Collection specialists and researchers

Collection research (2016-2017)

In its initial phase, Discovering Worlds: Africa required the assistance of anthropological specialists in ethnographic material culture. These experts include the following people, and RAMM would like to thank them and their institutions for their insightful contributions.

 

Zachary Kingdon (National Museums Liverpool)

Zachary visited RAMM in September 2016 to examine a selection of items from Nigeria and the Congo. Items of significance  worthy of further research includes a Bembe carved figure (35/1923) and a Kongo shrine drum from Central Africa.

This drum (E583/1) was donated to the Museum in 1866 by Dartmouth shipbuilder Richard Redway. Redway’s brother Thomas had a fleet of trading ships that sailed to Africa. Although it states on the drum that it was taken from an African temple, it is more likely to mean that it was acquired from an African shrine. Such a drum would not have been made available for sale to Westerners and was likely abandoned due to insect damage, which happens when wooden items are left in situ for a length of time. This damage is visible at the rear of the drum.

This appears to be an early example of shrine drum for its depiction of carved snakes and ancestors. Each motif and gesture has a meaning that is unknown at this time. The central female form is suggestive of a priestess who is negotiating with the forces of the ancestral world. (A similar form can be found on an nkisi collected by Richard Dennett (9/1889/53) where a central female form is surmounted by snakes and ancestors).

There are similar Kongo drums like this one, but they are painted and look as if they have been especially made for sale. These rare items can be found at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, Royal Museum for Central Africa in Turvuren, Belgium and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

 

Fiona Savage (Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia)

In October, Fiona examined items from Ghana, and other areas of West Africa not covered by Zachary. This work included a focus on donations made by Francis Federick Pinkett and F.W. Marshall. Fiona provided the Museum with suggestions for display themes and content. The final report gave the Museum additional cultural information into some of the more recent acquisitions of carvings, which may have been made by Kulebele carvers who lived and worked in the Cote d’Ivoire.

Emphasis was given to the form and function of items associated with the historic trade in gold dust. This collection has stronger interpretation, and a few of the more intriguing items reflect historic long distance trade and the recycling of materials. One example includes a brass gold-weight (68/1994/53), which is actually a machined brass screw and is clearly a former clock part. Various items were repurposed as weights and were very much imported into Ghana (formerly a British colony called the Gold Coast) during the 19th century. Other repurposed examples include a seed (damma), a tiny lithic, a European-made brass belt-end and a foetal ungulate hoof (68/1994/11). Some of these examples are on public display to illustrate how the continent of Africa has been trading with Europe and Asia for centuries.

 

Julie Hudson (British Museum)

The Museum has an interesting collection of textiles and items of clothing from Nigeria, which were largely collected by colonial officers (or their wives) in the very early years of the 20th century. Julie visited RAMM in November 2016 to help assess this collection in terms of interpretation and modes of manufacture.

Her visit was invaluable as it enabled the Museum to display the best examples for public display with up to date interpretation and to make a feature of adire specialist and collector Nancy Stanfield in the World Cultures gallery.

The display of Nigerian textiles shows pieces that are connected by relevant manufacturing centres e.g. Ijebu-Ode (42/1960/1), shared motifs, imported materials such as dyes and modes of manufacture such as cloths woven on either vertical or horizontal looms – both men and women participated in the weaving and selling of cloth. The display is an attempt to talk about Nigerian textiles using the best examples in the collection. Julie’s work highlighted gaps in the collection where future acquisitions to cover them would be beneficial.

 

Catherine Elliott Weinberg (Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia) and Nessa Leibhammer (University of Cape Town)

South African beadwork is commonly found in British ethnographic collections. However, strong provenance and function was not noted in RAMM’s documentation. RAMM has over 200 beaded items from colonial South Africa and only a few examples have been displayed publicly. Discovering Worlds created an opportunity to explore this material further so that this collection’s richness can be enjoyed by the public.

A high proportion of this material originated from the colony of Natal (now southern KawZulu-Natal) rather than from within the (then independently) Zulu kingdom and would have been made by Zulu speakers. It should be noted that historic labelling of beaded artefacts as ‘Zulu’ serves to obscure a more complex history. RAMM’s collection also contains interesting examples of South Sotho material. An example of Sotho beadwork is a late 19th century beaded pouch (186/1972/11/1) which appears to come from the Drakensberg area.

 

Benjamina Efua Dadzie (Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia)

Benjamina Efua Dadzie

Yoruba artefacts acquired by the Reverend Henry Townsend became the focus of Benjamina’s research in 2017. Townsend is a well known Exeter-born missionary employed by the Church Missionary Society. Benjamina’s intention was to shed light on Townsend’s relations with the indigenous Abeokuta people.

The result of her work brought to light the significance of two wood carvings that were given to him by the ruling Oba. It is important to question why Townsend had received important high status items as gifts from his time in Abeokuta. They are likely symbolic of existing political and religious agency within the city, and are likely indicative of struggles within a changing society.

His archived letters unfortunately do not reveal much about British government activities. However, they reveal Townsend’s interest in ending the transatlantic slave trade and that his mission fitted into a wider narrative of a desire to ‘civilise’ Africa through Christianity and commerce.

 

John Mack (Sainsbury Research Centre, University of East Anglia)

Anthropologist John Mack has an emphasis on African visual culture. His immediate fields of interest include the Congo basin, eastern Africa, the western Indian Ocean (especially Madagascar) and the coastal cultures of West Africa.

John’s visit to RAMM in September 2017 focused on collections from those continental regions, and on discussions concerning public display. The research was especially rewarding in identifying or clarifying the provenance  of wooden carvings. One item of interest, a Mahongwe reliquary figure from Gabon (42/2016/1) is a recent acquisition. Although well made, this artefact has arms attached. This is not the norm and is therefore believed to have been produced for sale, rather than an artefact intended for a traditional role. This item was selected for public display and can be seen in the case about metalwork from Africa.