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Art Gallery the Eye and the Hand

British Museum

The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture situated in London. Its collections, which number more than 7 million objects, are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginning to the present.

The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759 in Montagu House in Bloomsbury, on the site of the current museum building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington in 1887. Until 1997, when the current British Library building opened to the public, replacing the old British Museum Reading Room, the British Museum was unique in that it housed both a national museum of antiquities and a national library in the same building.

The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. As with all other national museums and art galleries in Britain, the Museum charges no admission fee, although charges are levied for some temporary special exhibitions. Since 2001 the director of the Museum has been Neil MacGregor.


Though principally a museum of cultural art objects and antiquities today, the British Museum was founded as a "universal museum". Its foundations lie in the will of the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). During the course of his lifetime Sloane gathered an enviable collection of curiosities and whilst not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to King George II, for the nation, for the princely sum of £20,000.

At that time, Sloane’s collection consisted of around 71,000 objects of all kinds including some 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens including 337 volumes of dried plants, prints and drawings including those by Albrecht Dürer and antiquities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and Far East and the Americas.

Foundation (1753)

On 7 June 1753 King George II gave his formal assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum. The Foundation Act, added two other libraries to the Sloane collection. The Cottonian Library, assembled by Sir Robert Cotton, dated back to Elizabethan times and the Harleian library, the collection of the Earls of Oxford. They were joined in 1757 by the Royal Library, assembled by various British monarchs. Together these four "foundation collections" included many of the most treasured books now in the British Library including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving copy of Beowulf.

The British Museum was the first of a new kind of museum - national, belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public and aiming to collect everything. Sloane's collection, whilst including a vast miscellany of objects, tended to reflect his scientific interests. The addition of the Cotton and Harley manuscripts introduced a literary and antiquarian element and meant that the British Museum now became both national museum and library.

The body of trustees decided on a converted 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, as a location for the museum, which it bought from the Montagu family for £20,000. The Trustees rejected Buckingham House, on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.

With the acquisition of Montagu House the first exhibition galleries and reading room for scholars opened on 15 January 1759. In 1757 King George II gave the Old Royal Library and with it the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the Museum's library would expand indefinitely. The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the Museum acquired its first antiquities of note; Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases. During the few years after its foundation the British Museum received several further gifts, including the Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts and David Garrick's library of 1,000 printed plays, but yet contained few ancient relics recognisable to visitors of the modern museum.

Indolence and energy (1778-1800)

From 1778 a display of objects from the South Seas brought back from the round-the-world voyages of Captain James Cook and the travels of other explorers fascinated visitors with a glimpse of previously unknown lands. The bequest of a collection of books, engraved gems, coins, prints and drawings by Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode in 1800 did much to raise the Museum's reputation however Montagu House became increasingly crowded and decrepit and it was apparent that it would be unable to cope with further expansion.

The museum’s first notable addition towards its collection of antiquities, since its foundation, was by Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), British Ambassador to Naples, who sold his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts to the museum in 1784 together with a number of other antiquities and natural history specimens. A list of donations to the Museum, dated 31 January 1784 refers to the Hamilton bequest of a "Colossal Foot of an Apollo in Marble". It was one of two antiquities of Hamilton's collection drawn for him by Francesco Progenie, a pupil of Pietro Fabris, who also contributed a number of drawings of Mount Vesuvius sent by Hamilton to the Royal Society in London.

Growth and change (1800-25)

In the early 19th century the foundations for the extensive collection of sculpture began to be laid and Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts dominated the antiquities displays. After the defeat of the French Campaign in the Battle of the Nile, in 1801, the British Museum acquired more Egyptian sculpture and in 1802 King George III presented the Rosetta Stone - key to the deciphering of hieroglyphs.Gifts and purchases from Henry Salt, British Consul General in Egypt, beginning with the Colossal bust of Ramesses II in 1818, laid the foundations of the collection of Egyptian Monumental Sculpture. Many Greek sculptures followed, notably the first purpose-built exhibition space, the Charles Towneley collection, much of it Roman Sculpture, in 1805. In 1806, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 removed the large collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens and transferred them to Britain. In 1816 these masterpieces of western art, were acquired by The British Museum by Act of Parliament and deposited in the museum thereafter.The collections were supplemented by the Bassae frieze from Phigaleia, Greece in 1815. The Ancient Near Eastern collection also had its beginnings in 1825 with the purchase of Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities from the widow of Claudius James Rich.

In 1802 a Buildings Committee was set up to plan for expansion of the museum, and further highlighted by the donation in 1822 of the King's Library, personal library of King George III's, comprising 65,000 volumes, 19,000 pamphlets, maps, charts and topographical drawing.The neoclassical architect, Sir Robert Smirke, was asked to draw up plans for an eastern extension to the Museum "... for the reception of the Royal Library, and a Picture Gallery over it ..." and put forward plans for today's quadrangular building, much of which can be seen today. The dilapidated Old Montagu House was demolished and work on the King's Library Gallery began in 1823. The extension, the East Wing, was completed by 1831. However, following the founding of the National Gallery, London in 1824,[e] the proposed Picture Gallery was no longer needed, and the space on the upper floor was given over to the Natural History collections.

The largest building site in Europe (1825-50)

The Museum became a construction site as Sir Robert Smirke's grand neo-classical building gradually arose. The King's Library, on the ground floor of the East Wing, was handed over in 1827, and was described as one of the finest rooms in London although it was not fully open to the general public until 1857, however, special openings were arranged during The Great Exhibition of 1851. In spite of dirt and disruption the collections grew, outpacing the new building.

