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Museums Opinions

David Adjaye’s planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City

A computer-generated impression of the main entrance and courtyard of the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria. Image courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

The British architect Sir David Adjaye has revealed his plans for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria. Blog readers might remember how a Yoruba post inspired his design for the new African American History Museum in Washington D.C. (as written about here). Princeton University also just announced the architect designed their new Art Museum (info).

In this article in The New York Times, Adjaye explains how the project for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art is very close to his heart.

On November 13th, the architect, the British Museum and the Nigerian authorities already had announced a $4 million archaeology project to excavate the site of the planned museum, and other parts of Benin City, to uncover ancient remains including parts of the city walls (info here). This will be the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City. In the interview, Adjaye explains how they play an integral part in this story:

I’ve been obsessed with these walls: concentric circles that interact with each other and create this kind of extraordinary pattern. From satellite images, it’s bigger than the Great Wall of China. So we want an excavation so we can make them visible. With the (museum) building, it’s a kind of re-enactment of the palace walls, with these turrets and pavilions appearing behind them, a kind of abstraction of how Benin City would have looked before — what you’d have encountered if you came precolonization. It’s trying to make a fragment of the experience in a contemporary language.

Adjaye intents the museum to be completed in five years (while the Smithsonian took nine, and the money to build it still needs to be raised (!). The building is intended to house some 300 items on loan from European museums and aims ” to house the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin Bronzes, alongside other collections”. Please note that although the museum has “West African Art” in its title all press releases only talk about its holdings of Nigerian Art (but I did spot two giant Baule statues from Ivory Coast in the front garden).

Creating a state-of-the-art conservation context for those objets will indeed take away the argument that Nigeria doesn’t have the resources to properly care for the objects it wishes to see returned. However it remains to be seen what will happen with the about 50 government owned museums across Nigeria, which are all heavily underfunded, as spelled out in this article from 2018 in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper. Let’s not forget a Federal Government-Ford Foundation project aimed at remodelling the existing National Museum in Lagos, worth $2 million dollar was recently suspended by the foreign donor due to the inability of the government to provide N500 million counterpart funding. With the underfunding of the existing museums, it remains to be seen if the funding for the EMOWAA can be found.

The local apathy for cultural heritage indeed is a factor rarely taken into consideration in the current restitution debate. Don’t forget that between 2007 and 2019 the Nigerian government even removed history from the primary and secondary school curriculum (info). This interview with Ibironke Ashaye, who worked for the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM), is very enlightening on this subject and highly recommended to get a better view on the local agency for such projects. It is clear that building a museum can only be a first step, and I hope a long-term vision will be developed. As museum professionals know well enough, a museum has to be much more than just a fancy building.

However, it is Adjaye’s profound wish to stimulate a cultural revival in Nigeria with the help of the planned Edo Museum. “It could help spark “a renaissance of African culture,” he said, and be a space for residents to reconnect with their past and a showcase for the city’s contemporary artists.” “It has to be for the community first,” he said, “and an international site second.” Adjaye’s further elaborates on this in the NYT interview.

The design for the Ceramic Gallery. Image © Adjaye Associates.
Rendering of proposed reconstructed Royal Spire Pavilion. Image © Adjaye Associates.
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Museums

The South Sudan Museum Network

Part of the Giovanni Miani collection from South Sudan at the Museum of Natural History, Venice (Italy).

A project from a few years ago that stayed a bit under the radar but deserves your attention is the South Sudan Museum Network. Funded by the AHRC, its main mission was to research the holdings of South Sudanese material across European museums “for advancing understandings of South Sudan’s history, global connections and creative arts“.

On top of this page, you find one of the results of this project: the inventory with list of museums, including short contextualisations of the collections of South Sudanese objects in their possession. The reports of the three workshops the network held can be found here, and the resources page holds some interesting pdfs of hard to find publications, such as Georg Schweinfurth’s Artes Africanae (1875) and Robert Joost Willink’s The Fateful Journey the expedition of Alexine Tinne and Theodor von Heuglin in Sudan, 1863-1864 (2011) – with many rarely seen objects illustrated at the end of the publication. In fact, many of the 15 participating museums hold collections with very early collected material – so definitely worth exploring if you want to get a feel of the objects created in this troubled area in the pre-colonial era. Below a lecture by one of the projects’ organizers, Dr. Zoe Cormack (Oxford University) about the Italian collections holding South Sudanese art.

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Museums

Explore the Seattle Art Museum’s collection online

Luba kifwebe mask, D.R. Congo. Image courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum (#81.17.869, info).

