Conference (P)review #3: Vodou at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Editor’s note: In preparation for the upcoming NCPH conference in Ottawa, The Public Historian has commissioned a series of Ottawa site reviews, as it does annually for sites in our conference city.  These “(p)reviews,” as we’re dubbing them, will inaugurate what we hope will be a growing partnership between The Public Historian and the Public History Commons.  Further online post-conference reviews will follow later this spring;  we invite readers to comment on these posts as they appear.

Vodou.  Dr. Mauro Peressini, Ravel Beaucoir-Dominique, and Didier Dominque; Curators.  The Canadian Museum of Civilization.  November 15, 2012 –February 23, 2014


Rèn Kongo (Queen of the Congo)
This representation of Rèn Kongo is rich in symbols. The lwa bears the word “Guinée” (Guinea) on her right breast, a reference to a mythical ancestral Africa. Her left breast has been cut off, like that of an Amazon. Rèn Kongo is portrayed as a female warrior holding a machete, evoking the female cavalry and infantry units of the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin). The children at her feet represent the human race, over which she reigns.
© MCC/ CMC, Frank Wimart

On the bank of the Ottawa River directly across from the Parliament of Canada sits the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC)—soon to become the Canadian Museum of History.  Representing the nation’s social, cultural, and community history, it is Canada’s largest and most popular cultural institution.[1] While many of the permanent galleries and exhibitions are undergoing renovation, the collaborative Vodou exhibit will be the one permanent feature open to the public for the coming year.  Produced in collaboration with Haitian and Montreal diaspora communities, the Musée d’ethnographie de Geneve, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Fondation pour la presentation, la valorisation, et la production d’oeuvres culturelles haïtiennes (FPVPOCH), this exhibit makes use of Marianne Lehmann’s extensive private collection of Vodou artifacts to re-interpret Haitian Vodou history, beliefs, and culture to a contemporary Canadian audience.[2]

Before visitors enter the exhibition space, they are introduced to the collection through a video explaining Marianne Lehmann’s connection to the objects as a non-practitioner of the religion, which the museum assumes is also true of most visitors.  The exhibit “proposes a straightforward encounter” with the objects and the practitioners through textual, material, visual, and spatial means of interpretation.  According to Dr. Mauro Peressini, CMC curator of Southwest Europe and Latin America, and of this exhibition, these four means of interpretation were intended to give voice to the practitioners of Vodou, whose religion has been much maligned by years of changing colonial occupation, Western popular culture, and programs of disinformation.  By allowing these voices to be heard in collaboration with the curators at the CMC and in this nationally prestigious institution, the exhibit aims to relate a complex spiritual and cultural history on its own terms.

In the opening two spaces of the exhibit, the visitor is met with historical and contemporary symbols of Vodouism narrated through points of contact with Western civilization.  The elements of Vodou history interpreted in this space are not, however, wholly subservient to Western historical conventions.  Dominant “slave” and “master” narratives are questioned by placing these terms in quotation marks; and the map of the Atlantic mounted on the wall is rendered so as to appear hand-drawn —a map of memorial space rather than solely geographical space.  Beginning with early examples of indigenous art and spirituality (Haitian Vodou is an amalgam of indigenous and West African beliefs with some Christian symbolism), the exhibition ends with a reconstruction of a Montreal wogatwa  (shrine), replete with pictures of Christian saints representative of Vodou lwa (spirits).  This historical progression acts as a place of contact between the Vodouists and the visitor: by recognizing elements of Western tradition in Vodou the visitor is eased into understanding Vodou spirituality in a way that avoids the popular misunderstanding of the religion in North American popular culture.

Following this primer of Haitian and Vodou history, the visitor enters into one of three threshold spaces in the exhibit.[3]  Entitled “What you see here may not be what we see,” a single Vodou artifact sits on a pedestal in the middle of a white room with no textual interpretation.  Instead, the visitor must listen to the walls, where built-in speakers encourage an intimate encounter with a Vodouist interpreting this object, explaining a “different way of seeing.”  In order to listen to the interpretation, the visitor cannot face the object head-on, effectively forcing a more nuanced interpretation of the exhibit to come.

