What visitors will see in the freshly reinstalled African art galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts — besides a de-cluttered exhibit space that gives the collection room to breath — is a glimpse of the museum’s future.
Want to learn more about the intricately carved, 250-year-old elephant tusk from the kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria? It’s one of about 20 objects from the collection visitors can study in greater detail on six iPads installed in the gallery.
An 82-inch multi-touch monitor mounted on one gallery wall offers a different entry point into the African art collection. Several users at once can tap a map of Africa to pull up information on the territories of ancient kingdoms, the dispersal of religions and languages across the continent or routes used in the slave trade.
The infusion of interactive technology is part of “the digital experience,” a museum initiative that goes by the acronym TDX. The redesigned African galleries are a test case for how handheld devices and monitors might supplement the traditional means of delivering exhibit information — the wall-mounted text label — in other parts of the museum. Among the extras visitors will find on the iPads are interviews with members of the Twin Cities’ African immigrant community.
After a 10-month closure, the galleries are reopening with more than a technological upgrade. The space feels more open, in part because the renovations removed a wall that divided the galleries, but also because the number of objects on display has been pared down to fewer than 100 in the two main rooms of African art.
Dark ceiling tiles add just a touch of drama to the lighting. And unlike most of the institute’s white and grey galleries, there are touches of color on the walls: vertical strips of red and indigo back some of the display cases.
Curator Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, who heads the museum’s Arts of Africa and the Americas Department, said the theme of the reinstallation was “African art in motion.”
The idea was to give visitors a 360-degree view, or something close to it, of many of the pieces in the exhibit.
Masks are installed in three-sided glass cases built into the galleries’ floor-to-ceiling support columns. Visitors can walk all around a stunning Egungun costume from Western Africa. That’s good, because it was designed for viewing from every angle: its rectangular strips of patterned fabric are meant to accentuate the movements of a spinning dancer.
Objects are displayed in thematic groupings, and so the Egungun costume — used by the Yoruba people in masquerades that honor their ancestors — is among a cluster of objects related to “communing with the spirit word,” as Grootaers put it. They include one of the oddest and most remarkable pieces in the collection, a Kono altar.
At first glance, the altar looks like an animal figurine molded out of clay or mud. But at its core (a recent CT scan proved, providing evidence of its authenticity) is a cotton doll, and the covering is not mud but a dried crust of animal blood, millet porridge and other liquid offerings that were poured over the doll.
These rituals were performed by the Kono, a men’s spiritual association within the Bamana culture of Mali. Grootaers called the alter, also known as a “boli,” a “battery of vital energy.”
At one time, he added, there was probably a boli in every village, but the as Bamana have converted to Islam they’ve gotten rid of them, and the once secret and sacred objects are turning up in galleries and museums. The institute’s boli is an object of captivating mystery.
“I do have to say probably none are as beautiful as this one,” Grootaers said.
It’s slightly jarring to see the roughly 100-year-old boli displayed near Egyptian artifacts millennia older, but the galleries’ thematic groupings prize similarities in design or function over those of age or geographic origin. In a display of African instruments the carved-ivory Egyptian clappers may predate most of the other percussion instruments they are displayed next to by 2,500 years or more, but it’s up to the attentive museum visitor to figure that out.
It’s an approach, though, that honors the (in most cases, unknown) makers of these objects — as artists, not simply as subjects of anthropological curiosity. It’s a change perhaps more important than remodeling or a technological upgrade, and a welcome one.
Reopened African galleries
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S.
Info: artsmia.org, 870-3000