Where Science Meets Muse

How Curation and Design Didn’t Dispel the Darkness of Vodou (Which is NOT Voodoo)

Posted by Plish on November 3, 2014

I had an opportunity to go to a Member’s Only night at Chicago’s Field Museum.  The event was in honor of the opening of a new exhibition entitled: Vodou – Sacred Powers of Haiti.

One of the highlights of the night was a discussion led by Field Museum Exhibit Project Manager, Janet Hong. On the panel were Dr. Serge Pierre Louis and Kira Tippenhauer.  Both people are Haitian born, and brought unique perspectives on Vodou (which is considered different from Voodoo, which is identified with New Orleans)

From Left to Right: Dr. Serge Pierre Louis, Kira Kira Tippenhauer, and Janet Hong.

Figure 1  From Left to Right: Dr. Serge Pierre Louis, Kira Tippenhauer, and Janet Hong.

To start the discussion, Ms. Hong asked for Dr. Serge’s and Kira’s impressions of the exhibit.  Their answers were not, judging from the reaction of Ms. Hong, what she expected.

Kira’s first word was “dark”, and she spoke the word with a hint of disappointment in her voice.  Clearly she did not want to say those words.  She struggled for more words…  Dr. Serge chimed in and agreed, and used the word “ferocious”, to which Kira agreed it was the word she’d been searching for.


Those are the types of words you’d expect to hear from people who are unfamiliar with Vodou.  Those words describe my impression of the exhibit and the impressions of others I spoke to as well. Unfortunately, those were the impressions that the exhibition team was trying to dispel: “…the exhibition team made a concerted effort to eschew the image of vodou as a “scary” or “spooky” subject…seemingly-macabre motifs like skulls, bones, skeletons and weaponry are represented in a reverent light, similar to the role of decorated and candy skulls as part of Dia de los Muertos in Mexican culture. Images of Vodou as dark and death-centric stem from misrepresentations the exhibition aims to dispel.”

So, where did the exhibition go wrong?  How does something that’s supposed to dispel perceptions of darkness, perpetuate it? How does darkness permeate when Haitians live in perpetual summer, lush greenery, flowers and nature, and live life filled with joyous dance, song, and savory foods?

It’s not like the exhibit was designed in an asympathetic manner.  The exhibit was co-designed by Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, who is a PhD anthropologist and practicing Vodou priestess.  Yet, design and curation did not harmoniously weave an experience that dispelled misrepresentations of Vodou, and instead, darkness prevailed over experiential light.

Why did this happen?

The exhibition is not brightly lit. (The pictures I took below give the impression lighting was quite bright. This is a side-effect of the camera settings used because flash is not allowed)

While not necessary per se, there is scant multimedia and no interactive technology  at all.  Again, Vodou seems to be very tactile and sensory based.  Not having ways to interact in some way was a negative.

The layout was not easy to take in.  There is a wall explaining the history of Haiti’s struggles and victories and it runs into a wall at the end.  When you finish reading you are right next to the entrance to the exhibit. (This is visible in Figure 4. below.  The ending is behind the lwa in the corner by the drapes.) You literally have to start the exhibit over again, and you’re put into the flow of those entering.

Then there’s the  upper and lower displays.  Even though everything is on one floor, it is actually split into two halves, either by accident or by design.  Sculptural works are on ground level, and beautifully decorated, brightly colored ceremonial banners, as well as many artifacts, are hung high above.  As a result, artifact descriptions are not correlated directly to their artifacts in an intuitive manner, hence there’s confusion about what description belongs with what.   The descriptions are also written with uncomfortably small letters.   It forces people to bow their heads and/or hunch their shoulders and/or bend ever so slightly to read.  This posture is uncomfortable and is also one of vulnerability, and people don’t like to be vulnerable in front of something that they don’t know, especially if it looks scary!

Forcing people to look down also had an unfortunate side effect.  Beautiful, sparkling banners that radiate light,  hang so high that one has to lift one’s head up to see them.   However, that didn’t happen often, as people were so engrossed in the ground level artifacts, the experience of light went unnoticed.  Again, something that religious ritual fosters, upwards looking, wasn’t even done by many of the people I observed.

