Tuesday, 16 February 2016

VODOU AT THE CANADIAN MUSEUM OF CIVILIZATION

EXHIBITION REVIEWS

BY: STEPHANIE READ

This week I would like to discuss a *past exhibition* which has so far been my absolute favourite exhibition ever! Presented by the Canadian Museum of Civilization (before it was renamed as the Canadian Museum of History), the exhibition, Vodou, ran from November 15th 2012 to February 23rd, 2014 and featured objects used in the practice of Vodou. The exhibition aimed to broaden visitors’ understanding of the spirituality, history and culture of the religion, while dispelling negative stereotypes which surround it, using a critical eye and the personal stories of Vodouists.

 Vodou Advertisement Poster @Canadian Museum of History, 2012

I was impressed with how the exhibition handled sensitive and often mis- or unrepresented subject matter with an approach that skilfully wove entertainment with opportunities for transformative experiences. Visitors entering the exhibition must walk down a long corridor featuring a timeline of stereotypical Hollywood depictions of ‘Voodoo’ as 'evil magic'. The visitor then reaches a bend in the corridor with rounded white walls covered in holes. Whispers emerge from the walls at different heights and I saw visitors reaching up or kneeling down beside the walls to listen to the stories of Vodouists living in Haiti, Canada or elsewhere. This design was very effective in its staging of the material to come; visitors are unable to merely pass the brightly-lit movie posters showing garishly-drawn Voodoo shamans, though neither can they ignore the voices of the real Vodouists as they enter the main exhibition gallery. What is required is a journey into the spaces of knowing between very public and the very private spheres.

Packets containing plant matter, soil and other items for initiates to secret societies. @ Canadian Museum of History, Marie-Louise Deruaz

Exhibition planners honoured the requirements and consultations of the communities represented, and some of these groups conducted religious ceremonies in the exhibition space before the opening of Vodou, making it a living space of spirituality as well as an area for learning. The exhibition included a wide variety of objects, from quilts to dolls to elaborate shrines recreated in the space. The objects were accompanied by much textual information on the historical and spiritual contexts of the works. I was amazed by the artistry of the Vodouists responsible for their creation.

Urn possessing the spirit of an Ibo ancestor. @ Canadian Museum of History, Frank Wimart

The exhibition design applied dramatic lighting within dark walls which evoked the intimate, shadowy places of the psyche. Interestingly, one section was preceded by a disclaimer due to the (understandably, for some!) ‘troubling’ nature of the artifacts including human remains. This separate section was slightly differently decorated and included a room entirely decorated for the purpose of use by Vodouists of a certain secret society, yet visitors could only catch glimpses of the room from outside via a handful of peepholes. The effect was to remind the visitor that the often personal and intimate nature of religion does not permit outsiders to ‘see the whole picture’, especially those who have not been initiated. The Vodouists are guardians of deep knowledge that cannot be cracked by mere contemplation of their objects of worship.

Workroom in a Secret Society @ Canadian Museum of History, Frank Wimart

Experiencing exhibitions like Vodou, which aim to tackle negative public perceptions while navigating the highly personal, contextual nature of the depicted subjects, is not only something we as visitors and museum enthusiasts can do in the physical sense; it is beneficial to go back every few years to see what information has lingered in our memories, what emotions we felt that have since grown, receded, or changed texture. Better yet, if you went with a friend or family member, be sure to ask them what they remember and compare memories! The highlight of this exhibition for me was when I had seen every gallery but one, and I had happily taken in as much information and sights I thought I could handle. Then, I entered the last room which was filled with gorgeous full-length mirrors with great dusty frames. This was a perfect end to an assertive kind of exhibition which was now challenging me as the visitor to contemplate myself in these grotesque, beautiful mirrors. I left the exhibition with a powerful memory of sustained active mindfulness, and I especially cherish this memory as a Museum Studies student today.

Sequin-covered ritual bottles. @ Canadian Museum of History, Marie-Louise Deruaz

Have you visited a Vodou exhibit or museum? Do you have a memory of seeing an exhibition which you believed met its learning objectives? Let me know in the comments below and we can discuss!

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