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African Ethnographic Collection

Mangbetu, playing on carved ivory horns.
Niangara, Belgian Congo, 1915.
Photograph by Herbert Lang.
Negative No: 111901, AMNH Library.


The Anthropology Division's African collection is extensive in terms of geographic coverage. It includes North Africa, West Africa, and Madagascar, although its greatest concentration of material is from central and southern Africa. The Douglas purchase from southern Africa (1905), the Starr collection from central Africa (1905-6), the Belgian government gift (1907), and the Lang-Chapin Congo Expedition collection (1909-15) together make up about one-third of the African ethnology holdings. Such concentrations of materials from particular localities provide a detailed artifactual record of African life before much of its material culture was altered by colonialism and Western material culture.

The African-American part of the collection, although relatively small, contains material from North and South America as well as the Caribbean. The collection of approximately 1,600 objects from the Saramaka and Djuka people of Surinam constitutes the most extensive and best documented of such collections in the United States. In addition, the AMNH houses material from the Caribbean (one of the earliest Jamaican Jonkonnu masks known, for example), as well as a collection of baskets, including a rare nineteenth-century rice fanner basket and several early twentieth-century quilts from the Carolinas and the Sea Islands in Georgia.

Missionaries, travelers, coastal traders, and explorers collected artifacts in Africa from as early as the sixteenth century. Although the Museum has some objects that made their way to European collections before 1869, its first accession was in 1869, the year the Museum was founded. It included African objects acquired in Europe from missionaries and explorers. These first accessions included indigo and silk cloth from the Niger River; rare Nupe brass work from present-day Nigeria, showing Islamic motifs and trans-Saharan connections; an Azande harp, stools, and ivory horns from Central Africa that are similar to objects illustrated in George Schweinfurth's seminal Artes Africanae (1875); and a collection of weapons assembled to demonstrate African iron technology. These nineteenth-century artifacts are evidence of African material culture as it existed before the partition by European powers, when contacts with the outside were made via ancient caravan routes, the paths of slave and ivory traders, and the dhows that sailed across the Indian Ocean. They are useful to researchers working on the history of pre-colonial Africa and the African roots of pre-colonial African cultures.

The Museum's first systematic ethnographic collection to come directly from Africa was made in 1905–1906 by a trader named Richard Douglas. This man, about whom little is known, lived for fifteen years in southern Africa. He managed to become an agent to King Lewanika of Barotseland and exchanged western goods for artifacts which he then sold to the Museum. The artifacts in this accession provide a tangible record of Lozi (Barotse) culture at the turn of the century.

In the late nineteenth century, Belgian King Leopold II sponsored a number of large-scale collecting expeditions, and in 1907, the Museum received a gift from the Belgian government of over 3,000 artifacts collected in the Congo Free State.

With the primary aim of collecting rare large mammals (such as the okapi and white rhinoceros) for what was to become the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, the Museum trustees decided in 1908 to launch a research expedition into the virtually unknown territory of the northeastern Congo and southern Sudan. That year, Herbert Lang, a mammalogist and taxidermist, and James Chapin, an ornithology student, set out on what was supposed to have been a two-year collecting and research expedition for all scientific departments of the Museum. Six years later they returned with thousands of specimens and artifacts as well as 9,000 photographs, and copious notes and drawings.

In 1910, the Congo collection - 3,000 objects received as a gift from the Belgian government in 1907 - was augmented with a large purchase of approximately 3500 artifacts from Dr. Frederick Starr, an anthropologist who worked at the Museum before moving to the University of Chicago. Starr had spent a year in the southeastern Kasai collecting objects from the Kuba, Luba, Pende and other groups. This was the same area in which Leo Frobenius, Emil Torday (British Museum), and the Reverend Samuel P. Verner were collecting, and where the Reverend Samuel Sheppard had worked in the 1870s.

The wide-ranging interests of early museum curators were spelled out in a letter of 1910 to Mr. Edgar T. Hole from the anthropologist and curator Robert E. Lowie, who offered the Museum a collection of objects from Uganda. Lowie's advice is a kind of blueprint for early ethnographic collecting, which the Museum used to provide guidance for amateur and professional collectors alike. It explains why the American Museum of Natural History collection is so rich in utilitarian objects, in objects in the process of manufacture, and in objects that illustrate technological processes. These are precisely the kind of objects that are rarely found in later museum collections, and as such they constitute an irreplaceable and priceless material archive illustrating African cultures past and present.