What follows is what Peressini calls “the ABCs of Vodou.” In this space, the visitor is introduced to the different families of lwa, the role of each lwa in the life of the Vodouists, and what rituals the practitioners must perform to maintain connections with the lwa and their energies.  The room has a circular rather than linear trajectory and all of the artifacts and videos are mounted on wide, open platforms.  Covering the platforms are knee-height wooden poles, representative of wild grasses. It was important to the collaborative partners of this exhibition to keep the artifacts ostensibly out in the open and not behind glass cases, as that would obstruct the physical relationship the Vodouist and the visitor a supposed to have with the lwa. This space, like the two that preceeded it, also maintains many points of contact between the visitor and Vodouist beliefs.  Practitioners explain their beliefs through video, familiar symbols appear throughout the artifacts, and written interpretations encourage parallels between Judeo-Christian beliefs and Vodouist lwa. [4]

After this introduction to the Vodouist lwa, the visitor enters another threshold space.  Here, the conversation whispered from the walls questions the visitor’s ability to understand the coming interpretation of Vodouist maji—what the lwa are capable of doing for their believers.  In the following space, the exhibit outlines how Vodou secret societies mounted the 1804 Haitian revolution, and how these lwa and secret societies are still used for revolutionary purposes and justice in Haiti today.  In this darker, more confrontational and historicised space, the tone of the exhibit changes dramatically.  Rather than inviting visitors to find points of contact between themselves and Vodou, the exhibit stresses the privacy and secrecy of the effects of maji.  The artifacts, often representative of revolutionary soldiers, are not meant to be seen by any passive observer.  Their inclusion in this exhibit, though somewhat destabilising and confrontational, ultimately encourages the visitor to re-question his or her suppositions about Vodou and make use of what they have learned thus far.

Like the other threshold spaces, the room of mirrors that follows the interpretation of the maji further reinforces the notion that the visitor is not merely a passive observer of the exhibit, but part of the ongoing story of Vodou’s acceptance.  Just as the Vodouists have made efforts to communicate their beliefs to the visitor, so too must the visitor make an effort to understand and be open towards the practitioners and beliefs of Vodou.[5]  They are given the chance to do so in the exhibit’s final space, where two of the main protagonists of the exhibit are filmed “waiting for a comment.”  There also are computer stations where visitors are encouraged to share their thoughts.  This final, oblique, stage of the exhibit reinforces the entire experience: not only is Vodou at the CMC a collaboration between practitioners and museum professionals, but it is also a collaboration between the visitor and the exhibit itself.

This exhibit does an excellent job communicating the Haitian Vodou way-of-life to a Western audience.  Visitors  are invited to rethink their preconceptions about Vodou and to enter into a relationship with the artifacts and the community that is represented.  By using textual, aural, and physical interpretation styles that encourage this encounter, the Canadian Museum of Civilization not only alters how visitors have traditionally interacted with the practice of Haitian Vodou, but also how they have traditionally interacted with a museum exhibit.

~ Lina Crompton, Carleton University

[1] Canadian Museum of Civilization Media Release, “Rare Artifacts Reveal the Real Meaning of Haiti’s Vodou Traditions” (November 14, 2012).

[2] Mariaane Lehmann is a Haitian woman of Swiss descent who began her collection of Vodou artifacts in the 1970s.  Although she is not a practitioner of Vodou herself, her collection of artifacts is now regarded by UNESCO to be one of the most important collections of Vodou artifacts in the world.

[3] Dr. Mauro Peressini (curator) in discussion with the author, March 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

  1. Beautifully written Ms. Crompton! I look forward to visiting the Museum and especially this exhibit after what you have written about it.
    It sounds awesome! Nice work! Keep up the writing. You are a natural!

  2. adina says:

    After having a chance to view this exhibit in Ottawa, I agree that it effectively changed my understanding of Vodou which had been previously based on (mostly negative) references in Western culture. I was intrigued by the use of first-person plural narrative throughout the exhibit. Similar to the narrative style in the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas in NYC, this style creates a definite insider/outsider dynamic for the exhibit, and it always makes me question how the creators of the exhibit are empowered to speak with the voice of the community. What did you think of this choice by the exhibit curators? Are the “Vodouists” a truly unified group, comfortable using the first-person plural to describe their practices?

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