A reader of the blog was kind enough to inform me the collection database of the Seattle Art Museum was missing in my list of museum databases; you can explore it here.

The core of the museum’s African Art collection was formed by a transformational gift by Katherine White (1929-1980) in 1981. You can learn more about this donation in Pamela McClusky’s article “Taming Reality: Katherine White and the Seattle Art Museum” (included in the book Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display, University of Washington Press, 2011).

White started collecting in 1960, and died in 1980, leaving 2,000 objects to the Seattle Art Museum – yes, that’s 100 objects each year she avidly acquired! Other noteworthy treasures were donated earlier by the Bombay-born collectors Nasli & Alice Heeramaneck, among which three important Sapi ivories (1, 2, & 3), and this killer Luluwa figure. Unfortunately the images in the database are rather small, but at least they are there. Have fun browsing!

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Museums

Collection Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Cambridge University) available online

Ikenga statue collected by Thomas Northcote Whitridge (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.

A new addition to my list of museum databases available online (which you can find here) are the online archives of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge (UK); you can explore them here. This new, fully searchable online catalogue of the object, photograph and document collections cared for by MAA was launched in August 2020 and is well worth a visit – it’s easy to loose a couple of hours in it 🙂

In the photo archives you’ll find the complete files of G.I. Jones, who travelled among the Igbo and neighbouring groups in the 1930s – an incredible recourse. Also travelling in Nigeria two decades earlier, was Northcote W. Thomas (who got a dedicated webpage here). The museum also holds important collection besides Africa: its founding curator, Anatole von Hügel spent several years in Fiji and assembled the single most important collection of nineteenth-century Fijian art outside Fiji itself. Other notable collections were brought together by Charles Hose for the Sarawak, by Gregory Bateson for the Sepik River, and by Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf for the Nagas.

Besides the ‘objects’ section, the archives of field-photos are truly spectacular and full of rare and unpublished images – below a small selection of some of my discoveries – but please do go explore yourself !

Northern Congolese stools, photographed by Kenred Smith (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.
Ogbom headdress placed on the head of a male – notice the amazing wickerwork structure to which it is attached – photographed by G.I. Jones (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.

Ngombe family, photographed by Kenred Smith (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.

Luba-Shankadi man with the typical ‘cascade’-hairstyle (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.
A beautiful picture of three generations of Poto men, photographed by Kenred Smith (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.
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Museums

Ethnografiska Museet (Stockholm) collection available online

Young Bwende men on their way to the missionary station of Kingyi to give in their ‘minkisi’ power statues in order to convert to Christianity. Photographed by Edvard Karlman in 1912. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0177.0025).

Stockholm’s Ethnografiska Museet recently has made its archives accessible online. The database is called Carlotta and you can access it here. As many Swedish missionaries, explorers and soldiers donated their collections and archives to the museum, the database truly is a treasure-trove of never published material! One can easily browse away a day. The whole thing is in Swedish, so you might want to translate a country’s name before entering it in your query. Search for ‘Kongo figur‘, or names of field collectors like Bolinger or Karlman, and you are bound to find some interesting objects and images. Below some random examples of discoveries of mine.

Public display of Igbo wooden ancestral figures called alusi. Photographed by Gustaf Wilhelm Bolinder, 1930-31. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0221.g.0072).
Gbandi/Toma/Loma mask performance, Liberia. Photographed by Gustaf Wilhelm Bolinder, 1930-31. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0221.a.0033).
Early tourist art from Congo-Brazzaville. Acquired by Edvard Karlman in 1926. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0177.0040).
Bangu-Bangu figure, D.R. Congo. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (1917.01.0104).
Mask, Cameroon – culture unknown. Pre 1893. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (1893.04.0092).

I can’t applaud this kind of digitalisation initiatives enough. As a reminder, I’ve created a page on my website documenting all museum databases available online here. If something is missing, please do let me know – thanks. Also, if you know any museums that haven’t started digitalising yet, I’ll happily put them on the wall of shame 🙂

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Exhibtions Museums

Good curating: “Mobile Worlds” at the MKG Hamburg

A bit under the radar and running until 14 October 2018, the exhibition Mobile Worlds or The Museum of our Transcultural Present at Hamburg’s Museums für Kunst ind Gewerbe is worth your attention. The blurb on the museum’s website reads:

The exhibition “Mobile Worlds” draws inspiration from the collection housed at the Museums für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. The MKG collection is in turn inspired by the great world exhibitions held in London, Paris and Vienna in the 19th-century. Now the world of the 19th century is passé, and with it the central position that the West has long claimed for itself. Even though our world knows many centers today, many Western museums still present themselves as though the traditional, museological division into geographies, nations, epochs, art and non-art were universally valid.

