Friday, 1 January 2010

The African textile collection of the British Museum – now online

The British Museum has one of the world’s largest and most important collections of textiles from sub-Saharan Africa numbering several thousand items. A selection was exhibited and published in 1979 and again in 1989 in the show African Textiles curated by John Picton and John Mack and the accompanying publication (British Museum Press, 1979, 1989.) A group of cloths loaned by the British Museum were a central component of the recent Metropolitan Museum exhibition  The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design without End. A small number are on permanent display in the African galleries at the museum. However the vast majority of the collection  has remained largely unpublished and known only to specialist scholars. Now however, as part of an ongoing programme to provide digital access to the whole museum database,  a two year long project has placed what appears to be almost the complete African  textile holdings online.  In this post I will highlight a few of the obscure treasures that this process has revealed and then look in some detail at how to find African cloths using what is a rather complex and non-intuitive search procedure. Comments are mine. Click on any photo to go to the associated record..

Af1955,05.252 Af1955,05.252
Unusual cloth collected in Ghana circa 1900 that has some affinities with recent discoveries in Bondoukou on the Cote D’Ivoire border.
AN00543623_001_l Af1987,10.1
Mende, Sierra Leone - shows parallels with cloths woven by other Mande peoples such as the Bamana in Mali.
Af1900,-.38 Af1900,-.38
One of an important group of C19th Yoruba aso oke.
Af1981,09.12 Af1981,09.12
Collected circa 1900 by Walter Johnstone who was stationed in Calabar, Bonny and Opobo. These are not weaving areas but have a long history of importing diverse textiles. I have no idea where this originated.
Af1952,26.23 Af1952,26.23
Another mystery piece, collected in southern Nigeria between 1891 and 1901. I have found several fragments with similar design, would guess it is from Benue valley in central east Nigeria.
Af1934,0307.270 Af1934,0307.270
One of a remarkable group of over 50 resist dyed cloths and sample pieces collected in Senegambia by Charles Beving.

So how do we find African cloths within the almost 2 million items on the museum database ? The start page is here. Unfortunately the interface is far from intuitive. Typing “African textile” (without the inverted commas) in the search box gives us only 374 results. Using “African cloth” finds 696 objects but includes photographs, knives etc. Moving on to the Advanced Search page allows you to enter “ Africa” as a place, add that as a search term, go back and add “textile” as an Object type, then click “search for objects” – this gives in an unwieldy 4464 results.  Filtering this by “images only” reduces the result to 2071 items.  [What are the 2000 plus pieces without photographs? Many are linen fragments from ancient Egypt but others do look to be of potential interest to us.] Moreover we can not be sure that the results include all items of interest. A more sophisticated approach can involve, for example, searching by donor name for the main collections. To assist this process, and with thanks to my sources, below is a guide:

FINDING AFRICAN TEXTILES ON THE BRITISH MUSEUM ONLINE DATABASE

Most of the African textiles were acquired in groups, and the simplest (but not the best) way to find the textiles is by searching under the name of the donor or vendor (as given in the tables below) on the ‘Museum number and Provenance’ search screen; once you find the name, click on it and you will get all related objects. If you search by the register number (where the first figure is the year of acquisition), you need to type in the string of numbers and letters accurately, preserving the exact punctuation and spacing. (The lists below give a truncated number of the acquistion group: you need to add the numerical suffix to find an object, eg Af1934,0307.200 for a Beving cloth. You can also truncate the string: so Af1934,0307.* will bring up all the Beving African objects, but not with thumb-nail pictures.)

You can get the same results through the advanced search screen, which allows considerable extra precision in searching and in the display of the results. Select the category ‘People’ on the drop-down menu; type in the name in the form given here; click on the arrow which will take you into the biographical database; tick the box in front of the name that you want; click the buttom ‘Add selected terms to your object search’; this will take you back to the first screen, where you will see the name added as a search term; then click at the bottom on ‘Search for objects’ (having first specified how you want the results displayed). This will take you into the results page; you can then click on the objects one by one to bring up the screen for the object; a further click on the picture will bring it up full-page. (Note that many of the African cloths have a moiré effect when reduced to make the small images; this disappears when the image is enlarged.)

The advanced search allows many variations and sophistications in searching; you can (for example) add ‘textile’ as a material as a second line as well as the acquisition name, and this will ensure that non-textile records are eliminated. You can also search under ‘Place’ on Africa (or a sub-division of it), or under ‘robe’ or ‘cloth’ to get certain types only.

The following tables are arranged very roughly by area of Africa: general collections first, then more specific collections in order: Mali and Guinea coast; Ghana and Nigeria; Cameroon and Congo.

GENERAL COLLECTIONS (name: area covered: range of register numbers)

Beving, Charles A

West Africa and Indonesia

Af1934,0307.

