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Curated By Black Panther’s Hannah Beachler, The Met’s First Afrofuturist Period Room Is A Conceptual Blockbuster

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Excavating Central Park in 2011, archaeologists found remnants of a lost Manhattan neighborhood. Known as Seneca Village, the settlement was a place of pride for dozens of African American families who sustained a vibrantly independent community over several decades before falling victim to eminent domain in the 1850s. Park advocates called the village a blight. The archaeology suggested a different story, in which developers leveled decades of prosperity with racist propaganda.  

What if Seneca Village had endured, and were still standing today? The Metropolitan Museum of Art implicitly asks this question by presenting a new period room that defies all expectations by encompassing both past and future in a single space.

The Met is singularly positioned to reconsider the history of Seneca, given that the museum is located just blocks from the lost neighborhood. Equally important, the Met has more experience with period rooms than any other museum in the country, with galleries depicting life in Imperial Rome, Ottoman Damascus, Colonial America, and dozens of other historic settings.

This background not only provided the Met with the expertise needed to build a room evocative of absent inhabitants. It also provided museum staff with keen understanding of the myriad ways in which period rooms distort the time period they ostensibly represent. “Every period room is predicated on the fiction of authenticity,” observes Sarah E. Lawrence, curator of European sculpture and decorative arts. Instead of trying to expurgate the unavoidable, she and her co-curators consciously engaged the fictive dimension.

In essence, they switched genres. Typical period rooms are a form of historical fiction, akin to Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers. The new room is speculative, the interior design equivalent of sci-fi.

One reason for the new approach is pragmatic. There just isn’t much left of Seneca. Although archaeologists can extrapolate information about social conditions from fragments of dishware and grooming products, the artifacts aren’t much to look at. The tradition of period rooms has been supported by the self-preservation of the upper classes, whose ostentatious displays of inheritance provide raw materials for the galleries. With their forcible removal from the community they created, the people of Seneca were denied the opportunity to preserve their material identity.

But the deeper motivation for a speculative period room is philosophical. The dreams of black families were abruptly ended in the 1850s when their homes were taken from them. This period room is a space where those dreams can be gathered anew. The curators have not designed a time machine to skate time’s arrow, but a forge where all of time can comingle. The coexistence of what was and what could be – set in dreamy synchronicity – transforms the dwelling into a temporal commons.

The Met calls this extraordinary space an Afrofuturist period room. The term is appropriate, given the conceptual underpinnings of Afrofuturism, a movement that builds on the African belief that past, present, and future are interlinked. Found in the work of Sun Ra and Octavia Butler, Afrofuturist ideas are also explored in the movie Black Panther. Further reinforcing the connection, Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler was chosen as the room’s lead curator.

The objects she selected with her collaborators tell a multilayered story. American antiques such as a butter churn and batter jug share space with African ceremonial objects such as a lavishly-beaded prestige stool and contemporary art by Lorna Simpson and Roberto Lugo. One of the most remarkable objects is a transistor radio found in a Nairobi dump by the Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru, modified with bright beading and fitted with multiple antennas, as if tuned to receive news from all possible worlds.

Kabiru’s Afrofuturist radio evokes the promise of Afrofuturism more broadly: the potential to repossess history, and to transmit the past that could have been into the present for the sake of a better future. Most period rooms are problematic because they romanticize the periods they represent, setting the dens of imperialism and colonialism in the aspirational language of House Beautiful.  Perhaps all could benefit from an Afrofuturist treatment.

It’s well worth asking what would have happened if Seneca Village had endured. Period rooms can also offer occasion to collectively consider what the world would be like were the palaces of past centuries to have been seats of social justice – and then to forge the present that might have ensued.