After 27 years the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has officially apologised to the Coalition for the Truth about Africa (CFTA).
At an event held at the museum in Toronto on November 9, the ROM delivered a statement of reconciliation saying it produced the exhibition, Into the Heart of Africa, which opened in November 1989.
It said the exhibition was intended to critically examine the colonial relationships and premises through which collections from African societies had entered museums.
“The exhibition displayed images and words that showed the fundamentally racist ideas and attitudes of early collectors and, in doing so, unintentionally reproduced the colonial, racist and Eurocentric premises through which these collections had been acquired. Thus, Into the Heart of Africa perpetuated an atmosphere of racism and the effect of the exhibition itself was racist. The ROM expresses its deep regret for having contributed to anti-African racism. The ROM also officially apologises for the suffering endured by members of the African-Canadian community as a result of Into the Heart of Africa,” said Dr Mark Engstrom, the museum’s deputy director, collections and research, who read the statement and was the person guiding the reconciliation process for the ROM over the past two years.
The CFTA came into being in the fall of 1989 after a number of individuals had seen the exhibition, Into the Heart of Africa, and concluded that it was racist and decided to do something about it.
Josh Basseches, director and CEO of the ROM, said the reconciliation event marked an extremely important milestone for both the CFTA and the ROM.
He said the ROM had evolved significantly from the museum it was in 1989 and today collaborates and engages with diverse communities on exhibitions, events, and programming.
Martha Durdin, chair of its board of trustees, said the board is committed to ensuring that the museum is a welcoming place for communities.
Rostant Ras Rico John, who accepted the apology on behalf of the CFTA and the African community in Canada, expressed pride in having reached this point of reconciliation after twenty-seven years.
“It took a long time to get to that point but the ROM understood its responsibility and moved forward and invited us in 2014 to get together with them to work out some form of getting together to bring respect and dignity back to the African community in Canada here.”
He said the ROM’s team worked diligently and honestly with CAFTA and though there were “little bumps” to overcome, they did so. “We worked out many very good plans and those plans will benefit the African community here in Canada.
When a wrong has been done it has to be righted and the efforts that were put down have made it right,” he said, acknowledging the collective work of his CAFTA colleagues: Yaw Akyeaw, Ajamu Nangwaya, Afua Cooper and Geraldine Moriba.
The ROM’s negotiating team included Basseches, who became CEO in 2015, Engstrom, Cheryl Blackman and Silvia Forni.
John said in addition to the apology, which was one of the introductions to the affirmative action that will be taken, the ROM itself initiated some that CFTA did not ask for and also agreed with a lot of those they wanted.
“There will be a lot of good works in the future coming out through the ROM and through the efforts of the CFTA.”
The ROM announced a number of steps it will take in the coming years to continue to strengthen collaboration with African-Canadian communities and help shape the museum of the future.
Cooper thanked the ROM for “opening its compassionate heart so we could work together to do this,” and also curators, Julie Crooks and Dominque Fontaine.
She said the present administrative structure of the museum is different from that of 1989 and she feels that it is genuine and sincere.
Cooper thanked Ras Rico for taking the leadership on the matter for the CFTA as well as the African Canadian community.
“Many of us suffered as a result of our taking the ROM to task during those years. People lost their jobs, people had to flee the city of Toronto, people were harassed by the police, people had difficulty crossing the borders, people were jailed, and even one person, Adisa Oji, was incarcerated in a prison in Windsor, Ontario and was not able to practice his craft as a teacher.”
Akyeaw, who flew in from his home in Ghana for the event, said there was no doubt that Into the Heart of Africa was racist and that the arrests were racist and illegal because it was mainly black protesters who were detained. The white ones who were arrested were released that day.
“It was a racist situation but we’re here to heal,” he said.
He said in Ghanaian culture a person apologizes to cool the heart.
“If that’s all the ROM did I would have been disappointed but they took steps, they took action,” he said.