Wellcome Institute

General (huge group)

Af1954,23.

Af1954,+23.

Oldman, Mrs D K

General

Af1949,46

Methodist Missionary Society

General

Af1956,10.

Af1963,13.

Church Missionary Society

Mostly Nigeria

Af1964,02.

Af.1966,01.

(unidentified provenance)

General

Af1979,01.

(unidentified provenance)

General

Af,WA.1 to 11

MALI AND GUINEA COAST (name: area covered: range of register numbers)

Public Relations Office

Sierra Leone

Af1952,10.

Truro County Museum

Mali

Af1986,17

Kerzner, Jeff

Mali

Af1990,12.

Brett-Smith, Sarah

Mali

Af1987,07.

Kolado Cissé

Mali

Af2006,23.

McLeod, Malcolm Donald

Guinea Bissau Manjak

Af1989,05.

Ames, David

Gambia

Af1951,26

Christy (mid-XIXc)

Liberia

Af.2791 to 2798

Armitage, Cecil

Gambia

Af1924,0607.

Sierra Leone Exhibition Commissioners

Sierra Leone

Af1925,1125.1 to 3

Dean, Mary G

Sierra Leone

Af1960,03.

Bailey, L

Sierra Leone

Af1992,08

Plass, Mrs Margaret

Mali mostly

Af1948,32.

Af1954,09.

Af1956,27.

GHANA AND NIGERIA (name: area covered: range of register numbers) NB it is worth searching under ‘Ewe’and ‘Asante’ [Ethnic group] Many Hausa robes, given individually, can be found under ‘robe’ [object type] and ‘Hausa’ [Ethnic group]

Bowdich, Thomas Edward

1818 Asante embassy

Af1818,1114.

Colonial Office

Egga collection of 1841

Af1843,0311.

Barclay, Celia

Ghana and Nigeria (much ex-Cecil Armitage)

Af1978,22.

Wild, Robert P

Ghana and Nigeria

Many gifts

Rattray, R S

Kente samples

Af1938,1117.

Afrane, Nana Akwessi

Kente cloths

various

Vellerwell, S H

Ewe cloth of 1865

Af1954,01.1

Best, Miss M

Best collection of c.1900

Af1955,05.

     

Adams, Coker

Yoruba aso oke

Af1900,-.

Menendez, Lady

Pre-1908 Nigeria

Af1952,20.

Main, William

Nigeria 1891-1901

Af1952,26.

United Africa Company

Nigeria

Af1935,1110.

Partridge, Charles Stanley

Nigeria

Af1956,07.

Pyke, Mrs A H

Nigeria

Af1958,19.

MacDonald, Mrs Anne

Nigeria

Af1981,09.

Gearon, Olivia

Ijebu Ode

Af1947,10.

Fagg, William Buller

Adire

Af1951,12.

Af1953,17.

Af1993,02.

Barbour, Jane

Adire

Af1971,35.

Clarke, J D

Nigeria modern

Af1980,38.

Clarke, Duncan

Nigeria modern

Af2000,10.

Bliss, T F

Yoruba

Af1978,07.

Kingsford, H M

Nigeria

Af1978,06.

Slater, Rev J H

Nigeria

Af1971,23.

Picton, John

Okene, Ososo

Af1971,36.

Nadel, S F

Nupe

Af1938,0402.

Meek, C K

East Nigeria, Jukun

Af1926,0705.

Howie, Sir James

Nigeria

Af1945,12.

Nicklin, Keith

Cross River

Af1963,34.

CAMEROON AND CONGO (name: area covered: range of register numbers)

Talbot, P Amaury

Nigeria/Cameroon

Af1905,1209.

Carpenter, F W

Cameroon

Af1948,40.

Powell-Cotton, Percy

Cameroon

Af1932,1021.

Brayne-Baker, John

Cameroon

Af1989,08.

Tew, M

Congo

Af1951,04

Torday, Emil

Congo

Af1907,0528.

Af1908,Ty.

Af1909,Ty.

Af1909,0513.

Af1909,1210.

Af1910,0420.

Kirk, Sir John

Congo

Af1888,0908.

Baptist Missionary Society

Congo

Af1890,1206.

Camp, J H

Congo

Af1894,0914.

Welwitsch, Dr

Angola

Af1876,1115.

Fayrer, Sir Joseph

Congo

Af1895,1016.

Weeks, Rev J

Angola

Af1910,1026.

Two final comments. Although donor details, acquisition date etc should be accurate on all records, and some have interesting curator comments, other aspects such as description and place found are not always correct in every detail. Finally the British Museum has what is beyond dispute the world’s most comprehensive collection of West African robes. I will discuss this in a later post.

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