FOGIES more comfortable with the shrinelike museums of the past -- with dusty dioramas to ponder and wall text as long as your arm -- may cringe at the sonic blast that greets them inside the brand new exhibition hall that is the centerpiece of the National Museum of Natural History's African Voices project, an ongoing $5.5 million exhibition and education program dedicated to the history and culture of Africa.
"It is a bit cacophonous, isn't it?" laughs ethnologist and art historian Mary Jo Arnoldi, standing in the middle of the History Moments Pathway, a central corridor that tracks the history of Africa from the dawn of man 5 million years ago to the 1990s. From her vantage point, you can catch snippets of Afropop dance music, the recorded chatter of an open-air food market and the videotaped reminiscence of Somali immigrants to the United States about life in their homeland.
Arnoldi heads the curatorial team responsible for the aptly named African Voices Hall, where good, old-fashioned scholarship has come together with new media and the au courant philosophy that history should be relevant to form a lively -- and frequently vocal -- blend of artifacts old and new, video clips, contemporary music and first person narrative. In addition to the ubiquitous computer touch screens and headphone listening stations of the modern museum, a multi-monitor video wall greets you at the door like something out of a nightclub or a Nam June Paik installation.
There are wall panels that slide up and down to reveal additional information like the pull-down menus familiar to users of computer software. Many display areas also have three-sided blocks mounted on horizontal spindles that rotate to reveal additional information about the objects on display. Arnoldi calls them, descriptively enough, "turn things." To curator Christine Mullen Kreamer, however, they are the "who interactives," containing as they do important context about the people who made and use the historical articles in the glass cases.
There are musical instruments, clay pots, weapons, paper money, plastic cooking utensils, toys made out of recycled industrial material and a crude Western Conestoga wagon fashioned by a 14-year-old boy. Next to an elephant tusk and a rhinoceros horn is information about efforts to stop illegal poaching. In one vitrine, a graduation cap and gown from the University of Ghana hangs back-to-back with a traditional Tunisian wedding headdress and tunic. Nearby is a contemporary miniskirt ensemble by the late fashion designer Chris Seydou.
A mock-up of Tenda Omolo, a religious supply store in Bahia, Brazil, helps illustrate the African diaspora and its spiritual spinoffs, with a video documentary about the practice of Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria and Brazilian Umbanda. "We're the only museum that does the whole world," boasts Arnoldi.
Next to a corn husk antelope "mask" from Malawi that is as large as a small refrigerator run a series of quotes from African students in response to the question, "Imagine yourself walking through a museum in Washington, D.C., and you come upon the antelope mask. What memories come to mind?"
"Every label leads off with an African voice, and then a secondary, museum voice follows," says Arnoldi, explaining what she interprets as the paradigm shift moving actual Africans to the forefront of this exhibition and relegating curators like her to the background.
In one corner is a modern coffin by Ghanaian artist Paa Joe. It's in the shape of a bright blue KLM 747 jumbo jet, with windows decorated with Christmas wrapping paper. Across the room, two anonymous grave markers from the Congo, carved in the stylized shape of a man and a woman, probably for many come closer to looking like what they have seen before in an exhibition on African culture. But the disconnect between the more traditional 19th-century grave markers and the funky casket of 1997 is only jarring if, as Arnoldi says, "you want to put people in boxes" -- and she's talking about stereotypes and cliches here, not coffins.
"I want to introduce people to the complex identities and seeming contradictions of Africa today," she says. "I want to shake them out of what they expect at the Natural History Museum."
It's a tall order -- making sense of a continent three times the size of the United States, with 54 countries, more than 800 languages and 1,000 ethnic groups, but African Voices is a big step in that direction. A step that, as Arnoldi knows, encompasses the subjects of politics, slavery, public health, environmental conservation, art and anthropology.
"I know we can't tell them everything," she says of her audience, "but the one thing I want to do is surprise them. I want people to say, `Oh! I didn't expect that to be here.'"
AFRICAN VOICES is a new, permanent exhibition hall in the National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Federal Triangle). 202/357-2700. Web site: www.nmnh.si.edu. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibitions include:
Friday at noon -- Mary Jo Arnoldi and other exhibit organizers give a multimedia presentation about "African Voices." Baird Auditorium.
Saturday from 11:30 to closing -- Daylong Kwanzaa celebrations featuring talks at noon and 4 by cultural historian and Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga, as well as storytelling and traditional African music, dance and drumming.