The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s period rooms typically invite visitors to step into a recreation of a very specific time and place: a bedroom in an ancient Roman villa north of Pompeii, for example, or a grand salon in 18th-century Paris. Either removed from historic estates and rebuilt at the Manhattan museum or designed by curators to showcase artifacts in authentic settings, these intricate spaces envision an imagined past for a modern audience.
“Every period room is a complete fiction,” curator Sarah Lawrence tells Vogue’s Marley Marius. “But the invisibility of the curator’s hand—the pretense of authenticity—is what people love, right?”
For the new installation “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” the museum decided to go with a different premise.
“We spoke about what would happen if we started with the fiction instead of concealing it, and we used that fiction as an opportunity to bring new narratives into the museum,” Lawrence tells Vogue.
The room is based on Seneca Village, a majority-Black 19th-century community in Manhattan. Instead of attempting to recreate a room from that time and place with the appearance of historical accuracy, the space mixes artifacts from different contexts and artworks that evoke imagined futures. (Afrofuturism, the movement referenced in the room’s title, refers to “a transdisciplinary creative mode that centers Black imagination, excellence and self-determination,” according to a Met statement.)
To create the room, the Met hired Hannah Beachler, the production designer responsible for the appearance of the fictional, futuristic African nation of Wakanda in Marvel’s Black Panther. She led a team of five curators who gathered historical artifacts from Seneca Village and other historic African American communities, along with objects like a ceremonial palm wine vessel made in the central African grasslands in the 19th or 20th century and contemporary art by African and African American artists.
The group also commissioned new pieces of art. A video work by Jenn Nkiru, Out/Side of Time, plays on a multisided television inside the room. Around the structure is a mural, Thriving and Potential, Displaced (Again and Again and…) by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, that features maps of Seneca Village, images of some of its residents and symbols of African American culture like the okra plant. The installation’s title comes from Virginia Hamilton’s collection of Black folktales, The People Could Fly.
“It was about bringing past and future into one space for a community to hold onto,” Beachler tells House Beautiful’s Hadley Keller. “I wanted it to bring in the diaspora and different perspectives on being Black.”
According to the Central Park Conservancy, Seneca Village began in 1825 with the purchase of plots of land in Upper Manhattan—not far from where the Met now stands—by African American individuals and the AME Zion Church. At the time, the area was sparsely populated, offering residents a refuge from the racism they were liable to encounter downtown. After the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827, the community grew, eventually becoming home to more than 350 people, including German and Irish immigrants. Per the National Park Service (NPS), Seneca Village boasted its own streets, three churches, two schools and two cemeteries.
In 1857, the City of New York acquired the land through eminent domain, evicting the residents and demolishing their town. Archaeologists from Columbia University and the City University of New York excavated the site in 2011 but found only a few household items.
“There are no extant photographs,” says Ian Alteveer, another Met curator who worked on the exhibition, to Vogue. “There’s only pot shards and remnants of foundations and a hand-drawn map that was made in 1856 as a kind of survey to destroy the village.”
Lawrence tells Cultured magazine’s Julie Baumgardner that the period room is built on the alternate history premise of a world in which the Seneca community continued.
“There’s this collapse between past/present/future and a notion of diasporic time,” she says.
The installation is built around a central hearth modeled on ones found at Seneca Village during the excavation. Plexiglass windows cut through the structure’s clapboard walls, allowing visitors to see the objects inside.
“The windows symbolize never seeing the whole picture,” Beachler tells House Beautiful. “I don’t know my whole ancestry. But you have to look through the past to see the future and through the future to see the past. There’s a wonderful intersection.”