A music video created by Beyoncé Knowles and Sean Jay-Z Carter and featuring them in Paris’ famed Louvre Museum ignited conversations about who have traditionally been invited to show their work – and interact with objects of art – in museums.
In a paper published earlier this year in The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, two researchers analyzed the video for The Carters’ song APES**T and discussed how its setting in the Louvre should inspire museum curators, educators and directors to make museums more inclusive.
“When you are a museum educator or a curator or anyone in this space, and you’re thinking about what to showcase and how to showcase, this video shows how important it is to be thinking about curation as a whole mind and body experience, not only as the placement of art objects,” said Joni Boyd Acuff, associate professor of arts administration, education and policy at The Ohio State University and co-author of the paper.
“Anybody who has the critical consciousness to know what kind of barriers Black people have can feel that in this video. This video is liberation; it’s Beyoncé saying, ‘I don’t have any barriers. I can be in any space. I can make my own narrative in front of this narrative.'”
Specifically, the researchers recommended that museum curators and art educators:
- Critically consider the narratives in their galleries, with an eye toward how Black women are positioned as subjects, artists and viewers.
- Encourage programs inside museums that differ from the stories museums have traditionally told.
- Commit to being places where all visitors feel comfortable. This especially applies to Black and brown women, the researchers argue.
- Work with the communities around them, rather than separately from those communities.
“Museums were created for certain people to feel comfortable in the galleries, and if that is how your museum is operating, you are not grappling with the real world,” said Dana Carlisle Kletchka, assistant professor of art museum education at Ohio State and co-author of the paper.
“And if you’re a museum worker and you’re not considering the real world implications of your work, then you are not doing your job.”
The Beyoncé video was released in June 2018, and, almost immediately, journalists and cultural critics noticed and wrote about the statement Beyoncé and Jay-Z were making.
A summation for those who haven’t seen the video: It starts outside the Louvre, in the heart of Paris, where an angel crouches in the dark. The camera pulls back, and shows his ripped jeans, dreadlocked hair and brown skin. Then, inside the famous museum: images of a painted ceiling, and of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, standing in front of the Mona Lisa, knowing half-smiles on their faces, like that of the famous painting.
The rest of the video is an essay in juxtaposition, the researchers said: Dancers move in front of immobile art. Beyoncé, dressed in flowing white fabric, dances in front of a statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. A Black woman tenderly combs out a Black man’s hair, seated in front of the Mona Lisa. Beyoncé and a line of dancers hold hands in front of a massive painting of Napoleon’s coronation.
The dancers are all Black, and the works of art almost exclusively feature white subjects – and were almost exclusively created by white artists.
One exception is the Great Sphinx of Tanis, which was found in the ruins of the former capital of Egypt and acquired by the Louvre in 1826. The sphinx shows the body of a lion with the head of a king. In the video, Beyoncé and Jay-Z stand in front of it, dressed in what looks like royal robes.
These juxtapositions, the researchers said, can help museum curators, educators and exhibition designers and others who decide how art is displayed to think about why it is important to bring artists who are not white and who are not male – the two demographics that have defined the museum-art world for much of history – into their galleries.
“What I hope it’s doing is reminding people who work in museums that there are myriad ways to interpret what is on the walls and that one of those ways is by considering where it is placed, how it is understood, and ways to bring in other narratives,” Kletchka said.
“And I think anytime you are working on behalf of the public, you better be really concerned about the implications of what your work does and the narratives that you put out for other people, because whether or not they’re explicit or implicit, those narratives have power.”
The Louvre started as a fortress for the French monarchy, and initially held the royal collection of art – not as a museum open to the public, but for friends of the king and his family to enjoy privately. Many museums and art collections started as private collections by either a royal family or the very wealthy, Kletchka said, meaning that, from their origins, art collections were reserved for the wealthy.
The Louvre was remade as a museum after the French Revolution – the revolutionaries seized it and officially opened it to the public in 1793, one year to the day after Louis XVI, the last king of France, was removed. At that time, France was enslaving African people in its Caribbean colonies. (Slavery was abolished in France in 1848.)
The researchers point out in their paper that narratives in the Louvre almost entirely excluded people who were not white.
“From the Middle Ages up to the 19th century, works of art largely depict Black people as servants and secondary figures,” they wrote. “They were not considered worthy subjects of paintings, sculptures or others kinds of elite cultural works.”
This video showcased Beyoncé, Jay-Z and the dancers as valuable – as valuable as works of art – and the researchers said it’s an important lesson for people who choose and arrange exhibits.
“When you go into a museum and it’s in line with every other institution that has not historically been designed to support people of color in their lived experiences or in their ways of being in the world, it makes that space unwelcoming or uncomfortable for people of color – it’s like they’ve been erased,” Acuff said. “And Beyoncé’s ability to redefine or disrupt that erasure is something all museum curators can learn from.”