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.