In her latest blog post from UCL’s Conservation Lab, Carmen Vida discusses how Northcote Thomas’s historical field photographs inform the work of reassembling ‘composite’ objects from the collection and help conservators’ make decisions about appropriate conservation treatments.
It often comes as a bit of a surprise to people when they first get to know about museum conservation to learn that conservators do not necessarily always do everything that can be done to an object, or try to make it complete, new, or ‘like it was’. Out of many possibilities, conservators decide on what is an appropriate treatment for each object in dialogue with experts, curators and other stakeholders. As a conservator, I am very aware that every conservation intervention is a new event in the life of an object, an event that can be ‘life-changing’ – though, hopefully, a change for the better by extending the object’s life and making it more meaningful to others. It is the conservator’s job to ensure that the conservation intervention always fits with and helps reveal what the ‘life’ of the object was and is, and that it never obscures its significance, values and stories, but rather helps to reveal them.
For conservators, damage is not always bad. It can, rather, be an interesting thing: it can, for example, tell us about the way an object was used, help us to understand its ‘biography’, inform us about the conditions in which it has be stored, and so forth. For this reason, conservation always starts with research and investigation. We seek to get to know an object as closely as possible through documentation, through comparison with similar or related objects, and through the signs left on the object by its previous history. This helps us to design conservation treatments that fit with the object’s past history as well as its present and future use. In a way, conservation is a bit of a time machine, moving between the object’s past, present and future!
As discussed in a previous post, Giving Objects a Voice, many objects appear to be ‘mute’. That is, they have no accompanying information, and conservators must rely entirely on what they can discover from their analysis of the object itself. But working with the collections assembled by Northcote Thomas is providing me with a unique opportunity because the archive itself is so rich and varied: not only objects, but written records, sound recordings and, very importantly for the conservator, historic photographs. These different elements in the archive can sometimes be brought together to shed light on each other. So just as the historic photographs of people have been affording their descendants in West Africa the possibility of reconnecting with their ancestors (see for instance the blog Ancestral Reconnections), the historic photographs of the objects are affording conservators the possibility of reconnecting with the earlier life of some of the objects we are treating. This information is vital to guide our conservation treatment choices because it allows us to compare two different moments in the life of the object, and it helps us decide what the treatment should achieve and how. It ultimately helps us make ethical treatment decisions.
Some of the objects we have been working with in the UCL Conservation Lab illustrate this well. I have recently been revisiting the treatment of a figure that Thomas collected in Fugar in present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909, which was conserved by one of our students last summer. In Thomas’s catalogue, the figure is labelled with the single word ‘akosi’, with no further information. The object is a ‘composite’ insofar as it consists of several elements and materials: (1) a carved wooden figurine with a feather, (2) a red glass bead ‘necklace’ or ‘bracelet’, and (3) a ‘headdress’ consisting of strings of cowrie shells threaded though cane and plant material. At the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, these three elements have been accessioned and stored separately. Bringing together the [Re:]Entanglements project’s archival research, collections-based research and fieldwork, it has, however, been possible to re-associate the elements that make up this assemblage with reference to a photograph that Thomas made of the figure at the time of collection. This, we assume, shows the assemblage as Thomas initially encountered it in its original context.
This ‘akosi’ figure will form part of the forthcoming exhibitions at the SOAS Brunei Gallery and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. As such, one of the conservation treatment aims was to ensure that, after 111 years, all three elements could once again be put back together for display.
An initial condition assessment of the object revealed several instances of damage:
The wooden figure was covered in surface dirt and dust, and debris from insect activity.
There was a through crack in the left wrist that severed it completely from the rest of the arm.
The left foot had suffered extensive insect damage and was largely missing.
The feather had also suffered extensive insect damage and was dirty, broken and misshapen. There is a corresponding hole on the right side of the figure where presumably a second feather used to be, but this is totally missing now.
The cane and plant fibres in the cowrie shell headdress had become brittle, inflexible and unable to support the weight of the cowries. The headdress was made up of five tendrils. Of these, one was very short and another slightly shorter than the other three. There were also loose cowries bagged separately, indicating that perhaps originally there were only four strands and that when one had broken, the broken end had been reattached at the top.
We had to decide what level of treatment would be appropriate for each of these issues, and we were able to do so thanks to the possibility of referring to the historic photograph.
Close examination of the photograph revealed:
That the surface dirt present was most likely museum dirt, although there were areas of dirt in the original figure the ghost of which could still be seen in the object. For this reason, it was decided to sensitively clean the wooden elements with only dry cleaning methods and to avoid the use of any solvent which may have removed more than simple surface dirt. In this way we could guarantee the cleaning of recent dirt but leave behind any deposits that may be related to the use or beliefs associated with the figure.
