Thanks to Elena Martinez-Jacquet, I just discovered the Hamburg’s former Museum of Ethnology (now known as the Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt or MARKK) since 2019 has a permanent exhibition on view called “Distinguished: Women Artists of the Inventory”.
The exhibition takes a look behind the scenes of the museum during the first half of the 20th century and at the work of its female employees, who at that time were working in the background in this then male-dominated institution. For the first time, the draftswomen, who back then were employed to create a documentation of the collections are brought to the limelight. The exhibition pays tribute to the work of the women, assigns authorship to their works and distinguishes them as artists.
Another online museum database to bookmark and discover, is the one from the Weltmuseum (former Museum of Ethnology) in Vienna – the largest anthropological museum in Austria, which was already established in 1876. The museum’s collections comprise more than 200,000 ethnographic objects, 100,000 photographs and 146,000 printed works from all over the world, including part of James Cook’s collection of Polynesian and Northwest Coast art (purchased in 1806) and an important group of Benin bronzes from Nigeria. The intuitive online database is a work in progress and already includes 6646 records – you can explore them here.
Worth your attention is a group of early Liberian material collected by the museum’s former director Etta Becker-Donner (1911-1975), or the 117 San rock engravings collected by the Czech explorer Emil Holub (1847-1902) in Olifantsfontein – such as the one illustrated above. There are many more treasures to be discovered, such as the below Luba bow stand collected by Alfred Sigl in 1896, or the killer Chokwe staff in the celebrated Moxico style, collected by Antoon Erwin Lux in 1875. It does not get much better than these…
A public African Art collection in the US that had stayed under my radar, but does have quite some gems in it, is located at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. You can explore it here. The museum especially benefited from a large donation by Candis and Helmut Stern of mostly Congolese art in 2005. In 2014, through a $1.5 million gift, the Sterns also helped create a new curatorial position at UMMA: the Helmut and Candis Stern Associate Curator of African Art (info), now held by Laura De Becker – a fellow Belgian! De Becker is currently working on a reinstallation and doubling of the Museum’s space dedicated to African art, a project called “I Write To You About Africa” – read more about this exciting prospect here; it is scheduled to open somewhere this year.
In terms of provenance research of their holdings, German museums historically have always been one step ahead. The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich leads by example again, by making scans of the original inventory books of its ethnological collections available on their website. You can find them here (in chronological order on the left of the page). Funded by the Bavarian State Ministry for Science and Art, the museum with this projects wishes to make these important historical sources freely available to researchers who wish to study the museum’s collecting activities and acquisitions.
Another database to bookmark, especially as it is impossible to travel to Toronto these days anyway. You can browse the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum online here. About 7500 objects from the African continent are listed, among which the above spectacular Efut headdress by Asikpo Edet Okon of Ibonda.
Coincidently the museum also holds a fake Mangbetu vessel made in Cameroon as recently discussed on the blog here. In the description we read
This vessel was produced as a copy of a classic Mangbetu style vessel acquired by the American Museum of Natural History at the beginning of the 20th century. Idrissou Kouotou has been specializing in this type of production since the 1980s. He does not work from photographs but reproduces rather faithfully known examples that he has carefully studied in the past. This vessel was produced in 2010 and aged for two years to give the dark patina. Idrissou Kouotou has his workshop in the Manga II quarter in Foumban right below the Rue des Artisans. He has been selling to an international clientele and to the local gallery owners for decades.
While I assume Kouotou sells his vessels for what they are, once they arrive in the West I’m not so sure its resellers remain that honest. The most fun object in the collection might very well be the below Kuyu kebe-kebepuppet with features of rock legend Elvis Presley. With his nickname “the king”, the maker of this puppet must have deemed him an appropriate inspiration to make this puppet considered kingly!
A kind blog reader informed me I had not yet listed the Budapest Museum of Ethnography in my list of online available museum databases; you can explore it here. The database of one of the oldest Ethnographic museums in Europe holds about 6600 items. Although the search engine has been translated, the data for each object is still in Hungarian, so you’ll need to use google translate for your search queries. Search for ‘maszk’, ‘Belga Kongo’, ‘ferry szobra’ (male statue), etc. Among other interesting groups, you can discover lots of objects collected by Emil Torday between 1907 and 1909. Also Liberia and Ivory Coast have strong collections of works. As almost none of the objects in the museum’s collection were ever published, browsing the database will certainly result in some exciting finds. Happy scrolling dear friends !
A new addition to my growing list of online databases to bookmark: you can now explore the collection of Saint Petersburg’s Kunstkamera museum here (in English!). As this collection is not very well documented, and publications about it are scarce, this online database is even more valuable – it’s not that we are allowed to travel there these days anyway.
The collection could use some vetting as there are a few questionable objects (such as a group of “Kongo” power figures, or a Luba headrest in the style of the Master of the Cascade Coiffure), and the majority of the material is ethnographic in nature, yet there are enough gems in there to take the time to scroll through the 1984 African items (here). Noteworthy is the group of objects collected by Alfred Mansfeld (including some very early Cross River headdresses), and a group of archaic chiwara headdresses from the Bamana people from Mali collected by Leo Frobenius. There’s also a group of Benin bronzes, and an important batch of early Zande & Mangbetu objects collected by Wilhelm Junker. What’s cool about the database is that you can search on these collectors and immediately get to see all objects in the museum’s possession.
Don’t forget to also take the time to scroll through the Oceanic holdings, including some early Hawaii and Easter Islands collections – among other treasures. But maybe the collection that has the most art-historical importance is the group of 18th century Tlingit masks.. the stuff of dreams!
A bit late to the party perhaps, but earlier this week the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart (Germany) has launched an online database of its holdings. Before you get all excited, please be aware that for now the ‘Sampling digital’, as it is called, only contains 2,000 records. With more than 160,000 objects in storage, they are only getting started and probably will need another 10-15 years to finish the whole project. As the museum is famous for its early collections of material of the former German colonies, it is a true treasure trove. Personally, I can’t wait for more objects to be made available online. As for Africa is concerned, for now it are mostly items from Namibia that are already accessible. As with the pipe below, collectors might recognise the typical Linden Museum label, which can be still be found on many objects the museum sold or traded that now circulate on the art market.
Notwithstanding the fact that only a fraction of the objects are already online, it must be said the website presents one of the best museum databases around in our field. It is packed with information. Especially on the precise provenance of the objects the database is very strong, and goes much further than merely having the classical single line of provenance. Indeed, in the press conference for the launch of the website, it was explicitly stated that it wishes to create transparency in questions of provenance. You can explore the database here.
As you’ll see the website is easy to navigate, and lets visitors even download free HD images of the objects. In a twist of German humor it also features a DAY & NIGHT version, I’ll let you discover yourself what that functionality does. I do love the ‘World Map’ option to geographically search on the globe to find the objects you are looking for – how intuitive and innovative! I’m delighted to see such an old school ethnological museum leading the way digitally.
PS a good example of the thorough provenance research the museum is doing, is this story about the below enigmatic figure from Cameroon. A must read!
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.