How Ngaire Blankenberg Is Flipping Museums for Social Impact

A new initiative from the museum consultant aims to turn small museums into African cultural centers for a new generation.

Woman poses in front of blue brick wall
Ngaire Blankenberg. Photo Earl Abrahams/Courtesy Ngaire Blankenberg

When Ngaire Blankenberg was first appointed director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in 2021, she wasted no time in shaking up the Washington, D.C., institution. “I was really consistent with what I wanted to do,” she tells Observer. “I started saying the phrase ’21st-century global African art museum’ quite soon when I arrived there.”

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In the less than two years she spent overseeing the institution before quietly resigning in March of 2023, Blankenberg emphasized partnering with individuals and institutions with African perspectives and developing an ethical returns policy. She notably removed the museum’s display of Benin bronzes linked to the 1897 British raid of Benin City only two weeks after arriving at the museum, which later approved the return of the collection to Nigeria.

Originally from Canada, Blankenberg launched her career in the world of television. But after a company she worked for in Johannesburg, South Africa, won a contract to produce a show for Constitution Hill, she felt moved to transition into the museum sphere. She’d go on to consult for Lord Cultural Resources and the design agency Kossmann.dejong, advising clients like the National Gallery of Canada, Superblue, the Museum and Archive of the Constitution at the Hill in Johannesburg and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Now back in South Africa, she has a new initiative dedicated to repairing people, institutions and communities through arts and heritage. As part of her work with the nonprofit Institute for Creative Repair (ICR), Blankenberg is pursuing a project that aims to transform small- and mid-sized museums across Africa into new cultural spaces. A focus on impact is key, says Blankenberg. “The notion of art contributing to wellness and mental health is really important,” she adds, especially in countries like South Africa that have high depression rates and a 61 percent unemployment rate among young people.

Priorities include getting rid of silos between the worlds of art and heritage, drawing from Indigenous knowledge systems and utilizing social media platforms for increased digital arts engagement. “Museums around the world are grappling with how to engage with younger audiences, how to be more sustainable operationally—it’s not a unique thing here,” she says. “But we’re doing it with our own lens, and so that’s a lot of fun.”

Observer recently spoke with Blankenberg about her experiences in museum leadership and her ambitious goals for ICR. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first enter the museum world?

It’s not that deep, I must say. My first jobs were as a youth worker. Then I worked in TV for quite a while in South Africa mainly. I was producing daily television, and I had two small children, and I was going nuts with the relentless pace of TV. The company where I worked had just won a contract to do a museum here in Johannesburg. I was like, I can’t do TV anymore—what else can I do?

When I was working on developing museums here, you sort of realize there’s quite a lot of people in the storytelling or the curatorial, but not a lot of people in operations. So I started to focus on that just because someone had to, and I learned quite a bit about the mechanics of institution building.

How did you initially approach leading the National Museum of African Art and what initiatives did you want to prioritize?

I just felt there was no way that we could have this collection and this subsidy and not actually turn some of the benefit to African audiences, African people and African institutions on the continent. So I set about really trying to do that, and that was really quite a radical transformation that I guess they weren’t ready for. But it was really around staffing, it was around trying to tackle the bureaucracy, trying to do more partnerships with institutions on the continent, trying to change our interpretation from a museum about Africans and African art to a museum for Africans and African art.

What sort of resistance did you encounter?

I think it was personal and also structural. The Smithsonian is an incredibly bureaucratic institution like most government-run museums. I suppose it made it very difficult to deal with freelance African artists, for example, or to deal with bank accounts that weren’t American or to deal with anything that wasn’t American. Even though there was a sort of theoretical acknowledgment that that should be the case, the system really wasn’t set up to be challenged to try and deal with foreigners in terms of suppliers and stuff like that.

People found the pace of change that I was trying to implement a little bit scary, I think. And I get it. Change is scary. I was questioning everything: how we know what we know, who’s in the position to say what, how we’re doing things. The museum sector is not used to change, and then the government is not used to change. And so you’ve got probably one of the most conservative workforces in many, many ways, despite the content. I think there was a lot of personal and professional resistance to diversifying almost every element of the museum.

What can you tell me about the Institute for Creative Repair and its overarching mission and goals?

What I’m working on is this thing called Creative Repair Studio, which is a spin-off of the ICR and’very focused but crazy ambitious. The idea is to ‘flip’ museums, transforming small, medium and regional museums across the continent into cultural centers for a new generation. It’s basically flipping museums for social impact. Going in, making them better and then helping operate them for a period of time until they get on their feet, but very focused on visitor engagement and visitor services.