The through crack on the wrist can already be seen in the historic photograph. Wood is anisotropic and moves in different directions in reaction to changes in humidity and temperature. Cracks of this type often occur through movement tensions in green wood that has not been properly allowed to dry before being carved. That the crack can already be seen in the historic photograph suggests that the object may have already been in existence for some time before Thomas acquired it. This information clarified that it would be totally inappropriate to fill that crack because it has been there for over 100 years and allowed the wood to move in response to environmental changes without further stresses, but also because a fill would have obscured important information about the object history.
The insect damage caused to the left foot can also be seen in the historic photograph, although perhaps it was not as extensive then. Because of this, only minimal intervention fills were done to support any areas at risk. The fills were done with long fibre Japanese tissue paper (a very thin but strong paper) and a cellulose based adhesive that was sympathetic to the nature of wood. Watercolours were used to tint the Japanese tissue paper to blend the fills with the surrounding wood. The insect damage visible in the historic photograph again seems to indicate that the object was not new when it was acquired by Thomas.
Two feathers are visible in the historic photo, one on either side. The remaining feather was repaired with fills done in the vane to strengthen it and realign it back to its original shape. The feather was also dry surface cleaned and also cleaned with solvents to restore its shape as much as possible.
It was clear from the historic photos that only four strands of similar length were originally present as part of the cowries headdress, confirming that the two shorter strands were originally one and that the loose cowries were probably part of this broken strand. That information, together with the need to strengthen the cane so that it would be able to support the weight, allowed us to take quite an interventive approach: the fourth strand was lengthened with the lose cowries, and all the strands were stabilized by threading them with nylon fishing wire, to support the weight instead of the fragile cane threading. Tinted epoxy buttons were made matching the colour of the cowries to serve as stoppers for each of the cowrie strands. Three nylon lengths were braided to create a stronger wire that was used at the top of the object to connect the nylon fishing wire used on the cowrie strands, and to allow the headdress to sit again on top of the figure during exhibition.
The conservation treatment given to this object is a good illustration of the decision making processes we conservators go through as part of our work. Ethical treatment decisions were made in this case because we were seeking to stabilise the object and bring it to the condition that best reflected its values and affordances. This meant different approaches to different areas of the object: minimal intervention was adopted for most elements whereas the headdress required a far more interventive solution to allow the object to be displayed back together and have its integrity restored.
Among the many collaborations involved in the [Re:]Entanglements project is a partnership with the Museum Conservation programme at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Under the supervision of Drs Dean Sully and Carmen Vida, students on the graduate programme have been working on a selection of objects collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Project coordinator, Carmen Vida, introduces some of the contributions of conservation in this the first in a series of posts from the UCL Conservation team.
Starting in February 2019, as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, a selection of objects belonging to the N. W. Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) have come to UCL’s Institute of Archaeology for conservation. The project is allowing us to interact with the collection in new ways and to approach, explore and elicit some of the past and present meanings of the archive Thomas put together. As a result, in many cases the objects in the stores are being studied for the first time and the cobwebs are being dusted off, sometimes quite literally.
Conservation has a particular role in the [Re:]Entanglements project: not only does it ensure that the objects are stable enough to be used by anyone interacting with them, but as a distinct form of engagement, it provides intimate knowledge of the objects and can shed light on their make-up and their biography. Due to the lack of contextualising documentary evidence, museum objects often appear to be ‘mute’. But even where there is documentary evidence, the histories and narratives that have reached us provide one side – often someone’s side – of the story. Conservation can help provide a voice to the objects themselves, which may sometimes corroborate, but at other times question, the established histories associated with the objects. In doing so, conservation affords present day audiences the possibility to re-engage with the objects, whilst exploring the way in which the archive came to be both from past and contemporary perspectives.
By the time the project is finished more than 40 objects will have been worked on at the Institute of Archaeology’s conservation lab and at the MAA. The objects being treated vary in type and size, and are but a small part of the N. W. Thomas Collection, which includes over 3,000 objects. Some will form part of upcoming exhibitions in London and Cambridge, whilst others are being conserved because, after over a century of existence, they have become unstable even when packaged away in a museum store. The work is being carried out both by professional conservators and students, and is allowing these students to develop their skills and further their training, another affordance of the project. We are also providing running some workshops for the Art Assassins, the youth forum of the South London Gallery, which is another collaboration within the [Re:]Entanglements project.