I can think of a museum or two where this indeed is still the case, so this central premise is relevant indeed. You can discover more about the show’s themes here. An interesting review in the New York Times was just published by Jason Farago; please find it here. Farago makes some excellent points:

When Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries established their grandest museums, each building meant to unite the world’s cultural heritage under a single roof, they had no doubt as to who should explain it all: themselves. They took a Eurocentric view, categorizing the spoils of colonial enterprise by nation and region, splitting art from craft, and nature from culture.How much has really changed in this so-called postcolonial era? Apologies are made for the pillaging; diverse populations are invited to “respond.” But the museums’ old assumptions, their methods of classification and display, remain largely untroubled. How might you reorganize a universal museum for the 21st century, an age of migration and of perpetual exchange? One of the boldest answers yet is to be found in “Mobile Worlds,” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, an applied arts museum in the northern German city of Hamburg that has a similar standing to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London or the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

And,

By and large, “Mobile Worlds” delivers on its contention that European museums need to do much more than just restitute plundered objects in their collections, important as that is. A 21st-century universal museum has to unsettle the very labels that the age of imperialism bequeathed to us: nations and races, East and West, art and craft. It’s not enough just to call for “decolonization,” a recent watchword in European museum studies; the whole fiction of cultural purity has to go, too. Any serious museum can only be a museum of our entangled past and present. The game is to not to tear down the walls, but to narrate those entanglements so that a new, global audience recognizes itself within them.

The curator Roger Buergel, best known for serving as artistic director of Documenta 12, hypothesis for a more conscionable museum is spot on. And as Farago points: “The past is hideously violent, and these institutions won’t be regenerated overnight. But history, “Mobile Worlds” reminds us, never stops moving forward — and museums won’t be reformed at all if we don’t put in the work.” The time is now!

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Exhibtions Museums

Last days to visit the ‘Les Forêts Natales’ exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly (closing Sunday 21 January)

Tempus fugit! It’s already the last week of the Les Forêts Natales exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (info and pictures here). If you haven’t had the chance to see this must-see show, please don’t sleep and go visit it. I would suggest to reserve at least 3 hours for it, as you’ll need them. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see that much iconic masterpieces of Gabon in one single museum. I don’t think any other curator will ever dare to envision such a comprehensive selection – it did take Yves Le Fur more than 3 years to prepare it. With the closing of the Dapper Museum, he of course had the unique chance to lend about 25 of their top objects, but also the holdings of the MqB itself, the Barbier-Mueller Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and numerous private collectors proved indispensable for the success of this exhibition. The catalogue, which unfortunately is only available in French, is also recommended but does not prepare you for the real-life experience. Furthermore, not all exhibited works are included in it. Personally, I saw the show three times, and still I don’t have the feeling I have seen enough of it. Several sections of it (Fang, Kwele, Kota, Tsogho) easily could have been standalone exhibitions and still would be incomparable. I will never forget that wall of Kotas (more than 100 in total!) – see above.

Kuddos as well to the Friends of the Musée du quai Branly for their innovative thinking to include the source communities of this exhibition by organizing several ‘web tours’ (info). Several Mondays (when the museum was closed), they organized live broadcasted guided tours which could be followed in several places in both Gabon and Cameroon:

• Fondation Gacha à Bangoulap au Cameroun
• Musée des civilisations de Dschang au Cameroun
• Musée National de Yaoundé au Cameroun
• Galerie Doual’art à Douala au Cameroun
• Galerie MAM à Douala au Cameroun
• Institut Français de Yaoundé au Cameroun
• Institut français de Douala au Cameroun
• Institut Français de Libreville au Gabon
• Etablissement scolaire Le Ruban Vert à Libreville au Gabon
• Lycée français Victor Hugo à Port-Gentil au Gabon

A wonderful initiative, and a first I think. The Gabonese president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, also visited the expo – as can be seen below. He was rightfully very proud.

https://youtu.be/RMY0Dp2CoPc

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Exhibtions Museums News

Exhibition tip: Beyond Compare – Art from Africa in the Bode Museum in Berlin

I wanted to share some pictures of this unbelievable exhibition currently on view at Berlin’s Bode Museum. This beautiful museum, known for its outstanding collection of European sculpture, now temporarily houses 70 masterpieces from the Ethnologishes Museum (which closed last year) until they will relocate to the newly build Humboldt Forum (to open at the end of 2019).