Lowie's advice, quoted below, frames the agenda that applied to early collecting:

All household articles are of interest, though they are frequently neglected by collectors. From a scientific point of view it is highly important to get as many varieties of pottery as possible, and specimens of pots in the various stages of their manufacture [underlined in original], including the kind of earth used, the original coil (in the case of coiled earthen-ware) and all implements used to build up, scrape, finish and decorate the vessel. In the case of ornamented pottery, it is desirable to have a representative collection of the types of decorative designs. Corresponding observations apply to basketry... While ornamental and highly finished baskets are valuable, they are not more so than the plain everyday carrying-baskets, fish traps, food-baskets, etc., if such occur among the Kavirondo. Native cordage and netting--whether used for fishing or in the chase--should not be neglected. All artifacts employed in securing food-supply are worthy of attention; if there are several forms of bow and arrow, spears, harpoons, fishing-rods and lines, etc., each ought to be represented in a complete collection. The same applies to implements of war. The ones used for grinding native corn should not be neglected, and everything connected with agriculture is important. Miniature house models have often been secured among primitive tribes and are usually much better than mere photographs. It is worthwhile to get packages of specimens of native tobacco and hemp with the pipes used for smoking... If canoes are made, models with punting-poles of paddles might be obtained. Ironwork of the Africans is of the utmost interest. The iron ore itself, the bellows, clay funnel, etc. are all valuable, as are the various kinds of hoeblades, axes, adzes, arrow-heads, knives, rings, etc. fashioned by the native blacksmiths. If skins are dressed, the several stages with implements used deserve attention. Games, whether played by children or adults, interest the ethnologist. I need not say anything special about religus objects--witch doctors' outfits, articles used in divination, poison ordeals, charms, etc. as you are well aware of the significance of such specimens. Let me merely remind you that all ceremonial and dancing regalia are worth collecting.

After the acquisition of the four large, regionally focused collections described above (Douglas, Belgian Government, Starr, Lang-Chapin), the Museum continued to collect in African ethnology using the above text as a guide. The period between World War I and World War II brought in no major systematic collections, but since the early 1950s the collection has been augmented in several key areas developed through the contributions of field anthropologists who provided detailed field collections and associated documentation. The most important of these are: William Bascom's Yoruba collection (Bascom collected and documented every named weaving pattern in use among the Yoruba); Frank Conant's Nigerian collection (Kofyar and Tiv); Neville Dyson-Hudson's East African collections (Turkana and Karamojong); John Yellen's and Marjori Shoxtak's Kung and San collections; Roderick Blackburn's Okiek collection; and Donna Klumpp Pido's collection of Masai beadwork. Most recently, the Museum purchased part of Frank Jolles' Zulu earplug collection.

In 1959, Colin Turnbull became the first AMNH curator to focus exclusively on African ethnology. During his tenure at the Museum, he collected Mbuti, Ik, and other central African material and, as well as significant research, encouraged the donation of art collections (for example, the collections of Anne Putnam and Gaston de Havenon). Turnbull's popular writings are well known and widely used in schools, but his lesser-known, yet extraordinarily detailed, description of Mbuti life and material culture, published by the Museum in its series of Anthropological Papers, is a particularly valuable resource in relation to the associated AMNH collection. During the decade Turnbull was at the Museum, he also reinstalled the Hall of African Peoples, and in doing so surveyed the holdings from the whole continent and tried to fill in gaps in the collection.

In the early years, the AMNH ethnographic collecting policy in regard to Africa was very broad: the mandate was to collect everything that illustrated what were thought to be disappearing ways of life. To the extent that many cultures changed even if they did not disappear, the AMNH collection contains many kinds of artifacts that were unavailable to institutions that began collecting later. More significant is the fact that the AMNH African collection focuses on utilitarian objects that illustrate daily life as described above in Robert T. Lowies' letter-become-blueprint for collecting. Documentary significance was valued over aesthetic considerations since the collection as a whole was assembled for research more than for exhibition (in the early years, exhibition was under the Education Department, not the science [curatorial] departments). Taken as a whole, the collection shows the many different ways in which Africans throughout the continent utilized their environment and developed appropriate technology.

In recent years, the Anthropology Division's collecting policy has shifted, and there has been an effort to document change as well as to collect traditional artifacts. The collection has continued to emphasize utilitarian objects that illustrate how people live in a changing world. During the past few decades, acquisitions have been made through donations; through field collecting by Curator Enid Schildkrout during the course of her research in Nigeria, Ghana and elsewhere; and through the work of non-museum anthropologists. Purchase funds are very limited, and the Museum has not sought objects on the art market. Rather, the Anthropology Division has have sought to document contemporary life in Africa by collecting, for example, objects made from recycled materials, children's toys, contemporary pottery, beadwork, and textiles. These acquisitions add to the strongest parts of the collection--household objects used in daily life. Schildkrout's research interests in women and children have also, to some extent, focused on these kinds of accessions. In addition, the department seeks to augment the collection of African-American material with objects such as South Carolinan/African-American coiled sweetgrass baskets, African-American quilts, and Caribbean material.

Today the AMNH African ethnographic collection is among the largest in the United States. Spanning more than a century, with a sustained focus on objects of daily life, the AMNH African collection now documents Africa's cultural diversity in a century of drastic and continuous change. Other major collections can be found at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian), the Field Museum in Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Additional Resources: Objects and Photographs from Lang-Chapin Congo Expedition

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