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 However the vast majority of the collection has remained largely unpublished and known only to specialist scholars.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..
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)
MALI AND GUINEA COAST (name: area covered: range of register numbers)
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]
CAMEROON AND CONGO (name: area covered: range of register numbers)
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.