Ngaire Blankenberg has been named director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, effective July 6. A consultant for museums and cultural destinations around the world, Blankenberg brings rich experience finding innovative ways to connect cultural resources to new audiences and a deep commitment to co-reimagining the museums of the future.
Blankenberg, a member of the African diaspora, has a proven track record in the systemic transformation of museums and cultural spaces to become more inclusive and more engaged in the community and society around them.
“The National Museum of African Art embodies the Smithsonian’s mission to foster understanding, inspire dialogue and bring people together irrespective of language, culture or border,” said Lonnie Bunch, the Secretary of the Smithsonian. “Ngaire’s leadership and experience will be invaluable in using the museum’s unparalleled collections and scholarship of African Art to further our reach, diversify our audiences and have a more profound impact on the nation and world.”
“Museums are institutions that carry a lot of systemic baggage from their colonial origins, but they are vital public spaces to reconsider how we connect and contend with one another and the planet, and where we can redefine, heal and reconcile,” Blankenberg said. “The National Museum of African Art sits physically in a city with one of the biggest populations of African peoples in the U.S. Digitally it reaches far into the diaspora. I am so grateful for the trust being placed in me to continue to care for, build, interpret and share NMAfA’s fantastic collection, particularly in this new era of U.S.-African relations.”
As a consultant, Blankenberg has advised clients on strategies for decolonization, concept development, operations and business planning, programming, stakeholder and public engagement and more. Her recent consulting clients include the National Gallery of Canada, Superblue , Museum and Archive of the Constitution at the Hill (Johannesburg), the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, MEG—Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, Olympique de Marseille football club and other global and local institutions.
In 2017, Blankenberg served as the head of content and strategy for Kossmanndejong, an Amsterdam-based design agency where she helped museum clients shape their interpretive approach to exhibitions, strategic planning, new business development and content development. Previously, she spent eight years (2008–2016) at Lord Cultural Resources as a principal consultant. From 2015 to 2016, she served as the director of Lord Cultural Resources in Europe.
In addition to her extensive work consulting for museums and cultural heritage sites, Blankenberg is a TV and documentary producer, public speaker and a published author.
Blankenberg holds a Master of Arts in media and cultural studies from the University of Natal, in Durban, South Africa, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
She succeeds Augustus Casely-Hayford, who was director of the museum until March 2020. Deborah Mack from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has served as the interim director of the museum.
About the National Museum of African Art
The National Museum of African Art is the only museum in the United States dedicated to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of Africa’s arts across time period, geography and medium. Founded as a small museum on Capitol Hill in 1964, it became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979 and in 1987 moved to its current location on the National Mall.
The museum has 48 staff members and its fiscal year 2022 budget is $10 million. The museum’s collection of 12,000 artworks represents the diversity of the African continent and includes a variety of media—from jewelry to painting, photography, pottery, sculpture, textile and video and sound art—dating from ancient to present times.
The museum has been closed to the public since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will reopen Friday, July 16.
About the Search Committee
A search committee was established in summer 2020 and was assisted by the executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. The committee was chaired by Kevin Gover, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Museums and Culture. Committee members were Melanie Adams, director of the Anacostia Community Museum; Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Deborah Mack, interim director of the National Museum of African Art; Karen Milbourne, curator, National Museum of African Art; Veronica Shaw, administrative officer, National Museum of African Art; Suzanne Blier, Harvard University; Salah Hassan, Cornell University; Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art; and Eric Barkley, Magdalene Johnson Obaji and Anne Howard-Tristani, all members of the National Museum of African Art’s advisory board.
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