110 years of photographing N. W. Thomas collections

Five photographs, spanning a century, of the same agbazi mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar, North Edo in 1909 (NWT (1) 2654; MAA Z 12287 A).

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project we have sought to document the material culture collections assembled by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone as thoroughly as possible. An important aspect of this has been to photograph the collections at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores, and then to use the photographs during our fieldwork activities in which we have been revisiting the communities from which they were originally sourced.

Left: George Agbo, postdoctoral researcher on the [Re:]Entanglements project, photographing Isi abogefi mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu in 1911 (NWT (2) 390, MAA Z 13689); right: community members in Nise, Anambra State, Nigeria, discussing photographs of objects collected by Thomas in the town during fieldwork (photograph by George Agbo).

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.

[Re:]Entanglements team members, Katrina Dring and Paul Basu, setting up the photographic background paper at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores. (Photograph by George Agbo.)

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.

Ikenga-like figure identified by Northcote Thomas as Akosi, collected in Fugar, Northern Edo, 1909. (Photograph by N. W. Thomas, NWT 1095, MAA P.29204; Object NWT (1) 2659, MAA Z 12293.)

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.

Left: Twin masks described by Thomas as Ibonodike, collected in Fugar, present-day Edo State, in 1909. (Photograph by N. W. Thomas, NWT 1088, RAI 400.17528; Objects NWT (1) 2602a & 2602b, MAA Z 12252 A & Z 12252 B.) Right: Mask described by Thomas as Isi abogefi collected in Agukwu, present-day Anambra State, in 1911. (Photograph by N. W. Thomas, NWT 2934b, MAA N.78430; Object NWT (2) 390, MAA Z 13689.)

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.

Array of objects collected by Thomas in 1911 in Awgbu and Enugu Ukwu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. (Photograph by N. W. Thomas, NMT 2934, MAA N.78429.)

Len Morley, 1949-51

So far, we have not been able to locate any photographs of Northcote Thomas’s collections that we can definitely date to the first 40 years of their lives at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge (although see our discussion about the British Museum photographs below). In 1947, however, a faculty photographer was appointed to work in the Anthropology and Archaeology sections of Cambridge University, including the Museum – 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, giving an indication of how they would have been exhibited in the Museum at the time.

Three examples of Len Morley’s mid-20th-century photographic documentation of masks collected by Northcote Thomas in North Edo in 1909-10. From left to right: Ogbodu, collected in Agenebode (NWT (1) 2729, MAA Z 11917.1), Amababa, collected in Irrua (NWT (1) 2566a, MAA Z 12816), Obo, collected in Fugar (NWT (1) 2662, MAA Z 12297).

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.

Moji mask, collected by Northcote Thomas in Afikpo, present-day Ebonyi State, Nigeria in 1912-13, photographed by Len Morley in 1951. (NWT (3) 50, MAA Z 13585.)

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. It is not clear whether the photographs were made at the same time or if they were taken at the British Museum or supplied to the British Museum by Cambridge. Indeed, they may predate Len Morley’s photographs. 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 a mask collected by Thomas in Agenebode, in the north of present-day Edo State, Nigeria. On the right one can see that, as with some of the masks photographed by Morley, this has been fitted with a wooden display mount. These are secured to the mask by wire. This mount is not present in the British Museum photograph of the same mask on the left. This suggests that the photograph was taken prior to the fitting of the mount, in which case the photographs may date to the 1920s or 30s, or, of course, the mount may have been removed in order to take the photograph.

Aule mask collected by N. W. Thomas in Agenebode in 1909 (NWT (1) 2722, MAA Z 11910). Left: photograph in British Museum collection, date unknown (BM Af,B62.18); right: photograph taken by George Agbo for [Re:]Entanglements project, 2019.

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.

Ngene shrine figure collected by N. W. Thomas in Awgbu in 1911 (NWT (2) 378, MAA Z 14234.1-2). Left: photograph in British Museum collection, date unknown (BM Af,B62.11); right: photograph taken by George Agbo for [Re:]Entanglements project, 2019.

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 above). The negative of Morley’s photograph has 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.

Obo mask collected by N. W. Thomas in Fugar, 1909 (NWT (1) 2662, MAA Z 12297). Left: photograph in British Museum collection, date unknown (BM Af,B62.16); right: photograph taken by George Agbo for [Re:]Entanglements project, 2019.

African art publications, 1960s-80s

A number of objects from the Northcote Thomas collections have featured as plates in 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.

Front cover and p.101 of William Fagg and Margaret Plass, African Sculpture, first published in 1964. The photograph on p.101 is an agbazi mask collected by Thomas in Fugar in 1909 (NWT (1) 2654; MAA Z 12287 A).

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.

Front cover and p.31 of the revised edition of Frank Willett, African Art, the original edition of which was first published in 1971. The figure on p.31 is described by Thomas merely as a doll, collected in Sabongida Ora in 1909 (NWT (1) 2164; MAA Z 13449).

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.

