On Thursday I convened a panel and presented a paper at the biannual African Studies Association 2014 (#ASAUK2014) held this time at the University of Sussex. The two panels Museum Collections as Material for African Studies I and II, put together by Zachary Kingdon, Africa Curator at the World Museums in Liverpool, consisted of papers that explored ways to explore and demonstrated the agency of Africans in the selecting of materials for European museums in the 19th and early 20th century – the time that many so-called African ethnographic collections were build up. The panel sparked very lively discussions, including those on how to alter objectifying museum practices in representations.
The abstract of the paper reads:
What Does It Represent: 19th century Kente Cloth in European Collections
This presentation focus on the specific circumstances of the production and acquisition of several handwoven textiles on the 19th century Gold and Slave Coast of West Africa (now Ghana and Togo): a group of cloth collected specifically for the now World Museum in Liverpool and a set of textiles donated and likely specifically acquired for the National Museum of Denmark. As these fabrics are some of the oldest extant textiles from this coastal region, they play a significant role in the construction of art historical accounts of kente cloth in the 19th century with the implicit assumptions that these textiles are unproblematic representative of the weaving and design practices at that time. Even when sources are limited, I will attempt to entangle the agency of those who selected the textiles, and those who produced and sold them to reflect on what these textiles actually represent. I will focus particulary on the interplay between aesthetics and economics and. As cloth were probably mainly acquired from coastal wholesale markets, rather than produced on direct commission, I will reflect on the extent that weavers, designers and cloth traders had an export market in mind, and which kind, when producing and selling these textiles. I will argue that much more focus on the agency of African producers and sellers, together with the agency of those receiving or acquiring, will not only help to counteract objectifying museum practices, but might also lead to revisit art historical accounts of colonial and pre-colonial African art.
The abstract of the panel reads:
The use of African cultural objects as instruments of knowledge about African peoples have a problematic history. In the nineteenth century African ethnology collections acquired by British museums were used, in part, to construct and disseminate invented ideas of Africa against which a British ‘national’ culture could define itself (Coombes, 1994). This means that such collections often tell us more about British interests in Africa than they do about Africans or African cultures. On the other hand, ethnology collections acquired from Africa do not simply reflect the agency of British colonial officers, missionaries or soldiers. Whenever they could, Africans acted strategically in exchanging particular artefacts for trade goods, in giving selected items as gifts, in producing sought after genres for sale, and even in presenting various items to museums. African agency is therefore embodied in collections of African objects. Shelton (2001) has highlighted the way that the objectifying processes of the museum tend to efface the biographies of individual objects and the personalities and relationships of the collectors who created the collections in the first place. Detailed research is often required in order to reconnect museum artefacts with the often extraordinary human stories behind them. Such stories constitute important sources for African studies. This panel invites proposals for papers that demonstrate how new research relating to museum collections can provide fresh insights into African histories and cultures and can raise important questions about the role of African agency in influencing the trajectories or expressions of European colonialism in Africa.