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Field Museum needs to reimagine its African exhibit, says new curator who plans to do just that

Foreman Bandama, the museum’s new assistant curator of African anthropology, says the 30-year-old exhibit is out of date. A new exhibit will highlight African innovation, he says.

The Field Museum’s new assistant curator of African anthropology talks to museum visitors Maureen Haines and her kids Nicholas and Evie about African metalwork with the museum’s collection.
Foreman Bandama, the Field Museum’s new assistant curator of African anthropology, talks to museum visitors Maureen Haines and her kids Nicholas and Evie about African metalwork with the museum’s collection.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Foreman Bandama is an African archaeologist and curator with the Field Museum, but he doesn’t want you to visit the Africa exhibit just yet.

“If you said let’s go to the Africa hall today, I would not want to go with you,” Bandama said.

The showcase hasn’t been updated since it opened up to the public in 1993. In his new role as assistant curator of African anthropology, he wants to reimagine the exhibit — something the museum is already planning to do, he said.

The Field Museum’s Africa exhibit should do more to celebrate the continent’s innovation and achievements, according to Bandama.

“The hall is old and needs to be updated. It’s not communicating these achievements that I’m talking about here,” he said.

Bandama says museum-goers do not typically expect to find innovation in the Africa exhibit, Bandama said, like they do with European exhibits. He wants to change that.

“Africa is the one place on the continent where almost everything has been taken for granted,” he said. “Africa objects outside of Africa must speak to the African story. They must highlight what Africa was able to do, that Africa was also a place of knowledge production.”

With Bandama’s vision of showcasing African ingenuity, Kate Golembiewski, the museum’s science communications manager, said she hopes the exhibit will move towards a more nuanced representation of Africa.

The Field Museum also plans to bring in leaders from African communities to help curate the new exhibit, Golembiewski added.

Foreman Bandama takes a mask from Ghana out of a glass case.
Foreman Bandama takes a mask from Ghana out of a glass case. At an open house at the Field Museum, he talks to visitors about African metalwork from the museum’s behind-the-scenes collection.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The museum’s existing collection already has objects that demonstrate the technology and innovation among Africans throughout history.

At an open house at the Field Museum Wednesday, Bandama showed off a weight from Ghana shaped like a peanut, which was made of brass and used to measure gold. He pointed to the details in the craftsmanship in the item, which is not currently on display.

Although he wasn’t sure why the artist chose the design, peanuts were a staple of their diet and likely considered valuable at the time.

“Today, if I’m trying to sell gold, I don’t think I would use a peanut,” he said.

The collection also has bangles with detailed etchings representing marriage and fertility.

Bandama comes to the Field Museum from academia. He was formerly a lecturer at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, South Africa and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cape Town. As a curator, he said he still gets to teach — but now his “students” are the museum’s visitors.

In his research, he has specialized in the anthropology of technology, and the mining and metallurgy of Iron Age agriculturalist communities.

“The main thing that drives me is the need to present African achievements,” he said. “With metals, you can pin down this particular technology, you can tell that people are being innovative.”