There is a whole array of tools and techniques that
we use in conservation to better understand the objects and inform our
treatments. Documentation is essential, starting with any existing historical
information to which we can correlate the object itself: documents,
photographs, previous museum information in the form of labels or markings on
the objects. Labels are interesting things: sometimes informative, sometimes
deceptive and indicative of misidentification at some stage. Our conservation
work on the N. W. Thomas Collection includes the preservation of labels and
museum numbers marked on the object, as they have by now become part of it and
of its history.
Visual analysis of the objects can be extremely
revealing for a trained eye. We use microscopes to examine the surface of the
objects, looking for evidence of damage and instability, but also for clues as
to the history of the object: manufacture materials and techniques, damage and/or
repairs (whether before or after collection), evidence of rituals or of use are
all things we will be looking for in our work. All these tell stories and give
the object a new voice. Some of the objects treated so far exhibit extensive
pest damage, and microscopy has helped us find evidence of the pests
themselves, which will be later used by expert entomologists to identify the
species and give us a good idea of where the damage might have occurred. The
insect damage in some of the objects reflects their places of origin in West
Africa (termites) as well as their later history (wood boring insects that can
be found in the UK).
But conservators do not rely on visual inspection
alone and we are trained to use most of our senses as part of our work, not
just our eyes and hands. Smell, for instance, can help us identify fungal
infestation, or certain materials used in the past. And by listening to the
sound when we very gently tap a surface, we can ascertain the extent to which
it may be hollow under the surface as a result of pest activity. One sense we
are definitely not encouraged to use is taste! – not least because of the toxic
materials earlier conservators may have used to treat objects.
Other techniques we use help us to identify materials whether original or introduced by repairs done in the past. Ultraviolet fluorescence, for instance, can reveal the presence of modern adhesives and materials in objects. Chemical tests can help identify binders and pigments used in their decoration. Elemental analysis with portable technology such as p-XRF (portable X ray fluorescence, which detects inorganic elements such as metals and minerals) can help us identify not just what the objects are made of, but also, for instance, if they were treated with pest treatments no longer used such as arsenic or mercury salts. And we can use Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) to identify organic compounds. In this way we were able to establish, for instance, that a white deposit on one of the masks (Z 13728) was paraffin wax. This identification helped us both clean it safely by using the right solvents, but also to speculate that the mask may have received some treatment, possibly soon after arrival at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Paraffin wax was often used as a filler and protective coating treatment for wooden objects from the end of the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century. In this case, our findings support documentary evidence from the museum’s Annual Reports in the years shortly after acquisition that the objects were cleaned, mended and restored.
Our work so far has also allowed us to interrogate and qualify some of the other knowledge resulting from the [Re:]Entanglements project’s collections-based research. Thomas’s correspondence, for instance, indicates that – in stark contrast to the current practice in his time – he commissioned some of the objects he collected to be made or else bought them at markets. One of the objects conserved at UCL in 2019 is an Igbo maiden spirit mask. The initial visual examination of the mask identified a number of historical repairs, including an iron sheet stabilising one of the bird figure on the proper right of the headdress, an iron staple across a crack on the proper left side of the headdress, and a plant fibre tie on the same area as the staple but further down. In the case of the iron staple and the fibre ties, they are covered with the same pigment used on the rest of the mask, suggesting they are original repairs. Checking the current condition against Thomas’s field photographs showed that the iron sheet repair securing the bird was already there when the mask was photographed by Thomas, presumably at the time of acquisition. These repairs could both be indicative of use prior to collection, in which case the mask would had had a previous life and not been simply commissioned by Thomas, or else be repairs carried out during the process of manufacture, not an uncommon occurrence. Currently we have not been able to resolve the matter of previous use in relation to this object, but nevertheless this conservation work has raised the question, allowing us to continue looking for evidence of previous use in other objects. That is one of the research questions we will be looking to find evidence for when treating other objects.
To date, nine objects have received treatment, and
conservation of the remaining objects is underway. In this and subsequent
conservation-themed blogs we will be sharing some of the stories that are
coming to light as a result of the conservation work.
As noted above, many of the objects undergoing conservation and being discussed in this series of posts will be exhibited at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery, London (October to December 2020) and subsequently at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (2021, dates to be confirmed).
As we have been pursuing this research, we have encountered various other photographs of the Northcote Thomas collections. Indeed, we have discovered that some objects in the collections have been photographed many times since they were collected – starting in 1909 with Northcote Thomas’s own field photographs. In this article, we bring some of these photographs together as a kind of visual history of the photographic documentation of the collections.
