Museums News Research

Updated list of online museum databases

A quick note to say that I have updated my list of museum databases – with thanks to the messages of multiple readers. Newly added are:

I’ve now also included a ‘wall of shame‘, for museums who lack any online visibility of their collection. I hope they take notice and start digitalizing! I would love to see the collection of:

Do contact me if you know of any other museums; thanks.

Museums Research

Museum databases online

As you can see above, I’ve created a new page on this website called ‘Museum Databases’. It includes a list of links to the online collection databases of museums that have African art. Since a couple of years more and more museums are making their collections accessible online, so I thought it would be convenient to have them all grouped on a single webpage as a starting point for some serious sleuthing.

This list is not (yet) exhaustive and a work in progress, so please do get in touch if you spot a museum I missed. What about the Italian museums for example ? There should be more in Germany as well – but not everybody has caught up with the digitalization trend of course. Also, the Tervuren Museum is still adding objects (but they do have 180,000 objects to process of course) and the British Museum still has a lot of objects without a picture, but most of these databases are pretty complete. I can only hope this list gets bigger through time. I often dream of one centralized database, but that’s for the distant future.

Anyway, happy browsing and all the best wishes for 2016 !


The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven)
Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania)
Brooklyn Museum
American Museum of Natural History (New York)
Birmingham Museum of Art
Dallas Museum of Art
Fowler Museum (Los Angeles)
Saint Louis Art Museum
National Museum of African Art (Washington)
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Amherst College
Princeton University Art Museum
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Art Institute of Chicago
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Minneapolis Institute of Art
The Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia)
University of Michigan Museum of Art


British Museum (London)
Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford)
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (Norwich)
Horniman Museum (London)


Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren)
Museum aan de Stroom (Antwerp, former Ethnographic Museum)


Musée du quai Branly (Paris, in French)
Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

The Netherlands

Wereldmuseum (Rotterdam, in dutch)
Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (Leiden)


Ethnologisches Museum (Berlin)


Museu de Cultures del Mon de Barcelona (in Spanish)


Musée d’ethnographie de Genève
Rietberg Museum (Zürich)
Musée Barbier-Mueller (Genève)

Other Countries

Museum for World Cultures (Gothenburg)


The Mapungubwe golden rhinoceros

Image courtesy of Tim Hauf/Corbis.
Image courtesy of Tim Hauf/Corbis.

The above golden rhino is the best known remnant of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, the first major urban centre in southern African history, which went into decline around the 1300s. Since the end of apartheid regime in 1994, the stunning object — just 15 cm long and more than 700 years old — has become a defining symbol of precolonial civilization in South Africa. Originally nailed on to a wooden carving, nothing is known about its function – but it is clearly the product of great workmanship.

Described as southern Africa’s equivalent of Tutankhamun’s mask, the golden foil rhino could be displayed overseas for the first time in the British Museum at an exhibition of South African art late 2016. ‘Could’, since the South Afrian government already rejected a proposal for the rhino to be displayed in Paris in 2001. You can read all about the new request here. It would make a dramatic world debut for the rhino, which is currently on display in a little-known gallery at the University of Pretoria (which holds about 9 kg of gold treasures from the Mapungubwe). To date, the South African government has declined to say whether the object will feature as a star exhibit at the London show – although its absence obviously would be a great shame in an exhibition on the history of South African art.

Kingdom of Mapungubwe hill

Learn more about the discovery of the site here.

The site was rediscovered in December, 1932, by five white adventurers who had heard rumours of a great treasure. They persuaded the reluctant and frightened locals to show them a secret stairway to the top of Mapungubwe’s steep sandstone cliffs. Even 700 years after the kingdom’s disappearance, the local residents revered the hill so much that they would not gaze directly at it. But the treasure hunters quickly climbed up and dug out the gold artifacts. At first, they decided to split their loot, including the fabulous rhino. But one of the five – a young guilt-riddled university student – had a change of heart. He sent some of the fragments to a University of Pretoria professor, and the hill was soon purchased for archeological research.

Exhibtions Research

Fraught signifiers in African art: “Kota”

Detail of a Sango reliquary figure. Africarium Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Detail of a Sango reliquary figure from Gabon. Africarium Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In the exhibition catalogue for his exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Kota – Digital Excavations in African Art, Frédéric Cloth makes an interesting comment on the usage of the attribution ‘Kota’ for the well-known reliquary guardians covered with metal from Gabon. He writes:

The word ‘Kota’ refers to a small ethnic group living in northeastern Gabon (estimated between 14,000 and 40,000 peoples by the mid-twentieth century), but one might be surprised to learn that there are no works in this exhibition created by the Kota people themselves.

