The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: The Failure of the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Into the Heart of Africa”

Royal Ontario Museum apologizes over racist exhibit ... 27 ...
Banner announcing exhibition outside ROM

Museums have secured a place in contemporary society as a space for the general public to educate and reflect, but in recent years museums have struggled with their role as an authority in a postmodern world. Exhibitions aiming to challenge this authority have grown in popularity, but the introduction of postmodern themes in the museum requires a delicate balance on the part of the museum and curator. The Royal Ontario Museum attempted to navigate the postmodern and postcolonial world through the use of irony in their 1989 exhibition, Into the Heart of Africa. The exhibition aimed to explore Canada’s role in African colonialism and critique the museum’s role in colonial collecting, but the execution of the exhibition led visitors to miss the irony in favor of an interpretation supporting violence, racism, and oppression. This case study offers a look at the position museums hold in a post-colonial world and how one attempt to cast off a colonial history failed tremendously.

Royal Ontario Museum wows in Toronto | Group Tour magazine
The Royal Ontario Museum

The exhibition, Intro the Heart of Africa, was organized by guest curator Jeanne Cannizzo for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and ran from November 16th, 1989 to May 21st, 1990. The exhibition came out of Cannizzo’s viewing of the museum’s small collection of objects from West and Central Africa given to the museum by families of Canadian missionaries and former soldiers in the British African colonies. The museum never displayed the objects since they received them at the turn of the century and after viewing the 475 objects, Cannizzo concluded that there were not enough objects to properly represent the cultural diversity, social complexity, and artistic achievements of the people of Central Africa, so she decided to create an exhibition which focused on the life of the objects and put together an exhibition which critiqued colonial collecting which formed the basis for many of the ethnographic museums around the world. The title for the exhibition was chosen to play off the title of the 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The novel describes a voyage up the Congo River into Central Africa and the central theme challenges ideas about the differences of colonists and Africans to raise questions about imperialism and racism. The title also references a popular travel book during the end of the 19th century titled “Into the Heart of Africa” which served as a reference guide for many of the colonists who traveled to Africa during the period. The intended plan was to create a postmodern exhibition by foregrounding how the objects changed meaning over time and examine the colonial history of the object- when, how, why and in what context were they acquired by Canadian colonialists, how they were viewed and used by the original collectors, how they became a part of the museum collection in Toronto, and what the objects tell us about the museum itself. By critiquing the origins of the collection, and with it the colonial origins of much of the museum’s holdings, Cannizzo intended to acknowledge the complaints against museums in postmodern society that they were not fully recognizing the consequences of the colonial period. It was an attempt to respond to a call for new museum practices which suited the postmodern world and cast off the traditional place museums held as locations of authority and power. The museology community asked institutions to make themselves and their publics aware of the history of their collections, whether good or bad, and the values that the objects inherited because of said histories and for museums to become increasingly more self-aware. Unfortunately, the intentions of the Royal Ontario Museum to implement these changes were lost entirely on the general public and Into the Heart of Africa was a complete failure.

Royal Ontario Museum apologizes over racist exhibit ... 27 ...
Protesters outside ROM following the opening of the exhibition

Shortly after the opening of the exhibition, the general public responded combatively. Protests sprung up around the museum, complaints were sent to museum staff and local newspapers, and finally violent encounters with the Toronto police erupted as protesters reached their breaking point. The exhibition managed to offend everyone from the descendents of the colonial officers depicted in the exhibition to art historians of African art, but most notably African and African-Canadians who viewed the exhibition as a pro-colonialist celebration of the oppression inflicted upon their ancestors. Out of the protests came a new organization, The Coalition for the Truth About Africa, who fought with the museum throughout the entire exhibition for change within the exhibition and eventually its immediate closure. The Coalition were the driving force behind much of the protesting outside the Royal Ontario Museum during the exhibition and tensions between the Coalition and Museum continued long after the exhibition closed. 

