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 However the vast majority of the collection  has remained largely unpublished and known only to specialist scholars.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:


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


Wellcome Institute

General (huge group)



Oldman, Mrs D K



Methodist Missionary Society




Church Missionary Society

Mostly Nigeria



(unidentified provenance)



(unidentified provenance)


Af,WA.1 to 11

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

Public Relations Office

Sierra Leone


Truro County Museum



Kerzner, Jeff



Brett-Smith, Sarah



Kolado Cissé



McLeod, Malcolm Donald

Guinea Bissau Manjak


Ames, David



Christy (mid-XIXc)


Af.2791 to 2798

Armitage, Cecil



Sierra Leone Exhibition Commissioners

Sierra Leone

Af1925,1125.1 to 3

Dean, Mary G

Sierra Leone


Bailey, L

Sierra Leone


Plass, Mrs Margaret

Mali mostly




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


Colonial Office

Egga collection of 1841


Barclay, Celia

Ghana and Nigeria (much ex-Cecil Armitage)


Wild, Robert P

Ghana and Nigeria

Many gifts

Rattray, R S

Kente samples


Afrane, Nana Akwessi

Kente cloths


Vellerwell, S H

Ewe cloth of 1865


Best, Miss M

Best collection of c.1900



Adams, Coker

Yoruba aso oke


Menendez, Lady

Pre-1908 Nigeria


Main, William

Nigeria 1891-1901


United Africa Company



Partridge, Charles Stanley



Pyke, Mrs A H



MacDonald, Mrs Anne



Gearon, Olivia

Ijebu Ode


Fagg, William Buller





Barbour, Jane



Clarke, J D

Nigeria modern


Clarke, Duncan

Nigeria modern


Bliss, T F



Kingsford, H M



Slater, Rev J H



Picton, John

Okene, Ososo


Nadel, S F



Meek, C K

East Nigeria, Jukun


Howie, Sir James



Nicklin, Keith

Cross River


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

Talbot, P Amaury



Carpenter, F W



Powell-Cotton, Percy



Brayne-Baker, John



Tew, M



Torday, Emil








Kirk, Sir John



Baptist Missionary Society



Camp, J H



Welwitsch, Dr



Fayrer, Sir Joseph



Weeks, Rev J



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.

Asante kente “adwinasa” and some thoughts on our kente archive


I have now posted online our archive of photographs of Asante kente cloths we have sold over the past ten years or so. Comprising 175 images it can be viewed here. To mark this event here is a brief article written by me about one of the finest of these pieces, the Asante silk “adwinasa” man’s cloth shown here, that was published as a “Benchmark” in Hali #160 Summer 2009. Hali is now devoting an increasing amount of space to African and Indonesian textiles – issue #160 also includes a “market report” on African textiles – subscription and single copies available here.


“Asante silk man’s wrapper cloth, Ghana, late C19th - early C20th.

Silk and gold were the attributes of power in the Asante kingdom, an expansionary state that dominated present day Ghana from around 1700 until its defeat in a series of wars with the British in the late nineteenth century. When the British envoy Thomas Bowdich visited the capital at Kumase in 1817 he marvelled at the splendour and wealth displayed by the Asante court. In his account Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee he noted “The caboceers, as did their superior captains and attendants, wore Ashantee cloths of extravagant price….They were of incredible size and weight, and thrown over the shoulder exactly like a Roman toga; a small silk fillet generally encircled their temples, and massive gold necklaces, intricately wrought, suspended Moorish charms.”

The Asantehene, the king of the Asante at Kumase, is at the head of a complex hierarchy made up of lesser kings, chiefs, and rulers of formerly subject peoples, each of which replicates aspects of the Asante court ritual and regalia, on a lesser scale. Although anyone who can afford it can wear a kente cloth the very finest examples were woven at the order of great kings and wealthy chiefs. For a man of lower rank to wear a cloth that outshone in novelty or complexity that of his superiors was, and still is, an act of lèse majesté that could have serious consequences.

As part of the regalia of office, the property of the “stool” in local terms, the presumption was that these great cloths were to be passed on to successors rather than sold. Enhancing, rather than reducing, the wealth and splendour of the stool was among the major responsibilities of any officeholder and as a consequence it is particularly hard to collect top quality Asante textiles. The cloth we are considering here was one of a small group assembled in the 1970s by a Ghanaian dealer who discovered that the key to securing access to these courts and their treasures was a ready supply of old brass bedsteads he shipped over from England. It remained in a London private collection until a few years ago when it was purchased and donated to the British Museum, which perhaps surprisingly given the long history of British contacts with the Asante lacked a kente cloth of this type and quality.

So why is this piece so exceptional? The background pattern type is not particularly unusual. Asante cloths are named after the colour and arrangement of the warp stripes, in this case the layout of a broad yellow and green stripe with narrow white stripes on a red ground was called “Oyokoman amponhema.” It is a variation of the more common “Oyokoman” that alludes to the Oyoko matrilineage of the Asante royal dynasty, while the Mamponhemaa is the Queen Mother of Mampon, an important subordinate kingdom. Asante weavers use a second pair of heddles to weave weft faced blocks and supplementary weft float motifs on the warp faced background strip. Here the entire surface area of the cloth is covered by a vast array of different weft float motifs framed by more regular border areas. This style of cloth, which seems to have been woven only on Oyokoman patterned backgrounds, is called adwinasa, meaning “fullness of ornament,” or alternatively adweneasa, meaning, “my skill is exhausted.”

On most kente there is a design interplay between the areas covered by weft motifs and the undecorated warp striped background. On the finest old silk examples tightly woven clusters of supplementary weft designs shine out like jewels from the more subdued colours of the background cloth. An adwinasa cloth, the ultimate text of a master weaver’s skill, lacks this contrast and in consequence, to my eyes at least, most examples look relatively flat and lifeless. Here though the master weaver has been able to surpass the constraints of the form and impart a lively vitality to the cloth, primarily by making only very limited use of the more densely woven “double weave” weft motifs to provide an irregular scattering of blocks of intense colour that draws in the eye to the great variety of the more subtle patterns.”


Returning to the archive of Asante cloths, one thought in particular strikes me, especially in comparison to the archive of Ewe cloths we posted the previous week. Pleasing though many of the cloths are, I note how few very top quality Asante silk cloths I was able to collect since the mid 1990s. The same relative paucity of really superb Asante pieces was apparent last month when I had the opportunity to look through a published collection of Ghanaian cloths here in London that was assembled mainly in the 1980s.


Top quality silk Asante cloths had densely woven blocks of weft design on a smaller, tighter, scale than more mundane pieces, creating a jewel like impact. Almost all would have been woven to order by weavers under court patronage rather than generally available to any man or woman rich enough to buy one, as was the case among the Ewe. However as the large collections of Asante gold jewellery assembled in recent years testify the inalienability of court regalia was more theoretical than actual. Some have no doubt been retained by local courts, while other would have decayed in poor storage conditions. However I would suggest that the most likely reason for their extreme rarity is that very few of these top quality cloths were actually produced, in contrast to the large number of more everyday pieces. Sadly, despite the wide interest in kente there has yet to be a detailed and extended piece of published field research on Asante weavers so we have no way of knowing how much time weavers spent on court orders, what the range of cloths was that different weavers produced and related questions. It seems to me likely that the collections assembled by Brigitte Menzel and Venice Lamb in the late 1960s and early 1970s actually encompass quite a significant proportion of the surviving examples. In a later post I will return to these two important collections and look at their accessibility both in print and online.