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What to Do With Your Loot: Renovating the Benin Displays at World Museum

25 October 2019 by Zachary

The artist Leo Asemota at World Museum 10 October 2019 looking at documents in the museum’s Benin archives.

If you have been following World Museum blogs or social media you will have seen that we are in the first stages of renovating our outdated World Cultures Gallery.

The project focuses on a few key display areas of the larger gallery, one of which is the Benin exhibit within the Africa displays. The project provides an opportunity to explore ways of re-thinking Benin’s history and culture as part of a wider global story to make it more relevant and responsive to contemporary audiences in Liverpool and beyond. New and engaging content for the renovated display will be developed around key questions in themed workshops with a small group of Liverpool residents with a particular interest in the past, present, and future implications of holding and displaying Benin collections in museums.. Workshops will be facilitated by Leo Asemota, an artist from Benin whose practice interrogates and links historical and cultural themes from both Britain and Benin City. A couple of weeks ago Leo came to Liverpool to explore the museum’s Benin-related archives in preparation for the workshops.

The museum’s archive includes photographs of Benin created by a Liverpool trader in the early 1890s, but Leo was also able to look through various other archival letters, newspaper articles, publications, and even hand-written accounts. Many of these related to the so-called British ‘punitive expedition’ sent to subjugate Benin City in February 1897, during which British forces looted thousands of royal artworks in bronze, brass and ivory from the palace complex. What really caught Leo’s eye, though, was something more contemporary; a newspaper article from 1981 cut from the lifestyle pages of a Sunday broadsheet newspaper. The article profiles an up-market shoe designer boasting a clientele of international celebrities. It featured the image of a Benin queen mother’s head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes. Leo was instantly struck by this image and selected the cutting as an item of particular interest for the project.

As an example of cultural appropriation for commercial purposes, the 1981 image is especially shocking for the way that it thoughtlessly replicates the desecratory structure of much earlier photographs taken in Benin in February 1897.

British officers seated on looted royal altarpieces in the Benin palace compound Benin City, 1897.

Officers with the February 1897 British punitive expedition seated on looted royal altarpieces in the Benin palace compound. Benin City, 1897. Part of an image by an unidentified photographer displayed on a graphic panel in the Benin displays at World Museum Liverpool.

Image from a 1981 newspaper cutting showing Benin Queen Mother head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes.

Image from a 1981 newspaper cutting in the Karpinski archive at World Museum, taken from the lifestyle pages of a Sunday broadsheet newspaper. The image shows Benin Queen Mother head used as a prop for advertising a collection of zebra-patterned shoes.

Photograph of a replica Benin Queen Mother head made for sale from an original in the British Museum. World Museum collection.

In these photographs British officers with the punitive expedition are shown seated in triumph on looted brass altarpieces and other treasures stripped from the ancestral shrines in the royal palace and piled up in the palace courtyard. The image from 1981 represents a peculiar reincarnation of the photographs taken 84 years earlier in Benin. It activates a toxic colonial memory in order to urge wealthy customers to spend their ‘loot’ on zebra-striped shoes.

Museums, as theatres of memory-making and storehouses of ill-gotten colonial props, have much to do in helping to re-examine and counter the violently-fashioned memory-scapes of our colonial pasts. The workshops with Leo Asemota at World Museum are intended to play a key part in the process!

The King of Kaputa: life as a trader in 19th century Africa

21 December 2016 by Zachary

Eshira beaded belt with English-made metal buckle, collected in Gabon by J.G.C. Harrison and said to have been made by the niece of a King named Ngorlay.

The Harrison group of Central African objects can now be seen online. It is an important early collection, because it is unusually well documented for its time. The museum’s records relating to Harrison’s donations, which were made in 1879 and 1883, are still relatively brief but they suggest that Harrison acquired the artefacts through his close personal relationships with Central Africans.  Read more…

Selim Aga: African-born explorer

30 August 2016 by Zachary

Nupe gown from Bida collected by Selim Aga in about 1857 (20.11.60.2).

Nupe gown from Bida collected by Selim Aga in about 1857 (20.11.60.2).

After Liverpool Museum opened in its new building on William Brown Street in October 1860 (now World Museum), the first five African artefacts it acquired a month later were purchased from the African-born explorer Selim Aga. Aga acquired these five artefacts in the interior of Nigeria on the voyage of the Dayspring. You can find out more about Selim Aga and see the items he collected in our new Selim Aga online collection.

The Niger Expedition ship the Dayspring, built at Lairds in Birkenhead 1857.