The relationship between photography, ethnographic objects and ethnographic display has been the subject of much academic discussion. The manner in which objects have been photographed has shaped how such objects have been perceived, often within a strong Western modernist aesthetic, constituting them as ‘art objects’. Walker Evans‘ photographic documentation of African masks and sculptures displayed at the ‘African Negro Art‘ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1935 is a famous case and has been the subject of an exhibition and catalogue in its own right – Perfect Documents. As well as lighting and framing, a key part of this aesthetic is the separation of an object from its context, accentuating the object’s formal qualities, while disembedding it from the cultural context that often gives an object its original meaning and significance. This practice was evident in Northcote Thomas’s own use of a blank photographic background sheet, and it is there, too, in our own photographic documentation of the objects. It has been difficult to escape these dominant photographic tropes, although we have also tried to experiment with other approaches in our creative collaborations with local artists.
Northcote Thomas, 1909-15
Northcote Thomas made extensive use of photography during his anthropological surveys as we have discussed in many other project blog posts. While much of his photographic documentation was focused on people and their cultural practices, he also devoted considerable energy to photographing local material culture, including everyday utensils, tools and technologies, as well as ‘decorative art’ and objects associated with ceremonies, rituals and ‘secret societies’. Much of this material culture was photographed in situ in its cultural as well as physical context. Very occasionally it appears that Thomas acquired objects that he had first photographed in their original context, such as this ikenga-like figure that Thomas collected in Fugar in the north of present-day Edo State, Nigeria.
In addition to photographing objects in situ, Thomas also photographed objects isolated from their cultural context. This is evident, for example, in these photographs of masks collected by Thomas during his first and second tours respectively. Thomas photographed many masquerade performances, showing how masks were just a part of a much more elaborate performative display that included full costumes, music, dance, other ceremonial objects and audience interaction. On occasion, he was able to collect entire masquerade costumes, but, as with other collectors, he also collected head pieces alone. While we do not know the circumstances in which he collected these for sure, we do know that at least some of the objects he collected were specially commissioned from artists – this may have been the case with these masks from Fugar and Agukwu. Note the physical arrangement of the masks from Fugar on the left, and the use of backdrop and a book as an improvised mount in the photograph on the right.
During Thomas’s second tour, which focused on the Igbo-speaking peoples of what was then Awka District (present-day Anambra State, Nigeria), Thomas started lining up the objects he had collected to photograph them prior to having them shipped to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (then known as the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology). This example shows a series of items with Thomas’s original object numbers (352 to 372), collected in Awgbu and Enugu Ukwu. One can get a good sense of Thomas’s photographic backcloth here, supported on bamboo canes, which were in turn supported by two assistants, whose hands can be seen on either side! These photographs have been extremely useful in identifying Thomas’s collections in the Museum’s stores today, since many objects have since become separated from their labels. We have not, however, been able to locate all these objects.
Arts of West Africa, 1935
To date, the earliest photographs we have discovered of Thomas collections after they had entered the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge were published in 1935, 20 years after Thomas returned from his final tour. These are two photographs of the same Aule mask collected by Thomas in Agenebode, North Edo, in 1909. They were published in a book entitled Arts of West Africa, which was commissioned by the UK’s Colonial Office following the recommendation of its Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies. In the acknowledgements it is stated that the book’s plates were produced by the ‘expert photographers’ of the Empire Marketing Board, under the supervision of John Grierson, pioneer of the British Documentary Film Movement. It is also noted that ‘the British Museum afforded special facilities for the photography of [the] objects’, including those lent by other museums. It is likely, therefore, that the Aule mask was sent to the British Museum to be photographed.
It is interesting that the editors of the book considered it worthwhile to illustrate the mask with two different views (it is the only example in the book). In the description of the mask in the text, reference is made to photographs taken by Thomas of Igbo hair designs similar to those carved on the mask published in Peoples of All Nations in c.1920. The photographs show how lighting and camera angle can be used to dramatize the appearance of the mask.
British Museum, dates unknown
We have recently chanced upon a series of photographs of Northcote Thomas collections in the British Museum. Only one of these had a catalogue note mentioning the name of Thomas, but we were able to identify others and the British Museum catalogue will be updated accordingly. It is not clear whether the photographs were all taken at the same time, or if they were photographed at the British Museum or supplied to the Museum by Cambridge. Nor do we have any information about the year in which they were taken. It is possible that they were also photographed for the Arts of West Africa book, but not included – we don’t know.