One of the biggest challenges on the continent is cultural infrastructure and institution building. I had an ‘aha moment’ that there’s quite a few small museums on the continent that used to be historic houses or colonial buildings. There’s some kind of infrastructure there, usually a building, some collections, the lights may or may not be on. There’s a few staff people, maybe one, maybe two—they’re not big but they’re just sort of sitting there. And they are these incredible assets in a context where there’s pretty much no cultural infrastructure and very few institutions. I thought, why don’t we try and activate these spaces?

What does the museum flipping process look like?

We’re still working it out. We’ve got, at this point, between ten and fifteen museums in our loose network which we will be formalizing over the next few months. I’m starting with the Western Cape here in South Africa because it’s sort of lower hanging fruit, but including museums in Rwanda, Togo, Mali, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin and Ghana. We’ve just found these little places and mainly through people, we’ve asked people to nominate museums. And they’re totally different types of structures.

It might be, for example, the Paarl museum. So Paarl is out in the Western Cape in South Africa, which is in the Winelands region—a lot of people go there for the wine, and it’s an incredibly beautiful and big tourist destination. They have, like most towns, a little city museum. It’s a kind of an old, historic building that tells the story of people who used to be there. You go into something like that and say, okay, what stories aren’t being told? How are the stories being told?

It’s really looking at all elements of it. Just giving it a physical makeover to make it sexier and more relevant and then also operating better. It’s little things. A lot of these museums aren’t open on the weekend and no one knows how to find them, there’s bad wayfinding and signage and everything might be just in Afrikaans or English. They’re just not places where young people, which is the majority of the population across the continent, feel that they have anything to do with whatsoever.

Since you’ve spent a lot of time in larger museums and institutions, what have you learned from working with these smaller spaces?

The smaller spaces tend not to be in the main cities and I’m really, really interested in that kind of increasing urbanization across the continent. We see here in South Africa, as much as you see anywhere else in North America, that there is a movement towards the smaller cities because it’s cheaper… rents are cheaper.

Even though the megacities are growing across the continent, there are still these second-level, third-tier cities that have even less cultural infrastructure. There’s a real need here, there’s less competition, there’s a lot of people—a lot of young people. Let’s try and make something work outside of the big cities.

Are there any particular trends or challenges in the art world you’re keeping your eye on?

I think one of the key things is to introduce more contemporary art and have more of a dialogue between art and heritage. I don’t know if that’s a trend or just a desire.  But the art world on the continent is very commercially driven, it’s driven through collectors and art fairs and the wealthy few. And the heritage is probably state-funded or state-financed and has no money, but the art world has a lot of money and they’re completely different people. I think we really need to see more of an integration between them.

One of the big differences being here on the continent—and obviously, it’s fifty-four countries and, you know, a zillion different languages, so you can’t really make a broad generalization—but I think that the kind of levels of institutional support are really, really low. There isn’t really a tradition of philanthropy going to arts or culture or heritage. There’s not a huge commitment by most governments to arts, culture and heritage. What we get very dependent on is international country funders, so things like the Mellon Foundation or the Ford Foundation or the Goethe Institute or the British Council or the French Institute become really key funders within this ecosystem.

You become completely dependent on people who are a million miles away. A lot of that funding is tied to projects. What we really, really need is investment in cultural infrastructure so that there can be cultural jobs and cultural careers, and that artists when they get old have a pension and there’s healthcare and there’s archiving. I don’t think in the Global North there’s the same discussion around the imperative of institutional funding. I know everyone is generally struggling, but here on the continent it’s a million times more challenging. But it’s really, really, really, really important.

What needs to happen to increase those levels of institutional support?

Funders need to understand the landscape more and understand how things operate so differently and understand equivalent dollar amounts. The amount of money that it takes to do something here versus in the U.S. is insane.  Just$5,000 can go someplace here where it would go nowhere in New York.

Understanding issues of salaries, too. African art is such a trend right now, and everyone wants to come to Africa and go to all the fairs and everything. But academics with their research fellowships and staff people with their salaries are on such a different scale than their equivalents on the continent that there needs to be some kind of acknowledgment that there’s an inequitable conversation happening. Getting African professionals to do free stuff is not the same as asking Europeans to do free stuff. There’s just a different kind of sustainability model here that is far more precarious than in Europe and North America, even though in Europe and North America, it’s also incredibly precarious.

How Ngaire Blankenberg Is Flipping Museums for Social Impact