The African works are placed in smart juxtapositions with the permanent collection creating fascinating dialogues across time, place and religions. Unexpected similarities and differences become apparent: Michel Erhart’s late Gothic Virgin of Mercy appears next to the famous Kongo power figure, which, like the Madonna, was also created to protect a community. Mythical heroes from central Africa take their place among late Gothic Christian figures and open up new perspectives on both collections. The show address major themes of human experience, such as power, death, beauty, memory, aesthetics, and identity. For each of them, the curators (Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine and Paola Ivanov) were able to find great object pairings.

Beyond Compare is just one spectacular view after the other. One room downstairs contains the majority of works, but the remainder is spread across the museum, so it is sometimes a bit of treasure hunt (which cleverly makes you explore the whole building). I must say it is one of the most beautiful exhibitions I have ever seen in our field. I’ve become somewhat tired of seeing African art juxtaposed with modern and contemporary Western art, making up links which are not necarilly there. This show merely endeavors to find common themes and for once it is not about who inspired who (although links between St. Sebastian, Madonna-and-child statues and Kongo figures are vaguely suggested).

The installation as well is top-notch; it is clear the Bode Museum has a lot of experience presenting three-dimensional wooden works of art, and many objects can be walked around. It was amazing, as well, to see the standing statue of the Buli Master all by itself, without a case. The Benin leopard in the big staircase is a view I will never forget and the Benin queen (famous from the front cover of Tom Phillips’ Art of a Continent) paired with a Donatello sculpture, as well in bronze, is just genius.

Another plus is the excellent selection, it truly gives you a new perspective of the scope and importance of the Ethnologisches Museum’s collection, showing many masterpieces that hadn’t been on view at the Dahlem for a very long time (the Hemba ancestor figure, for example). This ‘conversation of continents’ is a big success and I would highly recommend a visit. I dream of seeing the Louvre or the Metropolitan doing something like this one day.. but Berlin did it first!

Kuddos to the museum as well for publishing an English version of the catalogue (Musée du quai Branly, please take note!). You can out more about Beyond Compare on the Bode-Museum’s website here. I’ll just let my snapshots do the talking (click to magnify), as you’ll see Beyond Compare truly lives up to its title.

Update: a reader comments, the primitive art indeed pairs very well with the African art 🙂

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Museums News

Musée Dapper to close its doors forever on 18 June 2017

Sad tidings from Paris, the Musée Dapper will be closing its doors permanently on 18 June 2017 🙁  You can find the official press release here (French only). The brainchild of Michel Leveau (who passed away in 2012) and Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau, the museum was founded in 1986 to stimulate the interest in African culture. It moved to its current location in 2000. The Dapper foundation will continue its mission, but without having a permanent exhibition space (which had become too expensive to run).

The best private African and Oceanic art museum in the world, the Musée Dapper set up over 40 (!) groundbreaking shows over the years – without any public funding. All its excellent exhibition catalogues easily take up a full shelf in one’s library. It’s current exhibition, Masterpieces of Africa (which was already prolonged) will be its last. So don’t sleep if you want to say goodbye to all these treasures. The museum’s presence will be sorely missed; it’s a huge loss for our field.

ps this October, the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac will include some of the masterpieces of the Dapper collection in their big upcoming Gabon exhibition.

 

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Museums Opinions

The relevance of ethnographic museums in the 21th century

A display of the archaeological and anthropological collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. © LatitudeStock/Alamy Stock Photo.

The last issue of Apollo Magazine features a nice article about the relevance of ethnographic museums in the 21st century, you can read it here. Its conclusion:

The periodic revival of the repatriation debate reminds us that ethnographic collections stand in for histories of colonial exploitation, even if the objects were in fact fairly obtained, and sometimes willingly presented by local people interested in the representation of their cultures in metropolitan exhibitions. Certainly, ethnography was associated with the business of empire, both in practice and in theory. But it was also, from the start, distinguished by genuine efforts to document and celebrate cultures beyond Europe – efforts that are often considered important by the people concerned today. Ethnography collections need to be living collections, representative of cultural diversity in the present, as well as of traditions which suffered upheaval, the confrontation of empire, at the time of the museums’ formation. Renewed museums have the capacity to represent not only world cultures, but also the interconnectedness of the world, starting with the puzzling and sometimes problematic stories of how their collections reached Europe. Conceived ambitiously rather than apologetically, museums of ethnography and world culture now have more to offer than ever before.

ps perhaps the most successful of all ethnographic museum remains the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, with ca. 1,3 million yearly visitors even more popular than New York’s iconic Guggenheim Museum (source) ! Not bad for a museum that was only founded ten years ago..