Below we provide three examples, juxtaposed with our own photographs of the same objects. These highlight another value of historical photographs of objects, insofar as we are able to compare them with the objects as we encounter them today. The first photograph is of the same Aule mask collected by Thomas in Agenebode and published in Arts of West Africa. As can be seen in the recent photograph on the right, the mask has been fitted onto a wooden display mount. These mounts are also evident in some of the Len Morley photographs taken in the late 1940s. This mount is not present in the British Museum photograph of the same mask on the left, suggesting that the photograph was indeed taken earlier – perhaps in the 1930s.
Comparing historical and contemporary photographs also allows us to gather information about the changing condition of objects. The foot of this ngene shrine figure from Awgbu, for example, has clearly been damaged since the British Museum photograph on the left was made. Actually, during our collections-based research, we have located the missing part of the foot and this figure will be repaired prior to being displayed at the [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition in London in 2020.
In the example below, we can see that a piece of patterned cloth was originally attached to the mask when it was collected and has subsequently been lost. In fact, on closer inspection, we see that this is the same Obo mask collected in Fugar that Morley photographed (see below). The negative of Morley’s photograph has been printed back to front, such that the large crack that appears on the left side of the helmet can be see on the opposite side. The fact that the mask is attached to a wooden mount in Morley’s photograph of 1949, but is no longer attached to the cloth, also suggests that the British Museum photographs are earlier. Today, both the cloth and the wooden mount are missing.
Len Morley, 1949-51
In 1947, a faculty photographer was appointed to work in the Anthropology and Archaeology sections of Cambridge University, including at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology – his name was Len Morley. He continued working at the Museum until 1974. To date we have been able to identify around 15 objects from the Thomas collections photographed by Morley between 1949 and 1951. The objects are taken against a plain background and include a small scale. Two of the masks in the examples below have been fitted with wooden mounts similar to that discussed above, giving an indication of how they would have been exhibited in the Museum at the time.
Some masks are difficult to photograph without expensive purpose-designed mounts due to their shape and weight-distribution. In one remarkable photograph taken by Len Morley, we can see how he addressed this problem by getting an assistant, or perhaps a member of the Museum’s curatorial staff, to wear the mask. The area around the mask has then been painted out on the print making it suitable for publication purposes.
African art publications, 1960s-80s
A number of objects from the Northcote Thomas collections have featured as plates in more recent popular reference works on African art. In African Sculpture by William Fagg and Margaret Plass, first published in 1964, the authors use explicitly European art historical vocabularies to discuss African objects. At the time the book was published, Fagg was Deputy Keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum. Margaret and Webster Plass were American collectors of African art; Margaret donated their collection to the British Museum after her husband Webster’s death in 1952.
Fagg and Plass use the example of a mask Thomas identifies as agbazi, which was collected in Fugar in 1909 to illustrate what they refer to as an ‘African Gothic’ style (‘the strong tendency towards a ‘Gothic‘ verticality in African woodcarving’, p.101). The mask, which also appears in the photographs at the top of this post, appears to have been photographed lying on the floor of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.
Like William Fagg, Frank Willett was a leading Africanist anthropologist and archaeologist. Having spent a number of years working in the antiquities department in Nigeria in the 1950s, at the time he published his classic survey of African art in 1971 he was Professor of African Art and Archaeology at Northwestern University in the USA. African Art has remained in print ever since, and was revised in 2002. Willett used a photograph of a carved wooden figure Thomas collected in Sabongida, in the so-called Ora country, north of Benin City in his introductory chapter, discussing the development of the study of African art.
Willett refers to the ‘cubist qualities’ reflected in the artistic traditions of the Edo-speaking peoples. He also notes how little known these artistic traditions are when compared to the ‘better known art of the Benin court’. Thomas’s label and catalogue entry describe the figure merely as a doll. A piece of string is tied around its neck, attached to which are two cowrie shells.
A photograph of the Isi abogefi mask collected by Thomas in Agukwu, discussed above, was published by G. I. Jones in his monograph, The Art of Eastern Nigeria, published in 1984. Gwilym Iwan Jones was a colonial administrator in Igbo-speaking Eastern Nigeria between 1926 and 1946. During his time in the Colonial Service he undertook anthropological training at Oxford. In 1946, he left the Colonial Service and became a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Cambridge, specializing in Igbo art. Jones made extensive collections himself, now in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and he was also an expert photographer – his photographs of Igbo masquerade performances are especially well-known. In the 1930s and 40s, he worked in many of the same areas that Thomas visited during his second and third tours (1910-13), and he makes frequent reference to Thomas’s collections in the book.
