Museums Research

Sapi-Portuguese bust. Image courtesy of the British Museum (BM:Af.9037).
Sapi-Portuguese bust. Image courtesy of the British Museum (BM:Af.9037).

Launched in February 2012, wishes to reanimate the cultural heritage of Sierra Leone. It offers a database featuring objects from SL from multiple public collections: the Sierra Leone National Museum, the British Museum, the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, the Cootje van Oven Collection, the Glasgow Museums, the World Museum of Liverpool and the British Library.

The digital resource is the main output of a research project entitled ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage: Digital Repatriation, Knowledge Networks and Civil Society Strengthening in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone’. The project was funded between 2009 and 2012 by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Beyond Text programme and was directed by Dr Paul Basu of University College London. The ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project was concerned with innovating digital curatorship in relation to Sierra Leonean collections dispersed in the global museumscape. Building on research in anthropology, museum studies, informatics and beyond, the project considered how objects that have become isolated from the oral and performative contexts that originally animated them can be reanimated in digital space alongside associated images, video clips, sounds, texts and other media, and thereby be given new life.

I don’t think objects of the Sierra Leone National Museum have been available online before, so there’s a lot to discover. The Sherbro figure below, collected before 1906, for example, is related to the one Sotheby’s sold earlier this month (info).

Sherbro figure. Pre 1906. Image courtesy of the British Museum (BM:Af.1906.525.3)
Sherbro figure. Image courtesy of the British Museum (BM:Af.1906.525.3)
Auctions Museums News

Dallas Museum of Art acquires two objects from the Allan Stone collection

Ejagham headcrest, Cross River Region, Nigeria. Height: 68,6 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Ejagham headcrest, Cross River Region, Nigeria. Height: 68,6 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Dallas Museum of Art has acquired two outstanding works of African art at Sotheby’s New York auction of the Collection of Allan Stone (reviewed here). These important new acquisitions include the the four-horned Songye figure which sold for $ 2,165,000 (est. $ 600K-900K), and a rare (also horned!) Ejagham headcrest which was bought for $ 305,000 (est. $ 100.-150K) – according to Sotheby’s, the most major example of its kind to remain in private hands.

Both acquisitions strengthen the museum’s collection of African art, a collection of nearly 2,000 works mainly coming from two important collections: the Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture and the collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler. You can browse the museum’s African art holdings here. Read more about their collection in this freely available book.


UPDATE: I forgot to mention that last year the Dallas Museum of Art bought the
Rosekrans Urhobo.


Adieu Tervuren

As stated before, the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Tervuren (RMCA) will be closing for (at least) 3 years the end of this month. Today I visited it one last time. While the museum was trembling due to the drillings outside, the famous stuffed elephant was already being prepared for its coming journey..

MRAC Elephant

If you thought that was a difficult object to move, check this 30 meter long canoe..

MRAC Canoe

Some of the fish on display can use some fresh water..


The rhinos already had their horns removed out of fear of theft – which was just a sad view..

MRAC Rhino

I wonder if they will still display this giant block of tropical wood after the renovation.

MRAC Wood block

The museum will reuse the display cases, and this is what they will look like:

MRAC Display case

Possibly the only museum in the world that documents its own reorganisation through contemporary African painting.

Mrac painting

TIP: The museum’s shop is selling out and they had uncovered a major stash of old Africa-Tervuren magazines. These are impossible to find (most likely because the majority was never actually sold apparently) and when you find one, they tend to sell for a lot of money. Each magazine was 50 cent (!) – many of them feature very interesting articles. I took what I could carry, but there are still many left..

MRAC Magazines

(all images: BC)

Exhibtions Museums

African Galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts reopened

Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

After a 10 month and $ 745K renovation, the African Art galleries at the Minneopolis Institue of Arts recently reopened. In an online review we read:

The museum’s curator of African art, Jan-Jodewijk Grootaers, has totally reworked MIA’s African art collection, buying new things, sending others to storage, adding technological whiz-bang, and reinstalling it all in renovated galleries.

The result is a stripped-down display of about 125 objects, roughly half the number previously on view and only a sliver of the 2,100-piece African collection. Arranged thematically, they are a mix of masterpieces and utilitarian objects from across the continent. To give visitors an intimate experience, the museum has largely dispensed with display cases, instead setting most things on wide, open-air platforms that people can stroll around.

Intended as a teachable introduction to African art and culture, the show incorporates touch-screen maps, iPad pictures and videos, and engaging, jargon-free labels with handy drawings to help visitors navigate the many cultures, histories and art forms.

