National Museum of Natural History announces Mud Masons of Mali

The National Museum of Natural History presents Mud Masons of Mali an exhibition opening Aug. 31, as part of the Smithsonian’s “Earth Matters” initiative. The temporary exhibition, featuring photographs, original films, objects and tools, tells the stories of one of Africa’s most celebrated ancient architectural traditions, and it highlights the different challenges masons face today to hold on to their craft in the 21st century. The exhibition will be on view for one year.

More than 50 photographs will guide visitors through the exhibition as they explore the city of Djenné (pronounced Jen-ay), a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, and learn about the technical skills the masons use to construct and maintain the historic buildings, including the Great Mosque. Originally built in 1907, the central mosque is one of the largest and most impressive mudbrick buildings in the world. A wall of monitors will display four short films introducing five masons, their city and the pride they take in their work. The films also present the training and skills needed to build and maintain mud architecture, as well as contemporary political and environmental challenges mud masons encounter as they struggle to preserve their historic city in the face of modernization. Two cases of tools and building materials bring the realities of mud masonry further to life, and give museum visitors a window into the level of skill and labor behind the craft.

“Mud Masons of Mali”will be on display in the “African Voices Focus Gallery,” a temporary exhibition space inside the “African Voices” permanent exhibition. “Mud Masons of Mali” is co-curated by Mary Jo Arnoldi, curator of African ethnology and department chair of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, and Trevor Marchand, professor of anthropology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

To learn more about the lives of Mali’s mud masons, visit The website will be available prior to the public opening of the exhibition Aug. 30.