Meeting themselves again. An object-oriented perspective?

Mask collected by N. W. Thomas in Agukwu or Nibo in 1910-11. (MAA Z 13689)
Maiden spirit mask, recorded by Northcote Thomas as ‘Isi abogefi’, collected in either Agukwu-Nri or Nibo in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1910-11. Thomas noted that this spirit (manwu) would dance each dry season at the feast of Anuoye. (MAA Z 13689; Photograph by N. W. Thomas MAA N.78430.)

In an essay, ‘The buzz of displacement’, in the book The Inbetweenness of Things (Bloomsbury, 2017), Sandra Dudley draws upon the concept of an object-oriented ontology and conducts a thought-experiment to imagine how museum objects themselves might experience senses of displacement and liminality. Dudley considers the perspective of a carved wooden bee that once adorned the throne of King Thibaw in the Mandalay Palace in Burma, which has been caught in the liminal space of the Pitt Rivers Museum collection in Oxford since 1889. For the bee, the museum may be regarded as a liminal space where it is isolated from the contexts which originally animated it; the object yearns for reincorporation into that lost social and material world from which it is exiled. On the other hand, however, the museum is a space in which possibilities for incorporation into new social worlds abound as the bee forms relationships with other people and things. Dudley mentions, for example, the intimate relationship formed between the bee and a contemporary wood carver who was inspired by the bee to create a replica.

Ethnographic museum objects may be said to be displaced both spatially and temporally. As we have been rediscovering the collections of artefacts that Northcote Thomas assembled during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, we have also been experiencing this sense of the objects’ dislocation, but also the possibilities for reconnection in the present. The idea of reconnection and re-entanglement with the ethnographic archive is, of course, at the heart of the [Re:]Entanglements project. However, we have been struck especially by the temporal reconnections brought about in our approach to collections-based research in the museum store too – especially through our use of Thomas’s original field photographs.

Pot for Olokun, collected by N. W. Thomas in Benin City, 1909. (MAA Z 12112)
Shrine vessel, recorded by Northcote Thomas simply as ‘Pot for Olokun’, collected in Benin City in 1909. Such ‘akh olukun’ were made by women from river clay, symbolic of the cycle of life and the worlds of earth and water, human spirit. (MAA Z 12112; Photograph by N. W. Thomas MAA P.29327.)

Thomas did not systematically photograph all the objects he collected prior to dispatching them to what was then the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. In fact, only a small percentage of the collection was photographed either in the field or at the Museum at the time. Those photographs of ‘specimens of native manufacture’ that Thomas did take in West Africa are therefore especially valuable, and have been one of the starting points for us as we have been exploring the collections in stores. In most cases, it is only through painstaking archival research and detective work that we have been able to locate these objects today. But how thrilling when one is able to identify such objects and reunite them with their historical photographic portraits!

Object-based research at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Katrina Dring, Collections Assistant, documenting Olukun pot (Z 12112) collected by N. W. Thomas probably in Benin City, 1909.
[Re:]Entanglements team member, Katrina Dring, updating the Museum record of the Olokun shrine vessel, comparing the Northcote Thomas’s field photograph of the pot with the object today. The vessel has evidently been badly damaged at some point in its biography and has been repaired.
From the objects’ point of view, we wonder what the experience of being brought ‘face-to-face’ with themselves in this way must be like? Seeing their younger selves, as it were, from nearly 110 years ago, when they had newly been brought into being through the skills of artists and craftspeople in the areas in which N. W. Thomas was working. The exchange of gazes between historic photograph and object presences other times, places and people, most particularly the very moment in time when, in West Africa, Thomas clicked the shutter on his Videx camera, capturing the reflected light from these objects in the emulsion of his glass plate negatives, which we, in turn, have pored over and digitized, and used in our quest to discover those same objects in the anonymous wooden crates in which they are now housed in Cambridge. The museum affords such possibilities for presencing these temporal and spatial journeys. And this, we hope, will be just the beginning of these journeys and possibilities as we invite others to reconnect with the collections and the histories they are entangled in, both virtually, through the internet, and when we physically travel back to the locations where the objects were made with copies of Thomas’s historical photographs and the photographs we are now taking.

Masks collected by N. W. Thomas in Fugar, North Edo, in 1909. (MAA Z 12252)
Recreating Thomas’s field photograph of two masks, labelled as ‘Ibonodike’ and ‘Wonodike’, collected in Fugar, in present-day Edo State, in 1909. (MAA Z 12252; Photograph by N. W. Thomas RAI 400.17528.) Thomas collected a large number of masks in Fugar; it seems likely that he commissioned a carver to produce various types of mask typical of the area.

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