One of the most cited failures on the part of the museum was the text which accompanied the exhibition, both in the press release prior to the exhibition opening and the labels which went along with the objects displayed in the exhibition. Before the exhibition opened, the Royal Ontario Museum produced test brochures which were given to a focus group to gauge audiences’ reactions to the exhibition before it opened. The initial brochure was immediately scrapped by the group who deemed the texts “tired and stereotypical about Africa.” The museum changed the publication, which then proclaimed the exhibition to be “a historical journey through the world of sub-Saharan Africa…the rich cultural heritage of African religious, social and economic life is celebrated through objects brought back by Canadian missionaries and military men over 100 years ago.” Visitors who came to the exhibition were expecting to find such a journey through African culture, but were instead confronted with imagery of violence against Africans, recreated videos of derogatory narratives, and a complete lack of response or voice from any of the Africans being colonized. The show was labeled “a clear and concise attempt to mislead the public and further tarnish the image of Africa and African people.” This misguidance was only compounded by the easily misinterpreted labels which accompanied most of the objects in the exhibition. The labels utilized quotation marks in an attempt to show the kind of language used by missionaries and colonialists during the period, so phrases such as “dark continent”, “barbarous”, and “primitive” were all placed in quotation marks to signal to readers that the museum was using the terms ironically in a nod to the way colonists used them, but the messages were complicated by the fact that many titles, metaphors and some object descriptions were placed in quotation marks as well. For some, they understood the use of the quotation marks as disapproving disclaimers, but for many others they served as a way of deviously “sugarcoating” the words. Visitors expect certain conventions of a museum, particularly in their labeling. The assumption is that the textual messages align with the visual messages provided by the objects. By not following this institutional norm, the ROM was taking a large uncalculated risk.

The issues of misreading or even skipping labels entirely caused the largest uproar against the exhibition with the display of an enlarged photo from the Illustrated London News of 1879, “Lord Beresford’s Encounter with a Zulu.” The enlarged image showed a mounted British soldier piercing a sword into the chest of an African warrior. For most, the image spoke significantly louder than anything the label accompanying it could have said and most visitors, particularly African-Canadians could not move beyond the violence depicted. The violence shown failed to respond as intended against “jingoistic Victorian imperialism” and instead perpetuated the exact statements made by those same Victorian imperialists.

ROM ReCollects Historical Timeline | Into the Heart of Africa
Cover of Exhibition Catalogue

A similar response was reflected in another portion of the exhibition where the museum had recreated a seven-minute magic-lantern-illustrated lecture that a missionary may have given during the turn of the century to promote their cause and encourage fundraising for their mission trips. Warnings were posted outside the screening room as well as at the beginning and the end of the video proclaiming: “the sense of cultural superiority and paternalism that you will hear in this fictional narrative was characteristic of missionary worldview at the time. So was the genuine spirit of adventure and the sincere belief that missionaries were bringing “light” to the “dark continent.” This disclaimer does not criticize the fictional narrative nor does it do anything to distance itself from the words being said. If someone had joined the film after it began and left before it finished, they would have not seen the disclaimer and would have had no signal that the commentary was fictional. Worse yet, the narrative could be heard throughout that surrounding area of the exhibition, the voice wafting through the space framing visitors’ viewing and one visitor exclaimed that the voice delivering highly derogatory commentary “could have been that of the ROM’s director on his intercom for all I knew.” 