Jones uses the mask as a particularly fine example of a ‘maiden spirit’ helmet mask. The marked-up, camera-ready artwork used in the production of Jones’ book can be found in the archives of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, among Jones’ papers.
Jean Borgatti, 1969
In 1969, the art historian Jean Borgatti conducted the first comprehensive research on Northcote Thomas’s collections, focusing on the material he collected in North Edo sixty years previously. This research would form an important part of Borgatti’s MA dissertation, ‘The Northern Edo of Southern Nigeria: An Art Historical Geography of Akoko-Edo, Ivbiosakon, Etsako and Ishan’, submitted to the University of California, Los Angeles in 1971. Her decision to concentrate on this area was a response to William Fagg’s observation that ‘the arts of the Northern Edo and Ishan have remained “a universe … practically unknown to the outside world, but which is extremely rich in new forms”‘ (Borgatti 1971: 2). Building on her MA work, she would go on to conduct PhD research in the same region and, indeed, devote much of her career to studying the arts and masquerade of North Edo (see, for example, her guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project).
Borgatti made extensive use of photography in her research on the Thomas collections at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, using formal analysis to categorize the artworks according to a series of ‘style provinces’. She focused especially on carved figures and mask types. As well as presenting the photographs in the appendix of her MA thesis, she used these in her PhD fieldwork, during which she would rephotograph many of the same masquerade types, providing a remarkable analysis of how they have changed and developed over several decades.
Roger Blench and Mark Alexander, 1983-90
Prior to the [Re:]Entanglements project, the most sustained attempt to document Northcote Thomas’s collections was carried out by Roger Blench and Mark Alexander in the 1980s. Blench and Alexander were graduate students in the Anthropology Department at Cambridge. Together they set about cataloguing Thomas’s papers, sound recordings, photographs and material culture collections across various institutions. Blench presented an overview of the results of this survey in an article, ‘The Work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’, published in The Nigerian Field in 1995. They also published a bibliography of Thomas’s written works, while Alexander used Thomas as one of a number of case studies in his MPhil dissertation, ‘Colonialism and the Political Context of Collection: A Case Study of Nigerian Collections in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’, submitted in 1982.
As part of this work, Blench and Alexander created a computerized database of the Thomas collections and photographs in Cambridge, and photographed as many of the objects as they could locate. Blench notes that many seemed to be missing. In the early 1990s, Blench and Alexander pursued other interests and passed on their catalogue and photographs to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Their photographs are pinned to the reverse of the Thomas object index cards in the Museum’s original card index catalogue system. While we have made many discoveries since, Blench and Alexander’s work with Thomas’s collections may certainly be regarded as laying the foundations of the [Re:]Entanglements project.
In the context of historical
ethnographic collections, of course, the absence of a named individual artist
or maker is the norm, rather than the exception. We’ll return to this issue,
but first let us take a look at the two artworks/artefacts collected by Thomas
that feature in the exhibition.
Z 14207: Lamellophone(ibweze)
According to Thomas’s label, this lamellophone or thumb piano was collected in 1911 in Enugu-ukwu, south-west of Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. It is one of a number of lamellophones collected by Thomas. The Igbo word for a lamellophone is ubọ-aka, and it is thus curious why Thomas gives this particular instrument the name ibweze. According to Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna, a lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and native of Awka, ibweze – which should actually be spelt ibhe-eze – means simply ‘the thing belonging to the king’, or ‘the king’s thing’, and is not the name of an instrument at all. Onwuegbuna speculates that this ubo-aka was made for the Eze (king) or a musician in his court.
Judging from the lamellophones collected by Thomas, they were a medium for displaying the virtuosity of those who made them as well as the musicians who played them. However, the ibweze is particularly remarkable given the elaborate superstructure (indeed, a lamellophone fit for a king!). The finger-board, which has six cane tongues, is mounted onto a wooden block. Above the finger-board, this has been carved with two human faces, one facing front, one facing back, as well as two antelope heads facing left and right. Surmounted on the antelopes’ horns is a cat-like creature – probably a leopard given its spots. The leopard is also a symbol of kingship.
The elaborate carving makes the instrument heavy and poorly balanced. One would imagine that it is impossible to play, but Thomas also took a series of photographs of the ibweze being played along with a drum, which Thomas also acquired. In his register book, Thomas describes the photograph series simply as ‘Young men’s dance’. A further photograph shows both the thumb piano and the drum (Z 14200) lined up before a backcloth with other objects that he had collected in Enugu-ukwu.
