Following the lead of other major cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art redefines its purpose as overcoming the racism of Western civilization.
Having been instructed to see oppression behind portraiture and to hear silenced voices in tableaux of oysters and lemons, the chastened Met visitor may wend his way to “The African Origin of Civilization,” another show drawn from the Met’s own collections. He will find himself back in a world of prelapsarian innocence, where art, if not the collecting of it, is unencumbered by a debunking impulse and where the culture that gave rise to that art is accepted on its own terms, not measured against present values.
“The African Origin of Civilization” pairs artefacts from ancient Egypt with those from modern (from the thirteenth-century A.D. forward) Sub-Saharan Africa to demonstrate their alleged “shared origins,” as the Met puts it, and to “recenter” Africa as “the source of modern humanity and a fount of civilization.” A timeline runs around the walls noting significant moments in African history, such as the receipt of Grammy awards by pop stars from Benin and South Africa.
The show is based on the writings of Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986). Diop held that ancient Egypt was black, that ancient Egypt and modern Sub-Saharan Africa are part of a unified black civilization, and that this black African civilization, not Greece or Rome, is the source of Western civilization. The exhibit opens with a covertly doctored quote from Diop: “The history of Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians connect it with the history of Egypt” (more on that doctoring below). The exhibition “pay[s] homage” to Diop’s “seminal” 1974 book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, the Met explains.