Chris Blattman

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Museum exhibit of the year


The Metropolitan Museum in New York has an incredible Kongo exhibit.

  • One caveat to this review: I saw it at a blurry trot, trying to keep a two-year old from licking the statues and repeating “don’t run” and “don’t touch” every fifteen seconds while stealing glances at the actual exhibit.
  • One highlight were the holy objects and rituals that leaders developed to establish law and order, especially as colonialists took away their material power. Each nail hammered into the wooden object above, for instance, represented a binding contract that a holy man would enforce through whatever spiritual vengeance necessary. (I see a Peter Leeson paper in the future.)
  • Another highlight was the written letters from Kongo kings to other monarchs. Most of the letters on display asked European monarchs to send them more crucifixes. Personally I would’ve picked Alfonso I’s plea to the Portuguese king that his traders stop enslaving the royal family.
  • On the down side, you enter from the bright, brilliantly white, marbled Greek sculpture hall into…darkness. The room is only slightly better lit than a broom closet. It’s possible the works are exceptionally light sensitive. But I’m willing to bet the curator wanted to make you think you were on a steamboat under the jungle canopy.
  • Also, they were selling The Masque of Africa in the gift shop. Selling V.S. Naipaul is a little like going through the exhibit with your sort-of racist grandpa. If they were going to have foreign accounts they could have at least sold Micaela Wrong, Adam Hothschild, or Jason Stearns. At least I did not see Joseph Conrad. But like I said it was dark.
  • I am mostly jealous of my friend Suresh Naidu, who saw the exhibit with Jim Robinson, thus receiving an erudite running commentary. In a British accent! To my great envy, I even heard that Jim’s toddler was exceptionally well behaved. Possibly the child was too busy correcting errors in the museum guide. Mine tried to throw himself into the Egyptian reflecting pool.

Highly recommended, even with toddlers (but mostly without).

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