Museums News Research

Perlesduquai – treasures from the Quai Branly Museum


Meticulously scanning the online database of the Quai Branly Museum, Laurent Granier daily presents multiple examples from their holdings on his twitter account @perlesduquai. Only objects from the reserves that are not on view are selected – with 267.417 items in the collection enough for a lifetime of twitter fun.

Bembe figure. Ex Collection Kahnweiler; donated by Leiris. Image courtesy of the Quai Branly Museum (#71.1990.171.43).
Bembe figure. Ex Collection Kahnweiler; donated by Leiris. Image courtesy of the Quai Branly Museum (#71.1990.171.43).
Museums Publications

The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (Walker, 2009)

The arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art

This beautifully illustrated book, written by Dr. Roslyn Adele Walker, showcasing 110 objects from the Dallas Museum of Art’s African collection is available for free as a pdf here (22,6 MB).

The Dallas Museum of Art will present a rich and comprehensive look at African visual culture through The Arts of Africa, the first catalogue dedicated to exploring the Museum’s collection of nearly two thousand objects—acclaimed as one of the top five of its kind in the United States. Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the collection, which began with a gift of 224 Congolese objects from DMA benefactors Eugene and Margaret McDermott, the catalogue draws from both historical sources and contemporary research to examine over one hundred figures, masks, and other works of art representing fifty-two cultures, from Morocco to South Africa. Both visually and intellectually compelling, The Arts of Africa celebrates the striking beauty and stylistic diversity of African art, as well as its social and historic significance.


“Touching history”, the Hands On desks programme at The British Museum

Image: BC.
Image: BC.

Last week I coincidentally stumbled upon a object handling session in the Asia gallery of the British Museum. Volunteers give visitors the unique opportunity to handle objects from the museum’s collection in six of the museum’s galleries. At the end of this year it will also be possible to handle African objects. More than 90 volunteers are involved. The desks are open daily, seven days a week, between 11.00 and 16.00. I wasn’t aware of this “Hands On Desks” programme (apparently already running since January 2000) and think its a wonderful idea to get the objects out of their glass cabinets and into the hands of visitors. As collectors, curators or dealers, most of us know that you can’t replace the feeling of actually touching an object. An evaluation of the programme showed that almost all visitors to Hands On desks said that the experience increased the quality of their visit and brought it to life. I sincerely hope other museums will follow the British Museum’s example.

A whole wall of magnificent Benin plaques at the British Museum, London. Image: BC.
A whole wall of magnificent Benin plaques at the British Museum, London. Image: BC.
Museums News

Fowler is given 92 Lega objects

ivory Lega mask Last Fowler


The LA Times just reported that collectors Jay and Deborah Last have given the Fowler Museum at UCLA 92 wood and ivory figures, masks, and implements, all from the Lega (D.R. Congo). The gift, said to be worth $14 million, is in honor of the Fowler’s 50th anniversary. The Fowler organized a show of Lega art around the Last collection in 2001, and a version of that exhibition will appear at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, this fall – read more about both here.

$ 14 million for 92 pieces, that’s $ 150K on average for each piece – or twelve 1 million dollar pieces together with eighty $ 25K objects – either way it does seem a bit exagerated, though it is definitely a major acquisition for the Fowler museum.

Museums Objects Research

Object of the day: a Kongo-Vili figure

Kongo-Vili figure; height: 38,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#71.1930.29.322).
Kongo-Vili figure; height: 38,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#71.1930.29.322).

The variations in African art never fail to suprise. By coincidence I just found this funny Kongo-Vili figure with its head turned slightly sidewards. It was donated to the Musée de l’Homme by Stéphan Chauvet in 1930. I had never encountered this particular position of the hands before; it certainly had a meaning. I would guess this figure was never used, though the face got painted, there’s one metal nail inserted in the chest and traces of a round fetish box on the torso remain?

The Musée du quai Branly holds 267.417 objects (236.509 from the old Musée de l’Homme and 22 740 from the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie) – not only African of course. Additionally, since 1998 the museum has acquired 8168 objects. It’s not clear how many items are already in their online database, but surely enough to have lots of fun. You can search the digital collections of the Musée du quai Branly here. Type a keyword in the Saisir la recherche box below the Sélectionner un critère de recherche tab. The acquisition date itself is never listed, but one can deduce it from the inventory number.

Trivia of the day: Stéphan Chauvet was the author of the first illustrated compendium of information about Easter Island, L’Île de Pâques et Ses Mystères (1935), you can find a translation of it here, a must read for the armchair traveller.