Interview with William Siegmann in January 2010

(This post was originally written for the site, not in existence anymore. William Siegmann, sadly, passed away in November 2011.)

William Siegmann (photo by
Adam Husted, Brooklyn Museum)
I first heard about William Siegmann through Sally Williams, Public Information Officer at Brooklyn Museum, NY, where he worked as a curator. He spent many years in Liberia, starting in 1965, and it sounded like he’d have a fascinating story to tell. I was not disappointed when I was finally able to meet him in person.

He first came to Liberia in 1965, as a member of the Peace Corps. It was a heady time, as many African nations were celebrating their independence from European colonization. He taught at a private college, Cuttington University. Most of the students were Liberian but there were also a few students from Nigeria, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and later also Kenya, Sudan, and Tanzania.

During this time, Siegmann, a history major, developed an interest in African art, and started his personal collection. He also founded a small art museum for the college. He returned to the US after 3 and a half years, attended graduate school, majoring in history and art history. In 1973, he returned to Liberia for research on his dissertation. Between 1974 and 1976, he once again taught at Cuttington University.

Having completed his research in 1978, but realizing that his true passion was art, rather than history, he returned to the US. He joined the Society of African Missions in New Jersey, where he set up a small collection, installations, a catalog and an arts program. Between 1979 and 1984, he worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco, CA. In 1984, he was granted a Fullbright scholarship, and returned once again to Liberia. In the meantime, Samuel Doe had taken power, after a violent coup. Siegmann was tasked with setting up a National Museum in a building from the mid-19th Century, the old Legislature Hall.  He met with Samuel Doe--in person--to secure funding to renovate the building, which was in serious disrepair. Rather than money, he was awarded a line of credit for up to $60,000 with a building supplies company. A workforce was provided by the Ministry for Public Works. 

It took three years and a mountain of obstacles to renovate the building. No architect was provided; Siegmann worked with the site workers to figure out solutions. They had to remove and replace the roof, floors… as the building was in very bad condition.

The West African Museums Programme provided additional funds to acquire a collection. Siegmann traveled to villages all over Liberia to buy objects. The Museum, when it opened, featured 3 floors:
-         first floor, historical pieces
-         second floor: ethnographic
-         third floor: used for contemporary art exhibitions.

In 1987, having completed the museum project, Siegmann was offered a position as curator at Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Unfortunately, during the ensuing civil war, the building was damaged, and the collections looted. The Cuttington University collection was also looted. Both museums are in dismal condition; Siegmann returned to Liberia a few years ago to consult with the new authorities about the National Museum.

On the subject of museums in Sub-Saharan Africa:

I asked Siegmann what he thought of the viability of art museums in Sub-Saharan Africa at the moment. As he said, unfortunately, museums are not a priority in Sub-Saharan Africa, for several reasons, the main one being that the majority of people do not have the leisure or the means to concentrate on culture and art. The "leisure class" is not a large group. In addition, resources are not put into museums by many governments. Items displayed often fall to neglect, especially if the climate is humid. I've personally witnessed a piece literally disintegrate, turn to powder, in a flash, right in front of my eyes. 
In the United States, at the turn of the 20th Century, museums were meant to educate members of the community. Still now, it is mainly the "elite" who visit museums, and it is an institution that can exist only "late in the game," when a society has already fulfilled basic needs.

About art in Africa:

There is a discussion about contemporary African art: is it contemporary art, or is it African art? Where is it displayed? In the United States, different museums have different approaches to this issue. Magdalene Odundo's modern (non-utilitarian) ceramics, inspired by traditional styles, are currently displayed in the African Galleries section of the Brooklyn Museum, for example. However, the artist may have preferred to be in a general contemporary art section.
Siegmann was happy that increasingly, contemporary African art is being taught at American universities.

Links for more information:

About Mr. Siegmann's passing:


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