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Interview with Dr. Andrea Myers Achi, Assistant Curator of Medieval Art at the Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, better known as the Met, is the largest art museum in the United States, and one of the most visited museums in the world. People from around the country and the globe flock to New York City to explore its exhibitions. This past year, 2018, the Met set a record with over 7.36 million visitors passing through its galleries. 

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I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Andrea Myers Achi, Assistant Curator in the Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters at the Met for Museum Hue. She is the first Black woman to hold the position and the second Black curator in the Met’s almost 150 year history. (Lowery Stokes Sims was the Met’s first Black curator, between 1972 and 1999. She later led Studio Museum in Harlem and held other museum leadership roles). Dr. Achi and I first met over 10 years ago as interns in the curatorial department at the Brooklyn Museum. I learned then, about her yearly trips to Egypt where she did archaeological excavations. In 2011, during the Egyptian Revolution she even got stuck in Cairo, all flights were canceled and her family was unable to contact her.

At the Met, we discussed her new role and ways she has implemented greater diverse narratives around medieval art that have been missing in museums, universities Medieval Studies departments, and the Western art historical canon. In most Medieval Art galleries, art history books, and even when you google Medieval art you often only see White people. But this is changing with the work that Dr. Achi is doing at the Met. Medievalists of Color like her, work to decenter the West and whiteness in their pedagogy to bring forth perspectives that are transformative for the field. These efforts help to radically change the course of Medieval art, reshape the canon, and increase representation of those who are largely underrepresented. Dr. Achi’s scholarship offer thought-leadership that will have an impact on the world beyond museums and academia, which is why the reinterpretation and resocialization of Medieval art is crucial. Her research emphasizes that people of color were present and active in the Middle ages.

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Dr. Achi took me through the Art and Peoples of the Kharga Oasis, the first exhibition she co-curated at the Met. It explores the interpretation of ancient identities and artifacts and show how archaeological documentation can aid in understanding an object’s original function. In 1908, The Metropolitan Museum of Art began to excavate late-antique sites in the Kharga Oasis, located in Egypt’s Western Desert. The Museum’s archaeologists uncovered two-story houses, painted tombs, and a church and retrieved objects that reveal the multiple cultural and religious identities of people who had lived in the region between the third and seventh centuries A.D., a time of transition between the Roman and early Byzantine periods. The finds represent a society that integrated Egyptian, Greek, and Roman culture and art. 

On view is a portrait of a man on a half-painted panel who is clearly dark skin and has what seems to be thick Black curly hair. The figure was painted with motifs in common with ancient Egyptian art—a hawk and a sistrum. His imagery reflects Kharga, the people, and its cross-cultural heritage, revealing the intersectional identities of the people who were buried in the tombs. A gold glass medallion with a mother and child show, a fashionably coiffed matron with her son. He wears a large gold pectoral, or neck ring. They too look like people from the Mediterranean, with brown skin and ethnic features of that region. As one of the most naturally interdisciplinary subjects, Medieval art history provides tools to interpret and understand our world. Dr. Achi’s scholarship and voice provides a wider scope of these works histories and usher-in greater dialogue and narratives of the time period. Through her work more people will also have to acknowledge realities of race and racism that have perpetuated the omission of people of color in the Middle Ages and studying medieval art.

Medieval art studies like other art historical disciplines, is contextualized by politics, power, and economics which was integral in the production and circulation of the field. Major barriers and access kept it disproportionately white and upper middle class. This exclusion is still manifested in classrooms, cultural institutions, and publications. Recent statistics found that 70% of people with art history degrees are white. However, Dr. Achi’s efforts will help ensure that future generations study a much broader, more inclusive Medieval art history as well as encourage more people of color to enter the sector.

The Met has seventeen curatorial departments which hold works spanning over 5000 years of human culture & there is 2 million square feet of gallery space with thousands of art objects and cultural heritage always on view. There are over eighty curators (ranging from curator in charge, associate curator, assistant curator, and curatorial fellow), only 11% are people of color.

See the video of our conversation and walk through of the galleries.

Text and interview by Stephanie A. Johnson-Cunningham, Co Founder and Creative Director of Museum Hue, first published here.

Stephanie Cunningham