Museum curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock couldn’t believe it.
After spending five years organizing a major exhibit on medieval African art at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, she was told last week that nearly two dozen pieces wouldn’t arrive in time for the show’s Jan. 26 opening.
The pieces were on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The government shutdown meant staff is furloughed and couldn’t ship the items.
“There was a great disappointment,” Berzock said Monday. “In a 20 year professional career in museums, I’ve never had to deal with a government shutdown of this length.”
Neither has anyone else. It’s the longest government shutdown in American history.
Berzock traveled the globe to carefully select pieces for this exhibit, called “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa.” Museums in Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom all have lent items. It would be the first exhibit of its kind in North America to examine this region during that time and connect civilizations using objects from that period.
“It brings into the mainstream a story about Africa that's rarely told and a time in African history that predates colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade,” Berzock said. “Each object in the exhibition can be traced back to that period of time. So each object plays a really essential role in telling the story.”
The exhibit will include items excavated from the Sahara desert as well as items from the 19th and 20th century to show the legacy of these original artifacts. Many of the more modern items were coming from the Smithsonian, including a gold necklace that uses pendant forms and techniques dating back to the medieval period. Museum staff wanted to display the pieces together to show how the techniques connect to the past.
“That’s why the Smithsonian loans are so important,” said Lisa Corrin, the museum’s director. “There’s no way to tell the story without them.”
The Block Museum was worried without the Smithsonian pieces, the exhibit would be woefully incomplete. Their backup plan was to display photos of the missing items until the shutdown is resolved. But dignitaries from Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria are flying in for the opening.
“This may be the only chance they have to see exhibition,” said Berzock. “We really want it to be the best it can be and reflect the vision that everybody has worked so hard together to realize.”
Then, on Thursday, the museum got good news.
The Smithsonian was able to gather a small group of staff exempted from furlough to pack the items. Employees are allowed to work if they’re responsible for the protection of Smithsonian collections, including anything from objects and archives to animals.
The Block Museum will have to pay for packing and for a new truck to transport the items, an additional cost to the museum. But the items are now expected to arrive on time.
“We’re thrilled first of all and very, very grateful to our colleagues at the National Museum of African Art,” Corrin said. “They really went the distance to make sure this can happen. It’s an incredible commitment on their part.”
The circumstances are so unusual that even a museum spokesperson was unsure who made the decision to allow staff to pack the items.
The exhibition will travel to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto this fall and then the National Museum of African Art in spring 2020.
Block Museum staff are breathing a sigh of relief as they prepare for the exhibit to open next week, but Berzock says the hiccup reveals the extent to which the shutdown is affecting society.
“The protracted quality of the shutdown is amplifying the domino effect to cultural institutions, just as it is to all the other departments that rely on the government to keep going,” Berzock said.