We know that Thomas purchased objects for his collections and he also commissioned artists and craftspeople to make things for him. We do not know, however, whether the ibweze was a specially commissioned piece. If it was, we might speculate that the ibweze-maker used the opportunity to show off his skills as an artist, perhaps aware that his work would travel to a distant land, carrying his reputation and fame with it. Did he imagine that 108 years later, his masterpiece would be displayed in a fine art gallery in Cambridge?! If Thomas did commission the ibweze, it is possible that he was aware of the artist’s name – what a shame that he appears not to have recorded it.
Z 25889: Carved and painted
The second object from the Thomas collections featuring in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition is much more enigmatic. The label is of a kind that was attached to Thomas’s collections when they were originally accessioned at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It reads simply ‘Head, one side painted white, the other with white spots, straw round neck’. There is no surviving record of where it was collected or what its original purpose or function was, let alone who created it.
Unlike the ibweze, Thomas
took no photographs showing the carving in situ prior to being collected. There
are, however, some formal similarities with some shrine figures photographed by
Thomas in December 1909 in Aja-Eyube (spelled Ajeyube by Thomas), which is now
a suburb of Agbarho in Delta State, Nigeria. This is, however, inconclusive.
The division of the body using paint – in this case white on the right side, and spotted on the left – has cosmological significance and is found on both carved figures and human bodies. The Anglican missionary, George Basden, published a photograph of a man with his left side painted white in his book Niger Ibos [sic] (1938), which he stated represented the dualism of ‘body’ and ‘spirit’.
More than many of the objects that Thomas collected, this carved wooden head perhaps most closely resembles an ‘art object’, the primary function of which is aesthetic.
In a podcast accompanying the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Nicholas Thomas (no relation to Northcote!) reflects on historical distinctions between art museums and ethnographic museums. In the following excerpt he discusses a Fijian painted barkcloth from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that also appears in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, but the broader points apply equally to the Nigerian objects.
Whereas (Western) art objects are
often valued because of their association with individual artists, (non-Western)
ethnographic objects were historically valued as ‘specimens’ of the material
culture of particular societies and cultural groups. Although they recognized
and appreciated the skills and artistry of individual makers, anthropological
collectors such as Northcote Thomas were primarily interested in what material
culture could tell them about a given ‘people’. Thus, Thomas conceptualised his
collections in terms of ‘technologies’, or their function in relation to religion
and ritual. He was also interested in documenting ‘decorative arts’, both in
architecture and artefacts. This was, however, principally of interest insofar
as distinctive styles and techniques were perceived to delineate cultural
boundaries and influences. Thomas used art(efacts) much as he used language and
physical type photography as a tool in cultural mapping.
It was only in the 1980s that the
distinction between art objects and ethnographic objects began to be questioned
critically. This period also saw the rebranding of many ethnographic collections
as ‘World Art’. Today, acknowledging the individuality of the artists and
craftspeople responsible for making these works is part of a decolonisation agenda.
The reduction of singular works such as the ibweze or carved head
collected by Thomas to representative specimens, with the corresponding erasure
of the identities of their individual makers, is part of the epistemic violence
of colonialism. But, at the same time, we might also question whether the
highly-commoditised global art system, with its obsession with the named celebrity
artist, represents another form of coloniality, obscuring other possible artworlds
in which creativity is not necessarily the property and outcome of individual
Over the coming months, we shall be exploring the artefact collections assembled by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological survey work in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. The collection of ‘ethnological specimens’ was very much a part of anthropological fieldwork in the early twentieth century, and part of a broader project of ‘salvaging’ what was perceived to be the last vestiges of ‘primitive society’ before they were made extinct by the incursion of colonial ‘civilization’. Thomas had written about the need for making such collections long before he conducted any fieldwork himself and, in 1909, he echoed his earlier sentiments when justifying his collecting activities to the Colonial Office: ‘I regard the making of these collections as important. … The opportunities which I have may not recur, every year European goods are ousting native products more & more’.
Judging from correspondence with C. H. Read and T. A. Joyce at the British Museum, it appears that Thomas purchased most of the objects he collected at markets or else commissioned them to be made. This is in stark contrast with the looting of antiquities and treasures that accompanied colonial campaigns, such as the notorious Punitive Expedition to Benin City in 1897. Thomas initially anticipated that the collections would be acquired by the British Museum. However, Read, who was then Keeper of Ethnological Collections, declined the collections from his 1909-10 tour, partly due to a misunderstanding about funds available, partly because Thomas insisted that the collection be kept together in its entirety, but partly also because many of the objects were indeed made especially for Thomas. As Read wrote, ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were’. Today, paradoxically, Thomas’s collecting methods would be considered highly ethical.
