Symbolism, Foreshadowing, and the Museum of Great Britain in Black Panther
Lighting design, set decoration, and wardrobe are tools used by production designers to support narrative, establish location, and convey visual information about characters in a story. The overall effect of these elements is often subtle, even subliminal, yet each are deliberately chosen to serve a specific purpose. Works of art have their own ascribed symbolism and associated iconography, and therefore they function as important elements of foreshadowing and provide valuable insight when included as part of the mise-en-scene. The museum scene in Marvel’s Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) is a rich example of this in which African masks and the imaginary "Museum of Great Britain", play significant roles.
The scene opens on a wide shot of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) adorned in fashionable street clothes, standing alone in the African art gallery, with not one but three guards keeping an eye on him. When the harried white curator greets Erik in the gallery, he asks her to tell him about some of the objects, which turn out to be a nineteenth-century mask from the Bobo Ashanti tribe in present day Ghana, and a sixteenth-century Edo mask from Benin. While Ghana and Benin are neighbouring countries, it is worth noting that those masks are from disparate tribes and different time periods. It is typical museum practice to group objects from different eras together to observe the evolution of style or craftsmanship of a particular culture. Alternatively, objects created around the same time period by different cultures can be grouped together to compare similarities and study the differences between techniques, materials, and so on. It is highly unusual to place objects in the same display case that are from different tribes and different time periods. While this may easily have been an oversight, I contend that it serves an important purpose.
This culturally insensitive presentation reflects the tendency of European curators to consider all non-Western societies as one homogenous monoculture.1 This bias manifests in collecting and displaying practices that place all the objects from different peoples and different time periods into one case because, from their Western perspective, all of it is "foreign" and "exotic" and therefore all the same. This rhetoric further implies that what makes these cultural objects artistically interesting is their "primitive" aesthetics in stark contrast to the European masterpieces and the canon of Western art history.2
Colossal art museums such as the Louvre Museum in Paris, for example, are viewed as organisations of cultural authority and influence. The Louvre has undergone several re-installations over the course of its long history, and while Western art has remained a constant in the collection, arts from Africa and other French colonies were often excluded from exhibition at the museum. Instead, African objects were housed in alternative spaces such as museums of natural history or ethnography, where the artistic merit of the objects were downplayed and instead contextualised as evidence of the culture’s supposed simplicity in comparison to the technological advances attributed to the West.3 As such, what the Louvre chooses to display – and therefore decides what is or is not "art" – has political ramifications. By separating or excluding African art from its collection, institutions like the Louvre have been criticised for marginalising cultures outside of Europe. Furthermore, when they are displayed in art museums like the one in Black Panther, non-Western objects are often relegated to their own separate wing, far from the tourist-attracting work of Western masters. This problematic curatorial decision subscribes to a "separate but equal" approach to display and advances an historical practice which deems the artistic traditions of non-Western cultures to be of inferior quality, worth, and significance.4 As such, I believe Killmonger’s exchange with the patronising curator is a deliberate critique of the politics of museum collection and display.
This scene also vocalises criticism with regard to the way that cultural objects are regularly displayed in a sterilised environment. Rather than creating a neutral setting as intended, this contemporary curatorial practice divorces, isolates, and decontextualizes the intended purpose of the object, often whitewashing any cultural significance in the process.5 This very practice is echoed by the way we are introduced to Killmonger: alone in the gallery, surrounded by the whiteness of the gallery walls, facing the African weapons, displayed devoid of any cultural context – not unlike the way he, a weapon unto himself, was exiled from his homeland and surrounded by institutional whiteness during his educational career at MIT.6
In this way, the fine art museum in Black Panther can be read as a symbol of colonialism and oppression. Although it was filmed at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, the scene takes place in the fictional "Museum of Great Britain". Though this museum does not exist in real life, it is an obvious stand-in for the British Museum, which, like the Louvre, has a long and controversial history of acquiring art unethically through colonialist methods, and is currently involved in numerous repatriation projects to return looted objects to the cultures from which they were stolen.7 Killmonger stresses this fact when he corrects the curator’s misidentification of the Wakandan weapon, stating, "It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda." When she informs him that the objects are not for sale, he scathingly replies, "How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?"
The film culminates with an exhilarating face-off between Black Panther/T’challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger, who ends up mortally wounded. As the King of Wakanda, T’challa urges his cousin to surrender and let them heal him, but Erik refuses, adamantly stating, "Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage." This was a standout quote for the end of the movie and fully encapsulated Killmonger’s political philosophy. However, I contend that it was also meant to pay homage to the Igbo Landing of 1803 wherein seventy-five Igbo captives (from present-day Nigeria) lead a successful mutiny and managed to take control of the slave ship the Wanderer.8 When they ran aground off the Georgia coast, the group refused to be recaptured, choosing instead to march into the marshy waters together, committing mass suicide rather than become enslaved.9 This powerful legend of resistance is also relevant because the museum scene ends with Killmonger taking the Wakandan weapon and the jackal mask because he said he was "just feelin’ it." The jackal mask is a ceremonial mask called Mgbedike, which originates from none other than the Igbo tribe. This makes the mask itself a piece of foreshadowing, hinting at Killmonger’s eventual fate and dying words at the end of the film. Furthermore, the mask’s design is reminiscent of the mask Killmonger wears in the comics, and thus serves a dual purpose as a nod to the legacy of the character as well as narrative foreshadowing.
In conclusion, the museum scene plays a complex role in Black Panther. Its use of visual metaphor, cultural objects, and works of art conveys information visually that would otherwise be difficult to translate into words or spoken dialogue. Therefore, the African masks and weapons function as powerful symbolism and clever foreshadowing, while the museum setting provides necessary social commentary and curatorial criticism.