The Niger Expedition ship the Dayspring, built at Lairds in Birkenhead 1857.

But the objects in this group only hint at Aga’s remarkable life as an explorer. Read more…

Kongo figure at the Met Museum, New York

19 October 2015 by Zachary

Mangaaka Nkisi nkondi “power figure”), Kongo, Mayombe, Dem. Rep. Congo. About 1900. Gift of O Sonnerburg through A. Ridyard. 29.5.00.21.

Mangaaka Nkisi nkondi “power figure”), Kongo, Mayombe, Dem. Rep. Congo. About 1900. Gift of O Sonnerburg through A. Ridyard. 29.5.00.21.

Last month Mangaaka (29.5.00.21), one of World Museum’s most impressive Kongo figures from Central Africa, joined 146 other Kongo-related exhibits in a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The ‘Kongo: Power and Majesty exhibition tells the story of Kongo history and creativity over 500 years. Mangaaka is displayed in the final hall of the exhibition, which includes a dramatic display of fourteen other magnificent Mangaaka figures borrowed from various institutions in Europe and the U.S.A.   Read more…

Atta Kwami fan shares her excitement about ‘Prints in Counterpoint’ exhibition!

11 May 2015 by Zachary

Liverpool Counterpoint 15. Copyright Atta Kwami.

Liverpool Counterpoint 15. Copyright Atta Kwami.

Our current exhibition ‘Prints in Counterpoint‘ has been popular with visitors to our World Cultures gallery, where it is showing in the introductory area of the Africa section of the gallery at World Museum until October.  Read more…

New acquisition: a ‘Basaon’ oracle set from Senegal

4 February 2015 by Zachary

Owen Burnham demonstrating how the Basaon oracle is used.

Owen Burnham demonstrating how the Basaon oracle is used.

It is not often that I get offered a really well documented object as a donation to the World Museum’s African collection. Last month I was pleased to accept a unique addition to the collection consisting of a rare divination set, or oracle, from Senegal in West Africa. The oracle, called a Basaon, is used by the Balanta Kanja people of the Casamance region in Southern Senegal and is one of very few remaining oracles of its type.  Read more…

Subtle beasts

7 November 2014 by Zachary

Bakongo Chief's staff collected by A. Ridyard in 1895. WML 9.7.95.41.

Bakongo Chief’s staff collected by A. Ridyard in 1895. WML 9.7.95.41.

Snakes hold a universal fascination, so it is not surprising that our new ‘Sssnakes Alive‘ exhibition at World Museum is drawing large audiences. We all know that some snake species are highly venomous, but people’s fascination with snakes cannot be explained by the fear factor alone.  Read more…

Drawing inspiration from the museum stores

21 August 2014 by Zachary

Atta Kwami sketching African artefacts in the museum store

Atta Kwami sketching African artefacts in the museum store. Image courtesy Pamela Clarkson.

Not all museum projects are part of a long-term plan. Some come about by chance and it was through a stroke of good luck that I was at World Museum when the Ghanaian artist and curator Atta Kwami paid a visit to the African displays in our World Cultures gallery a few months ago. On that occasion I was able to meet Atta over a coffee in the museum café to discuss his current work.  Read more…

Reconnecting with the ancestors at World Museum

30 June 2014 by Zachary

Patrice and Iva

Patrice and Iva in World Cultures Gallery with a portrait of their grandfather and great grandfather.

As curator of the African collections at World Museum I often take groups of visitors round our World Cultures Gallery. I also take individuals and smaller groups, with special interests, behind the scenes to show them our stored collections. Many are students or scholars involved in special research projects, and although they often get excited about what they find in our collections, their interests are mostly intellectual and aesthetic. But recently I had a visit that was rather different because it was from cousins Patrice Wellesley Cole and Iva Johnson.

Read more…

Magic at the museum

22 January 2014 by Zachary

Piece of stone

Irish type stone axe head (or ‘celt’) found in Parliament Fields, Toxteth Park, in 1866. This is probably the stone axe used to cure the Irish lad mentioned in the 1897 report.

World Museum is currently hosting the ‘Magic Worlds’ exhibition. It’s a fun and child-centred look at the miraculous, fantastical, illusional and folkloric – including everything from magicians to fairytales. The exhibition got me thinking about the role that ‘magic’ has played in the museum collection that I curate – the African collection. It’s true to say that there is a darker side to the long relationship that museums have had with all things ‘magical’.  Read more…



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We try to ensure that the information provided on our blog is accurate and that appropriate permissions to use images have been sought. The opinions in each blog are very much those of the individuals writing.