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.)

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.

Plates XX and XXI in Arts of West Africa (1935). Aule mask collected by N. W. Thomas in Agenebode in 1909 (NWT (1) 2722, MAA Z 11910).

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.