Thomas subsequently offered the collection to the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. A draft letter by the museum’s curator, Anatole von Hügel, to the University’s Antiquarian Committee, which was responsible for the museum, survives in which he recommends acquiring the collection. Von Hügel notes that there are some ‘2500 objects, now lying in forty cases at the Colonial Office’, and ‘Mr Thomas is very anxious that the collection shall be kept together and is prepared to hand it over to our Museum at cost price’. He adds that ‘Mr Thomas procured what he believes to be the last examples of genuine native workmanship in many villages’. The sum of £100 was raised from one of the Museum’s regular patrons, Professor Anthony Bevan of Trinity College Cambridge, and the collection was duly acquired.
Having acquired the collection he assembled during his first tour in Edo-speaking areas of Southern Nigeria, Thomas was then given a grant by the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology ‘for collecting purposes’ during his subsequent tours among Igbo-speaking communities (1910-11, 1912-13), and it appears that Thomas donated the collections he assembled in Sierra Leone (1914-15). Together the ‘Thomas Collection’, as it was known, provided a comprehensive representation of ‘native manufactures’ of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The size of the collection was such that the gallery in which they were stored at the Museum was assigned as a dedicated ‘African room’.
Documenting and caring for a collection of this scale also presented challenges, especially since a large number of the objects had been damaged in transit from West Africa to Britain. The Museum’s Annual Reports in the years following the initial acquisition often mention the work of ‘cleaning, mending and restoring’ the objects; while Thomas himself assisted in the work of classifying and labelling the collections. Indeed, the work of accessioning, cataloguing and documenting the collection has continued sporadically over the decades. This work was carried out by individuals who went on to become established figures in the study of African Art, including G. I. Jones in the late 1940s and Malcolm Mcleod in the early 1970s. In the late 1980s, a project was led by Cambridge students, Roger Blench and Mark Alexander, to re-examine the collections, and today, of course, we are engaging with them again in the [Re:]Entanglements project.
Despite this occasional attention, the collections have rarely been seen. Today, only a handful of the objects are on display in the Museum’s permanent galleries. Through the [Re:]Entanglements project, for the first time we will be taking photographs of the collections back to the places from which they were collected. Thomas’s documentation of the collections is relatively limited, and we have much to learn about them. We are also interested in how the descendants of those who made or used these objects perceive them today. What craft skills and continuities in design and materials exists in these places now? And what inspiration might these collections provide for contemporary artists and craftspeople in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and beyond? Our intention is to commission new works and to display this newly-commissioned work alongside Thomas’s historical collections in our [Re:]Entanglements exhibition that will be staged in 2020.
Thomas photographed some of the objects he collected ‘in the field’, prior to having them packed in crates and shipped to Britain. Our starting point as we work through the collections is to identify and locate these same objects in the Museum stores, to photograph them in detail, and to enhance the Museum’s catalogue record of each. You can follow our progress by joining the project’s Facebook Group, and, indeed, you can make your own discoveries by searching the MAA’s online catalogue.
We are organising a panel as part of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s 2018 Conference, Art, Materiality and Representation, to be held at the British Museum and SOAS University of London, 1-3 June 2018. The panel, entitled ‘Museum Affordances: Collections, Interventions, Exhibitions’, relates closely to the [Re:]Entanglements project.
Abstract: What do museums afford? What repertoires of action do they make possible? This panel explores the latent possibilities of collections, interventions and innovative exhibition practices, focusing on the material legacies of historical anthropological fieldwork and collecting in the present. The vast collections of objects, images and sound recordings from Africa, Oceania, America and Asia assembled during the colonial era remain a troubling presence in our cultural institutions. Increasingly museums are developing new ways of engaging with source communities and diasporic groups to facilitate intercultural dialogue, and yet the latent possibilities for action, understanding and meaning-making that ethnographic collections afford remains largely unexplored. Such affordances are relational and situational, and we are interested in exploring how possibilities for action change over time and become perceptible for differently-situated actors in different contexts. Many such possibilities may be regarded as ‘hidden affordances’ (Gaver 1991), and we are particularly interested in exploring the scope for interventions of different kinds to reveal and expand what these collections make possible. (Such interventions might include anthropological fieldwork, art practice, conservation, exhibition experiments, etc.) How, through exploiting innovative museological processes of intervention and exhibition-making, can the hidden capacities of historical objects, images and sounds be identified and actualised in the present?
If you would like further information or would like to submit a paper, please contact email@example.com or follow the instructions at the conference website.