It is clear that the exhibition was a complete failure from the uproar of negative responses it received soon after it opened. The show was slated to travel to four more museums throughout North America, but following the opening of the exhibition, all four museums cancelled their installation of the exhibition. It received criticism from all sides and curator Jeanne Cannizzo was forced to leave her position as an associate professor at the University of Toronto after facing protests and criticism in her classes. The museum continued to insist Cannizzo’s intentions were good, throughout the whole run of the exhibition they continued to stand by the belief that the exhibition that they had put together was for the good of the community and the museum world. Cannizzo was aiming to do good in her intentions but it was in the execution of the intentions that she misstepped. The intention of the curator was to use the irony in the museum exhibition as a guide to educate Canadians (specifically White European-Canadians) about Canada’s overlooked role in the colonization of Africa and to guide visitors through a critique of the colonist’s actions as well as museum’s role in the colonization process. The guide-like quality of the exhibition, like most of the other intentions, was lost. Irony can either act as a guide or a seducer, but in the case of Into the Heart of Darkness, neither quality of irony came to fruition and this is perhaps one of the reasons the irony used in the exhibition was a failure. A museum is a means through which a society negotiates its relationship with its own history and with the histories of other cultures. Museums are attempting to follow along with the changes in contemporary society, particularly the shift into the “postmodern” world, but museums are also sites of ideological production where structures of power and authority are upheld through the use of knowledge. Postmodernism challenges traditional structures of authority, so by intending to create a “postmodern” exhibition, Cannizzo and the ROM intended to disregard and dismantle society’s very understanding of what a museum is. Cannizzo did not take into consideration that unless otherwise guided to think otherwise, the general expectation is that a museum exhibit speaks with an authoritative voice and using irony is entirely lost on an audience which anticipates the messages from a museum to be straightforward, informative, and authoritative. One of Cannizzo’s many big mistakes was assuming that every visitor to the exhibition would view the exhibition through the same framework from which she created the exhibition. This is often a mistake that creative people struggle with in the process of creating works because one’s life experiences will situate each individual differently within contemporary culture and their situated place in society affects the way individuals process every piece of culture they consume. A White European-Canadian woman with an education in art history and museum studies with no personal or familial connections to the works on display could never anticipate the way a general public would understand the materials. For this reason, museums use wall labels and curation practices to guide visitors to a mutual understanding, but this exhibition offered no such guide and the guests were left to interpret images of colonialism, oppression and racism through the lens of their own position in society. The total removal of the modernist authority of museums sent the visitors to the exhibition into free-fall. 

Items on display in “Into the Heart of Africa” exhibition, 1989

As discussed, Into the Heart of Africa was an exhibition in response to the call for a “new museology” in the postmodern world. It was an unsuccessful attempt, but using this exhibition one can analyze how museums and curatorial practices fit into a postmodern world. In the early 1980s, discussions of a “new museology” came to the forefront of the museum world. By encouraging self-awareness, the assumption was that museums would be free of the limitations of authority and museums would be allowed to take on subjects which had previously been viewed as too controversial because the public would be more aware and less complacent about what they expect to find in museums. This assumption put a lot of pressure on the general public to suddenly understand the shift and completely rethink museums. Museums have inherited the role of being places of special authority and respect and have the cultural responsibilities that come with such power. That role can not be abandoned quickly or easily. Richard Rorty discusses the idea of a “final vocabulary” which is used to describe one’s beliefs and like any other major cultural institution, there is a final vocabulary to our beliefs about museums. The vocabulary which defines our understanding and beliefs of museums, in this case ethnographic museums, are based in the Enlightenment view of science as objective, value-based, and universal. Ethnographic museums have adopted the authority due to their connection with science to represent other cultures and our final vocabulary has instructed us that museums represent facts accurately and objectively. While Cannizzo and the ROM are challenging the final vocabulary of museums, the concept of “a final vocabulary” and the concept of postmodernity had not entered the consciousness of the general public to the extent that the museum needed for the exhibition to be understood the way it was intended to be understood. The practice of utilizing irony to confront difficult and often sensitive subjects often used today was unheard of and the perception was that the use of irony, according to the Toronto Board of Education in response to the exhibition, was “a highly inappropriate luxury.” It’s perhaps easy to excuse the museum’s actions by saying that the general public just didn’t get it, that if they had gotten it, it would have been a success.

Would the exhibition be successful if it were created today in a world where postmodernist and post-ironic thought are more readily understood and used?