Isi abogefi mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911 (NWT (2) 390, MAA Z 13689). Left: camera-ready artwork of Figure 46 (MAA archives); right: Figure 46 of G. I. Jones, The Art of Eastern Nigeria.

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.

Examples of Jean Borgatti’s contact sheets of her photographic documentation of N. W. Thomas’s North Edo collections in 1969.

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.

Examples of Roger Blench and Mark Alexander’s photographs of Thomas collections pinned to the reverse of MAA index cards. Anticlockwise from top right: guitar (NWT (4) 132, MAA Z 14553), charm (NWT (4) 130, MAA Z 14551) and powder horn (NWT (4) 100, MAA Z 14527), all collected from Yalunka-speaking areas of Sierra Leone (probably Musaia); charm (NWT (4) 74, MAA Z 14502), collected from Sendugu, Sierra Leone.

‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition

Northcote Thomas collections in Artis Unknown exhibition, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
Installation views of objects collected by Northcote Thomas featuring in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Photographs by Nicholas Thomas.

One consequence of the [Re:]Entanglements project is that the various archives and collections assembled by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are gaining greater exposure. This is true in West Africa, but also in the UK and elsewhere. As a example, two objects collected by Thomas are currently being featured in an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge entitled ‘Artist: Unknown, Art and Artefacts from the University of Cambridge Museums and Collections’. The exhibition opened on 9 July 2019 and will run until 22 September 2019.

The exhibition brings together a selection of artworks and artefacts from across the University of Cambridge’s diverse collections, including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (which holds the Northcote Thomas collections), Cambridge Botanic Garden, Museum of Classical Archaeology, The Fitzwilliam Museum, The Polar Museum, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Museum of Zoology, University Library and a couple of the colleges. The selected items share one thing in common: despite displaying remarkable creativity and skill, the identities of the artists or makers are not known. As an exhibition text states, ‘Not knowing, in each instance, who the artist or maker is, shifts our attention from a name and a known or imagined persona, to focus instead on the multiple reasons why the creator is lost to history’.

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)

Lamellophone (ibweze) collected by Northcote Thomas in Enugu Ukwu, Nigeria
Lamellophone (ibweze) collected by Northcote Thomas in Enugu-ukwu, 1911. NWT 351; University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Z 14207.

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.

Northcote Thomas photograph of ibweze (lamellophone) being played, Enugu Ukwu
Sequence of photographs by Northcote Thomas showing the ibweze being played. NWT 2889-2891; RAI 400.16305-16308.

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.

Photograph by Northcote Thomas of objects lined up prior to being sent to Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
During his second tour, in Igbo-speaking Awka District, Northcote Thomas sometimes arranged his collections in a line to photograph them prior to sending them to the Cambridge. Here, the ibweze can be seen alongside other objects collected in Enugu-ukwu. Photograph by Northcote Thomas.

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 wooden head

Carved and painted head collected by Northcote Thomas in Nigeria
Carved and painted wooden head, collected in Southern Nigeria between 1909 and 1913. University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Z 25889.

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.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Nama shrine, Aja-Eyube
Nama shrine, Aja-Eyube (Ajeyube), in present-day Delta State, Nigeria. NWT 1394a; RAI 400.16630.

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’.

George Basden photograph of man with body painting, from Niger Ibos

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.

Artists unknown

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.

Excerpt from Nicholas Thomas’s podcast. Listen to the full version by clicking here.

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 activity.

Rediscovering Northcote Thomas’s artefact collections

Basket in Northcote Thomas collection, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Detailed documentation photographs of a basket (nkata) collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. Note the various different accession numbers recorded on the label. MAA Z 13945.

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.

Northcote Thomas fieldwork photograph of collections prior to sending to Britain
During his 1910-11 tour in what was then Awka District, Southern Nigeria, Thomas photographed his collections prior to dispatching them to the Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology in Cambridge. As part of our collections-based research, we are identifying these objects in the museum stores. The numbers correspond to Thomas object numbers 338 to 350. MAA P.31169.

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.

Letter from Anatole von Hugel proposing acquisition of Northcote Thomas collection, 1910
Draft letter from Anatole von Hugel to the Cambridge University Antiquarian Society, proposing the acquisition of Northcote Thomas collection in 1910. MAA archives.

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.

Katrina Dring, George Agbo and Paul Basu working with the Northcote Thomas collection, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
[Re:]Entanglements team members (Katrina Dring, George Agbo and Paul Basu) working with the Thomas collections in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in Cambridge.
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.

Catalogue of Northcote Thomas's collection from his first tour, 1909-10. Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
A page from the catalogue of Northcote Thomas’s collection from his first tour, 1909-10. Historical museum documentation has a palimpsest-like quality as different people have added notes and queries over the decades. Collections-based research is like archaeological excavation, as one deciphers the layers of knowledge and ordering systems that have accumulated.

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.

Call for Papers: Museum Affordances

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 paul.basu@soas.ac.uk or follow the instructions at the conference website.

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