or that rewards them for a professionalism that is actually quite harmful. It’s hard to admit that many of the practices you have been trained in are violent in how they make different forms of knowledge and people invisible or invaluable. So there is resistance which manifests in all kinds of ways. But no one will come out and admit they actually don't support the change because they are more afraid of being called 'racist' or 'colonial' than looking inward at what they may be subconsciously doing that upholds a racist colonial system.”
“Despite the widespread public commitments to 'change', few seem to have the courage to ride out the inevitable waves that any change necessarily entails,” Blankenberg says. “There's a lot of pressure and hope put on individual leaders, especially Black women, but at the first sign of trouble... well she becomes the problem. It's becoming a cliché. Too much fear of lawsuits and not enough fear of becoming irrelevant or impotent—especially for a new generation who are pretty good at seeing through the platitudes.”
Blankenberg’s focus on ideological issues and international outreach, however, rather than collaborating internally and building a consensus within the museum, reportedly created a clash among staff as well as with the Smithsonian administration, according to an anonymous source close to the museum.
Adding to tensions perhaps was a history of complaints brought by former staff and board members alleging a culture of racism in the museum’s hiring practices, and demanding the removal of deputy director and chief curator Christine Kreamer. The claims came soon after the exit of the museum’s previous director, Gus Casely-Hayford, who left in 2020, after only two years at the post, to take up the helm at the V&A East in London. The respected Smithsonian administrator Deborah Mack was installed as interim director and the institution’s leader, secretary Lonnie Bunch, personally stepped in to investigate the accusations. Mack attributed the museum’s problems to “chronic understaffing”.
Taking over as acting director at the museum is John Lapiana, a senior advisor to the undersecretary of museums and culture who has also been serving as deputy director since last spring (after Kreamer retired in January 2022). He will remain in the post while the Smithsonian conducts an international search for a permanent replacement, guided by Greg Bettwy, chief of staff for the Smithsonian secretary.
In a statement, Lapiana said his priorities at the museum “are to ensure that the development and presentation of public programming and collaborations remain ambitious and uninterrupted (we just opened a major exhibition, From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya with Ayana V. Jackson, last week) and that the transition for the new director will be as smooth as possible. The staff and I look forward to the permanent director being able to ‘hit the ground running’.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Grant.