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Museum Collections as Sources for African History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Colleen E. Kriger*
University of North Carolinaat Greensboro


A vast store of untapped primary sources for African history sits waiting to be exploited in museum collections around the world—the products made by African hands, or, if you will, African “material culture.” Within this general category I include not only the masterpieces of African artists and manufacturers, but also the more humble and mundane products used as everyday objects or as items of trade or currency, and everything in between. Although selected numbers of these works have been targeted for study by some anthropologists and art historians, historians of Africa rarely include such objects as sources in their research.

This situation is not peculiar to African history—historians in general seem reluctant to interrogate sources other than those of the printed word. What, after all, does one do with objects? Not entirely ignored, historians of various schools have examined them with mixed results. Some historians have treated certain objects as the embodiments of more general, dynamic intellectual or cultural forces set in motion by elites. Other historians, especially those associated with the Annales school, see material objects occupying layers of culture more slow to change, representing the culture of commoners and the ‘structures of thought’ that shaped their mental universe. Perhaps more familiar are the studies that view certain objects as indicators of various aspects of modern industrial history—mass production and advertisement, consumer culture, and the social meanings of things in capitalist societies. Nevertheless, such studies as these are far from the norm in history, and in them objects serve primarily as illustrations of historical trends and events already sketched out to some degree. Moreover, they imply that the material evidence in objects is most useful simply for providing additional texture and detail to our views of the past. Historians seldom consider objects as sources that can show us anything new.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1996

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2. This is the most common approach in “material culture” studies. See the overview presented in Prown, Jules David, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio, 17(1982), 119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar This approach, however, has serious limitations, focusing as it does on objects mainly as reflections of “beliefs,” and neglecting the social and economic evidence embedded in objects.

3. Two useful introductory texts are Anderberg, Michael, Cluster Analysis for Applications (New York, 1973)Google Scholar, and Romesburg, H. Charles, Cluster Analysis for Researchers (Belmont, Ca., 1984).Google Scholar

4. See, for example, Willett, Frank and Eyo, Ekpo, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria (New York, 1980)Google Scholar; Willett, , Ife in the History of West African Sculpture (London, 1967)Google Scholar; Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Benin (Oxford, 1975)Google Scholar; Dark, Philip, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology (Oxford, 1973)Google Scholar; idem., “Brass Casting in West Africa,” African Arts 6(1973), 50-53, 94; Fraser, Douglas, “Tsoede Bronzes and Owo Art,” African Arts, 8 (1975), 30-35, 91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shaw, Thurstan, “A Note on Trade and the Tsoede Bronzes,” West African Journal of Archaeology 3(1973), 233–38Google Scholar; Peek, Philip M., “Isoko Bronzes and the Lower Niger Bronze Industries,” African Arts, 13 (1980), 60-66, 87CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dike, P. Chike, “Regalia, Divinity, and State in Igala,” African Arts, 20(1987), 75-78, 90CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Rubin, Arnold, “Bronzes of the Middle Benue,” West African Journal of Archaeology, 3 (1973), 221–31.Google Scholar

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5. See Chikwendu, et al., “Nigerian Sources.”

6. Northrup, David, Trade without Rulers: Precolonial Economic Development in Southeastern Nigeria (Oxford, 1978).Google Scholar

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10. This process of identifying and ordering qualitative features of an object ought not to be confused with “stylistic analysis” used by art historians. The latter is rarely pursued rigorously or systematically, and is often limited by issues of connoisseurship so prevalent in art historical studies.

11. See Vansina, Jan, Art History in Africa (London, 1984).Google Scholar

12. That these elaborate knives are more than utilitarian knives for practical work tasks is strongly suggested by their forms and structures. Confirmation comes from Bantu language vocabularies, which show specialized names for these knives while other, generic names refer to knives of everyday use.

13. Interview, Douglas Hutchens, engineer, Gerber Legendary Blades, Portland, Oregon, 21 December 1988; interview, David Norrie, blacksmith, Toronto, Ontario, 10 April 1989.

14. For an example of a study that uses available software see Philip, G. and Ottaway, B.S., “Mixed Data Cluster Analysis: An Illustration using Cypriot Hooked-Tang Weapons,” Archaeometry, 25 (1983), 119–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15. Geographical locations here are based on nineteenth-century observations by travelers and explorers, and the names for the products in different languages.

16. Coquilhat, Camille, Sur le Haut-Congo (Paris, 1888), 298.Google Scholar

17. Westerdijk, H., IJzerwerk van Centraal-Afrika (Rotterdam, 1975).Google Scholar

18. Agthe, Johanna and Strauss, Karin, Waffen aus Zentral-Afrika (Frankfurt am Main, 1985).Google Scholar

19. The most well-known example is the “Bangala” or “Ngala” term used to refer to peoples just north and northeast of the Ubangi-Zaire confluence.

20. In tracing data on who could own or display individual knives, etymologies of their lexical terms, and in situ photographs, many are revealed as having been insignia of chiefs, kings, or titleholders. See Kriger, Colleen, “Ironworking in 19th century Central Africa” (Ph.D., York University, 1993).Google Scholar

21. For a more detailed discussion of these phenomena, see Kriger, Colleen, “Ironworking: Ideology and Identity in West Central African History,” paper presented to the Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, December 1994.Google Scholar

22. Harms, Robert, River of Wealth, River of Sorrow (New Haven, 1981), 70.Google Scholar