Yes, you read that right. The Kota did not make any reliquary figures ! Cloth continues:

The reason for this is the result of a complex history. When, in the nineteenth century, Europeans started to explore eastern Gabon along the course of the Ogooué River, one of the first people they met were the Kota. Only later, the European explorers encountered the peoples who produced the art we refer to as ‘Kota’; groups such as the Shamaye, Sango, Obamba, Wumbu, and Ndassa. Oversimplification over time led Westerners unfortunately to refer to all reliquary guardians from this region as ‘Kota’.

This imprecise nomenclature now is so embedded that even Cloth remained obliged to use it for the title of his exhibition. Such fraught signifiers unfortunately tend to be hard to eradicate. Other examples previously mentioned on my blog are the so-called ‘Boa’ (info) and ‘Kulango’ spoons (info) – notwithstanding recent scholarship proved them incorrect, both designations are still widely used.

Field-photo published in: Chauvet (Stephen), "l'Art Funéraire au Gabon", Paris: Maloine, 1933: p. 2, #3.
Field-photo published in: Chauvet (Stephen), “l’Art Funéraire au Gabon”, Paris: Maloine, 1933: p. 2, #3.

The future of online object presentation

Marc Ghysels, always on the edge of new technologic progress, just released a first so-called ‘photoscan‘ of an African art object, see below (or here). It is a 3D view of a Djenne terracotta figure from Mali, which can be admired from all angles (and zoomed upon). I think it’s extraordinary and can’t stop playing with it. This imaging technique seems very natural (and in fact is very easy to use), but does require “a lot photographic and post processing work/time… as well as huge computer horsepower”, to quote Ghysels. The beauty of the technique is also that its final result can be easily displayed on an iPhone or an iPad without time-lag. In my humble opinion, it’s the future of online object presentation – especially for very three dimensional objects, such as this terracotta figure. The only thing that is still missing is a ‘PRINT’-option, but with 3D printing technology advancing rapidly that’s just a matter of a few more years.

Djenne terracotta figure
by Marc Ghysels • Scantix
on Sketchfab



Update: the future is here ! A reader informed me about 3D scans taken at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, see them here – the used software (TRNIO) even runs on an Iphone.

Update 2: the Indianapolis Museum of Art is already using this technology on their website, click here for a 3D view of a Songye figure from their collection.

Objects Research

A rediscovered Senufo staff

Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.
Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.

In 1969, Anita J. Glaze took the above field-photo of a Senufo staff in Ivory Coast. It was published recently in Bernard de Grunne’s catalogue on the subject, Senufo Champion Cultivator Staffs – which is freely available online here (p. 32). Unfortunately no additional information about the place, owner or carver is mentioned.

Last week, the above staff was offered for sale at Sotheby’s Paris (info). Apparently the staff left Ivory Coast not long after Anita J. Glaze photographed it, since according to Sotheby’s it was already owned by Harvery T. Menist ca. 1968. Although the field-photo is a bit blurry, details such as the red fibers and presence of cowrie strings make it clear this is one and the same staff.

telafpitya senufo staff sotheby's anita glaze


I discovered two more staffs that are possibly carved by the same sculptor – only the angle between the upper and lower arm is different. A nice detail is how the carver omitted the two front legs of the stool the woman is sitting on, carving only the legs of the figure while maintaining the balance of the stool.


Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.
Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.


ps the elaborate hairdo of the female figure crowning this staff in facts reflects an existing Senufo hairstyle – as can be seen on the beautiful field-photo below.


Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), "Negerkunst und Negerkünstler", Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).
Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), “Negerkunst und Negerkünstler”, Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).
Objects Research

African art made in the UK: the ‘Birmingham Bells’


Lower Niger River bells Forcados

Above two conical bells that depict human heads in a style that is generally identified as the ‘Lower Niger Bronze Industry’ (southern Nigeria). It may come as a surprise, but these were not made in Africa: identical in form and size (but not in alloy), they were cast from a mold in the UK. These bells can be identified by a seam where the two halves have been attached (as opposed to the seamless lost-wax method traditionally used in Nigeria).

