Exhibit showcases

by Jessica Hampton

A mother and her daughter sit in the front seat on a simulated bus ride through the African countryside.
“Look at the sand,” Judy Barrett told her 3-year-old daughter Hannah. “Just as the snow goes over our roads, the sand goes over their roads.”
“Her terms of Africa,” Barrett said, “are all from the Lion King.”
The family from Big Lake, Minn., visited the “Africa” exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota to enhance their interest and knowledge of Africa.
With classes, displays and numerous other activities, the national traveling exhibit attempts to connect the science and culture of Africa to the children and adults of Minnesota, with a strong influence from University professors and students.
The Africa exhibit made its only upper Midwest stop in St. Paul, where it debuted Feb. 6 and will remain the museum’s main attraction through May 9.
Multimedia presentations, hands-on activities and authentic African objects and artifacts reflect historical and contemporary Africa. The exhibit highlights the topical features of the African continent itself, early African metalwork achievements and land management techniques, as well African art and culture.
“What we wanted to do was make a bridge, look at the problem we have now with African-American kids who don’t get into science,” said Frank Snowden, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University and chairman of the exhibit’s advisory committee.
Snowden said science was and continues to be highly prevalent in Africa. “In making the move from Africa to this country almost immediately Africans made contributions in agriculture,” he added.
“In the Twin Cities you have a large number of African-Americans who are also involved in science,” he said. “We wanted to make that connection.”
Rose Brewer, former chairwoman of the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University, worked also with various artists, community leaders and professors on the committee.
Though many of the features of the nationally renowned exhibit were already in place when the museum became involved, the committee wanted “to open up the richness of science” for African-American children, Brewer said.
“The conceptual notion (of the exhibit is to show) deep linkages from the continent of Africa to America to scientists here in the state of Minnesota,” she explained.
“We’ve never really come to grips with the history (of Africa) in this country, and the actual tangibility of (the exhibit) makes it real and very significant for anyone who wants to try to understand this history,” said Brewer.
The exhibit features seven major displays, ranging from a camel caravan across the Sahara desert to a walk through replication of slave quarters.
John Cadwell, a part-time University College student from Red Wing, Minn., visited as part of a family outing.
“It’s a little different than what you see in the movies,” Cadwell said sarcastically, referring to displays of the diverse land features of Africa.
Because of its interactive displays and summer camp programs, the museum is known for its appeal to children.
A “Children’s Village” occupies a large portion of the second floor. Games and guest lecturers keep children, their parents and even self-proclaimed kids at heart occupied.
Local artist Ta-coumba Aiken collaborated with fourth grade students from the Brookside Performing Arts Magnet School in St. Louis Park to create dozens of handmade dolls and toys. The intricate objects are displayed in glass cases, each with a personal description attached by the aspiring young artists.
This is not only a learning ground for children, however.
“Many people don’t realize we do things for adults,” said Carleen Pieper, museum public relations director.
Bill Allen, who organizes the museum’s adult classes offered in conjunction with the exhibits, reviewed the calendar of classes and singled out a class in April called “After Apartheid.”
The class is being taught by Rufus Magobotha, who lived under apartheid in South Africa.
“He was involved in the elections in South Africa, and his stories are just absolutely fascinating,” Allen said.
“That’s the kind of thing which is really special that you’re not going to find elsewhere,” Allen explained. “I try to offer classes that I think are really interesting and are things that you’re not going to find in other places.”
Many of the one-night classes are offered at a student discount rate of $5 per class.
Museum classes are usually about $10 a class, but Allen said he made an exception for this exhibit with the hopes of encouraging more student involvement.
Many of the class instructors are either from Africa, or lived there for extensive periods of time. Most of the classes have less than 20 students. During the next two months the museum will host classes on current social conditions in Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Rwanda and Swaziland.
Mahmoud El-Kati, who helped establish the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University, will lead classes discussing the people, culture and modern states of Africa.
There are introductory classes teaching the west African languages of Bambara and Fulani. Also, Afrikaans, the once official language of South Africa, will be taught.
Originally from Kenya, Irene Nyangweso has been teaching Swahili for more than four years at Uhuru Books in Minneapolis. She has lived in the United States for five years, moving here to join her family.
She taught a two-hour crash course at the museum March 3, insisting Swahili, or kiswahili as it is called in Africa, is one of the easiest languages to learn.
“Why take Swahili?” Nyangweso asked the class.
“Everyone can understand kiswahili. It’s the national language of the whole country (of Kenya) and in Tanzania. It’s also spoken in other countries, it’s like speaking English,” she said.
The two-hour course outlined phrases, basic grammar and numbers. Also, many who took the class for travelling purposes requested essential tourist phrases like, “Where is the bathroom?”
“I have some college students (in my classes), but not as many as I would like to. I usually push more for people who are my peers or people younger than me to come into the class, but usually we have the adults registering for the class,” Nyangweso said.
With both classes and displays, visitors can learn anything — from the fact that camels drink 35 gallons of water in six months to the fact that there are no jungles in Africa, only a small percentage of rain forests.
The exhibit is based on a permanent Africa exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.
Frank Snowden summarized two years of advisory committee work and the museum’s intentions: “I hope college kids walk away with an idea of what Africa did, in a social and economic sense, to the whole world.”