African Collections Review

Here in the World Art section at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery we are carrying out a review of the 3,000 African objects in our collection. They originate from across the African continent (West, South, North, and Central Africa).

There are strong collections from West and Southern Africa (including South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria and Ghana), but we also have smaller collections from East Africa such as Kenya, Tanzania and Madagascar. The collection mainly dates from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s and much was acquired by officials working in the colonies, who then donated material to the museum.

What is a collections review and why are we doing it?

The review process is taking several months. It involves photographing and documenting every object in the African collections. We work with experts to improve the documentation to gain a deeper knowledge of the collection. This means that we are creating fuller records and filling in some of the blanks. For instance, we can map how and when the museum acquired the objects and who donated them. We will then approach other experts who have a specialism in an African country, culture, or region. Their information will help to enrich our records and, therefore, our knowledge of these objects. This knowledge can then be shared, for example on our website and collections database. As a result, other museums may wish to borrow the objects. We also would like to create links with communities in Africa and in Brighton who have cultural links to areas of the collection. They may also be able to provide information about the material. The knowledge gained from this review will inform future exhibitions and displays, and help us to find new ways to use our collections and enrich our community engagement work.

Historic Label attached to three Spoons
This historic label attached to three spoons tells us where they were from (in this case Abyssinia, a historic name for Ethiopia), who the donor was and when he made the donation. The ‘reg.’ (accessions register) number is very useful and will help us to record the object and find out more information from our registers.

What do we actually do?

Although we have many large objects in the collection such as spears, carved chairs and wooden sculpture we are concentrating at the moment on objects stored in boxes. First we locate a box and then we record the location, the physical description and the condition of all the objects in the box. African objects in the collection incorporate diverse and often quite delicate materials, such as woods, seeds, leaves, grasses, metal and clay, so they have to be treated with great care. The review gives us the opportunity to repackage the objects in new conservation-grade materials and to reunite separated objects.

We also note any information on the historic labels attached to the objects and we take photographs. We then add the details and images to our database. In time, these will become available to the public via our online collections search facility.

Packing the objects after they have been recorded.
Packing the objects after they have been recorded.

What have we found?

It is a fascinating process, lifting the lid of a box and discovering the objects within. There are beadwork pieces, headdresses, masks, knives, snuffboxes, shoes, utensils, textiles and sculpture. Boxes may contain many different types of object. Other boxes contain lots of the same type of object, such as arrows. When you look closely however, each arrow is unique.

Colourful beadwork from South Africa (R758/4)
Colourful beadwork from South Africa (R758/4)

This is my favourite object so far.

Clay-covered wooden carving from West Africa (R4916/2)
Clay-covered wooden carving from West Africa (R4916/2)

It is a clay-covered wooden carving from West Africa (R4916/2) and I’m looking forward to finding out more about it.

I also like the difference in sizes between these two similarly-shaped objects from Nigeria. We think the smaller one is a cosmetics container and the larger is a churn but they are both made from hide and decorated in a similar way.

Cosmetics container and a Churn
Cosmetics container and a Churn

There are some objects which we don’t have documentation for and so we hope that by working with experts and communities of interest we will be able to unlock their meaning and significance. Look out for our tweets @BrightonMuseums

Lucy Faithful – Collections Assistant

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