In Where Gods and Mortals Meet – Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo art, Perkins Foss writes about these so-called ‘Birmingham Bells’ (p. 51):

John Picton recalls that he and William Fagg saw ‘bells with a stamped job number on the back’ at the British Museum in the 1970s, and that ‘unlike the regular Lower Niger River bells they were cast in piece molds, as evidenced by the seams along each side from top to bottom.

Fagg’s hypothesis was that enterprising English District Officer or trader might have seen such a bell on a Nigerian shrine and taken it to a UK foundry (Birmingham is only a suggestion of where they might have been made) to produce a series, then to test their sales-worthiness in the lower Niger region.

Presumably these replicas were made for sale or trade or as gifts in what is now southern Nigeria around 1900. Examples have later been documented in rituals among the Urhobo, Igbo and other groups, so some of them did end up on a shrine – and thus can in way be deemed ‘authentic’.


Birmingham Bells UK Nigeria copper bronze


These bells always have a stamped number on the lower back – you can zoom in by clicking on the above picture; it starts with ‘R’, followed by 199063. They weigh more than twice as much as the thinly cast authentic bells; made at a time when copper was still scarce. A couple of dozen of them are known and one of them even ended up in the collection of the Metropolitan (info, correctly listed as ‘made in England’). Christie’s even sold one in 2006 for € 3,360 (info). The present whereabouts of the original bell remain a mystery, but the Dallas Museum of Art holds one that is similar in style (info); as does the Smithsonian (here). The function of these bells remains unknown, but the imagery of the (abstract) snakes issuing from the nostrils can be associated with the Edo of the Benin Kingdom, the Yoruba, the Igbo and other groups in the region. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would have more information about them.


Lower Niger Nigeria copper bronze bell bells cloche


A tour of Segy Art Gallery, 1951

Ladislas Segy and Lloyd Moss. Image courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
Ladislas Segy and Lloyd Moss. Image courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

A reader was so kind to send me a link to a radio interview (anno 1951) with African art dealer Ladislas Segy; hear it here (15 minutes). How wonderful to hear his voice, talking about his gallery, his background, why he got into African art, etc. Sixty-four years later, one can argue about the quality of the objects he sold in his gallery, but a pioneer in the popularization of African art he certainly was.


Why does a Mangbetu sickle knife has two holes in its blade ?

Image: BC; courtesy of the Ethnographic Collections, Ghent University, Belgium.
Two Mangbetu sickle knives. Image: BC; courtesy of the Ethnographic Collections, Ghent University, Belgium.


Two famous Belgian comedians, Gaston & Leo, give you the answer.. (in Dutch, but I’ll give you the answer below).




To see through ! 🙂

Gaston en Leo Mangbetu knife African art






ps note the rare Salampasu stool in the decor.

Salampasu stool seat Congo


Garance in African art

Wè miniature mask, Ivory Coast. Height: 12 cm (34 cm with beard).
Wè miniature mask, Ivory Coast. Height: 12 cm (34 cm with beard). Peres Projects Collection.

After picking the name of our daughter, I was very pleased to discover there was a link with African art. Garance, except for a beautiful first name, is the name of a plant, the madder, belonging to the coffee tree family (the Rubiaceae). Madder, well characterised by its clinging leaves, has been grown for ages to produce a red dye from its roots. This dye was used to color the garance red trousers of the French infantry uniform, introduced originally in 1829 (in an attempt to boost the madder-growing industry). With the start of World War I, the high visibility of these trousers became a liability and they were discarded. To this day, some soldiers of the US and UK army still wear garance red uniforms on special ceremonial occasions.

French infantry soldiers, anno 1914.
French infantry soldiers, anno 1914.

But back to Africa. When the French conquered mainland Ivory Coast at the end of the 19th century, the indigenous population was quickly overpowered due to the superior military strength of the invading force. The brightly colored trousers of the French soldiers unsurprisingly did not fail to leave an impression on peoples such as the Dan and Wè. As this alien type of cloth became associated with power, mask wearers tried to obtain fragments of it to include in their costumes. One can sometimes find small strips of it attached to masks – or as in the example above, on a Wè miniature mask, where a small piece hangs from the left pierced ear (probably the right ear once had a similar strip). Such small masks were used to secure the consent and support of the supernatural world through the mediation of the ancestors. With these miniature masks the living strove to please their ancestors to make them positively sympathetic towards their acts. One way of pleasing them was by attaching all kinds of paraphernalia to them – each being very symbolic. Another foreign material one often can spot are glass beads – probably easier to obtain than a soldier’s pants.

ps many thanks for all your kind emails; both mother and daughter are doing very well.