Even today, using irony is a risk because it requires the creator of the irony and the person receiving the irony to both understand one another and that delicate matching of understanding is what makes irony so unstable. In this case, in 1989 and in 2021, the stakes for using irony in a museum setting to discuss racism are too high. During the opening of the exhibition, the city of Toronto was experiencing heightened racial tensions following several police shootings of black youth much like today in cities around the United States. The ironies used in the exhibition relied too heavily on an audience which could politically detach from the racism and violence shown in the exhibition’s visual images, but for many, the exhibition was reflecting the violence and racism that was occurring everyday in their city. Professor Brenda Austin-Smith of the University of Manitoba said in response to the exhibition that;

“Irony requires a degree of coolness, a measure of distance on the part of the perceiver in order to succeed. That distance comes easily to those whose history has not been one of brutal oppression. It is difficult to remain detached from a depiction of racism “in history” when racism itself is not history.”

An issue was that the exhibition was successfully postmodern in the deconstruction of museum authority, but the exhibition failed to be post-colonial. Cannizzo and the ROM never placed any language of judgement throughout the entire exhibition, most likely in an attempt to avoid openly offending missionary and military families who were the ones who donated the collection to the museum. Choosing not to take a stand on the subject could be seen as a postmodern refusal to provide a single master narrative of truth, but from a postcolonial perspective, especially given the authority of the institution, the irony and ambiguity is seen as evasion. Silence on the subject can easily be misunderstood as support for it. While the exhibition was a push towards the “new museology” which fit into the postmodern world, dealing with the subject of colonialism and not incorporating postcolonial commentary was a failure on the part of the museum. 

There were obvious missteps on the part of the curator and the Royal Ontario Museum which led to the catastrophic failure. The exhibition had the intentions and potential to be a thought-provoking look at race, colonialism, and the museum’s status as a place of power and authority, but ultimately failed and created a strong case study for museums today to consider how they can address race and colonialism in their own museums. The postmodern use of irony throughout Into the Heart of Africa was perhaps the most crucial failure of the exhibition as the irony failed to acknowledge postcolonial commentary and created a sense of avoidance and ignorance on the subject of the effects colonialism had on the people of Africa. The exhibition was an utter failure on several levels, but the Royal Ontario Museum and curator, Jeanne Cannizzo, pushed onwards with a postmodern dream filled with all the best intentions without taking their position as a place of authority (and historically, oppression) into account.

-Claire Sandberg

Note: The Royal Ontario Museum did not issue a formal apology for the exhibition until 2016.

In 2018, the ROM launched their “Of Africa” project, a multi-platform and multi-year project aimed at rethinking historical and contemporary representations of the African continent. This project includes exhibitions and programming aimed at celebrating and sharing art, music, and culture from throughout the African continent. To read more about this project, click here.

Museums need to do better, recognizing the valuable role they have in society as places of cultural contemplation, education, and celebration. There is still work to be done. Museums are not neutral.

In 1992, artist Fred Wilson created an exhibition, “Mining the Museum,” at the Maryland Historical Society, which utilized irony and satire to provide a new outlook on colonialism, slavery, and race. Irony and satire are tools museums can use to re-examine their position, but are tools that must be used carefully and accurately.


Exhibition Catalogue

Austin-Smith, Brenda. “Into the Heart of Irony.” Canadian Dimension, 24 (1990): 51-52. 

Burrett, Deborah. “”Into the Heart of Africa”: Curatorship, Controversy, and Situated Knowledges.” In Post-Modernism and the Ethical Subject, edited by Barbara Gabriel and Suzan Ilcan, 125-45. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.

Cannizzo, Jeanne. Into the Heart of Africa. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1989.

Fulford, Robert. “Into the Heart of Political Correctness.” The National Post, November 24, 2007.

Hutcheon, Linda. “The Post Always Rings Twice: The Postmodern and the Postcolonial.” Material History Review 41 (Spring 1995): 4-23. 

Royal Ontario Museum . “Royal Ontario Museum and the Coalition for the Truth About Africa Release Reconciliation Statement and Engagement strategy.” News release, November 9, 2016. Royal Ontario Museum.

Schildkrout, Enid. “Ambiguous Messages and Ironic Twists: Into the Heart of Africa and The Other Museum.” Museum Anthropology 15, no. 2 (1991): 16-23. 

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