This picture was taken with no zoom, looking up.  Notice the height of the other banners. It's especially easy to see the height at the bottom of the picture: notice the woman walking below the banner.

Figure 2.  This picture was taken with no zoom, looking up. Notice the height of the other banners. It’s especially easy to see this at the bottom of this picture: notice the woman walking below the wall banner.

This split between the ground and the sky, while at first it may sound apropos, instead reinforces a dichotomy that the exhibition itself was trying to erase (See Figure 3 below)

The central paragraph about the interconnectedness of all things is apropos

Figure 3.  The central paragraph relating to the interconnectedness of all things is apropos

The unity of worldview that Vodou espouses simply wasn’t expressed in the layout of the exhibition.

One message that was conveyed was that Vodou brought people together in their fight against slavery and oppression.  Ms. Hong  pointed out that many of the articles came from Vodou secret societies which led this fight.  Artifacts from these societies are often colored red and black and depict more powerful spirits/energies.

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Figure 4.  Bizango (Secret Society) Winged Lwa. Lwa are Vodou Spirits.

This however creates a situation in which artifacts from secret societies, groups that were not mainstream Vodou, make up (what seemed like) the majority of the displays.  Because of their size and nature, even if they weren’t in the majority, they were conspicuous and prominent, giving the impression that this is what Vodou is all about.

It’s always difficult to convey worldviews through artifacts.  Cultures and religions (and much of the world doesn’t create a dichotomy between the two as the spiritual is interwoven in the culture’s worldview) are more than artifacts, more than ritual.  Therefore, to convey meaning, and in this case, dispel misconceptions, it’s important to provide context for artifacts and rituals.  While this was done from a socio-political perspective (multiple panels discussing slavery and the common quest for freedom), there didn’t seem to be as much emphasis on the day to day.

The altar pictured below is replete with images and artifacts that together reflect a family’s history, its fears and aspirations..  This is very colorful and non-threatening and it invites people into the experience of the everyday.  We want to know more about these artifacts and more importantly, the people behind the artifacts.

Home Altar

Figure 5.  Home Altar

The above altar is at the about half way through the exhibition, facing the back.  Contrast this to the red, human size Bizango Winged Lwa (Figure 4 above) that is one of the first displays to capture your attention when you enter the exhibition. That first impression is reinforced by these displays which are seen very soon upon entering (Figs 6 and 7):

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Figure 6

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Figure 7


It’s easy to understand why the exhibition creates a ‘dark’ and ‘ferocious’ vibe.  Imagine how a different impression would be formed if the altar was one of the first things we saw, instead of it being buried in the exhibit.

Interestingly, on the way out of the exhibition, people are confronted by immense mirrors that have various wood carvings of  lwa on the frames.  Professor Beauvoir-Dominique shares, “…in these mirrors, we see ourselves.”

Truthfully, I was creeped out by the mirrors.  I literally didn’t want to take a picture of my reflection in them.  I couldn’t bear to see myself in the mirror.  This worldview I was experiencing was not me.  There was so little to connect to I couldn’t see myself as sharing something of the Vodou worldview (though in actuality, apparently I do.  That middle paragraph in Figure 3 above does resonate with me on many levels!)

The curators of this exhibit wanted it to be more than simply an exercise in rational understanding of Haitian Vodou.  They wanted it to build bridges and dispel the darkness of misconception. Instead, it conveyed a sense of darkness that even some Haitian born people felt.

In short, the choice of artifacts used, the timing of the reveals (what we see, when, at various points of the exhibition) the spatial orientation of artifacts (up, down, left, right) the lack of tactile interaction (digital and otherwise) all contributed to that experience of confusion, disjointed-ness and dark-ness.

I do plan on seeing the exhibition again.  Perhaps my opinion will change the second time through.  Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of this exhibition!

2 Responses to “How Curation and Design Didn’t Dispel the Darkness of Vodou (Which is NOT Voodoo)”

  1. […] How Curation and Design Didn’t Dispel the Darkness of Vodou (Which is NOT Voodoo) […]

  2. […] Pilsh at ZenStorming did not mention the energy aspects of the exhibit in his excellent article How Curation and Design Didn’t Dispel the Darkness of Vodou (Which is NOT Voodoo), he did mention some of the same concerns that Cam and I had, mainly that the exhibit seemed to […]

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