Archaeological excavations

In 1840 the Museum became involved in its first overseas excavations, Charles Fellows's expedition to Xanthos, in Asia Minor, whence came remains of the tombs of the rulers of ancient Lykia, among them the Nereid and Payava monuments. In 1857 Charles Newton was to discover the 4th-century BC Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the 1840s and 1850s the Museum supported excavations in Assyria by A.H. Layard and others at sites such as Nimrud and Nineveh. Of particular interest to curators was the eventual discovery of Ashurbanipal's great library of cuneiform tablets, which helped to make the Museum a focus for Assyrian studies.

Sir Thomas Grenville (1755–1846) was a Trustee of The British Museum from 1830 assembled a fine library of 20,240 volumes, which he left to the Museum in his will. The books arrived in January 1847 in twenty-one horse-drawn vans. The only vacant space for this large library was a room originally intended for manuscripts, between the Front Entrance Hall and the Manuscript Saloon. The books remained here until the British Library moved to St Pancras in 1998.

Collecting from the wider world (1850-75)

The opening of the forecourt in 1852 marked the completion of Robert Smirke's 1823 plan, but already adjustments were having to be made to cope with the unforeseen growth of the collections. Infill galleries were constructed for Assyrian sculptures and Sydney Smirke's Round Reading Room, with space for a million books, opened in 1857. Because of continued pressure on space the decision was taken to move natural history to a new building in South Kensington, which would later become the British Museum of Natural History.

Roughly contemporary with the construction of the new building was the career of a man sometimes called the "second founder" of the British Museum, the Italian librarian Anthony Panizzi. Under his supervision, the British Museum Library (now the British Library) quintupled in size and became a well-organised institution worthy of being called a national library. The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke's design proved to be a waste of valuable space and was filled at Panizzi's request by a circular Reading Room of cast iron, designed by Smirke's brother, Sydney Smirke.

Until the mid 19th century the Museum's collections were relatively circumscribed but, in 1851, with the appointment to the staff of Augustus Wollaston Franks to curate the collections, the Museum began for the first time to collect British and European medieval antiquities, prehistory, branching out into Asia and diversifying its holdings of ethnography. Overseas excavations continued and John Turtle Wood discovered the remains of the 4th century BC Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, another Wonder of the Ancient World.

Scholarship and legacies (1875-1900)

The natural history collections were an integral part of the British Museum until their removal to the new British Museum of Natural History, now the Natural History Museum, in 1887. With the departure and the completion of the new White Wing (fronting Montague Street) in 1884, more space was available for antiquities and ethnography and the library could further expand. This was a time of innovation as electric lighting was introduced in the Reading Room and exhibition galleries.

In 1882 the Museum was involved in the establishment of the independent Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) the first British body to carry out research in Egypt. A bequest from Miss Emma Turner in 1892 financed excavations in Cyprus. In 1897 the death of the great collector and curator, A.W. Franks, was followed by an immense bequest of 3,300 finger rings, 153 drinking vessels, 512 pieces of continental porcelain, 1,500 netsuke, 850 inro, over 30,000 bookplates and miscellaneous items of jewellery and plate, among them the Oxus Treasure.

In 1898 Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bequeathed the glittering contents from his New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor. This consisted of almost 300 pieces of objets d'art et de vertu which included exquisite examples of jewellery, plate, enamel, carvings, glass and maiolica, in the tradition of a schatzkammer or treasure houses such as those formed by the Renaissance princes of Europe. Baron Ferdinand's will was most specific, and failure to observe the terms would make it void, the collection should be,
“     placed in a special room to be called the Waddesdon Bequest Room separate and apart from the other contents of the Museum and thenceforth for ever thereafter, keep the same in such room or in some other room to be substituted for it.    ”

New century, new building (1900-25)

By the last years of the nineteenth century, The British Museum's collections had increased so much that the Museum building was no longer big enough for them. In 1895 the trustees purchased the 69 houses surrounding the Museum with the intention of demolishing them and building around the West, North and East sides of the Museum. The first stage was the construction of the northern wing beginning 1906.

All the while, the collections kept growing, Emily Torday collected in Central Africa, Aurel Stein in Central Asia, D.G. Hogarth, Leonard Woolley and T. E. Lawrence excavated at Carchemish. In 1918, because of the threat of wartime bombing, some objects were evacuated to a Postal Tube Railway at Holborn, the National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth) and a country house near Malvern. On the return of antiquities from wartime storage in 1919, some objects were found to have deteriorated. A temporary conservation laboratory was set up in May 1920 and became a permanent department in 1931. It is today the oldest in continuous existence. In 1923, the British Museum, welcomed over one million visitors.

Disruption and reconstruction (1925-50)

New mezzanine floors were constructed and book stacks rebuilt in an attempt to cope with the flood of books. In 1931 the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen offered funds to build a gallery for the Parthenon sculptures. Designed by the American architect John Russell Pope, it was completed in 1938. The appearance of the exhibition galleries began to change as dark Victorian reds gave way to modern pastel shades.[f] However, in August 1939, due to the imminence of war and the likelihood of air-raids the Parthenon Sculptures along with Museum's most valued collections were dispersed to secure basements, country houses, Aldwych tube station, the National Library of Wales and a quarry. The evacuation was timely, for in 1940 the Duveen Gallery was severely damaged by bombing. The Museum continued to collect from all countries and all centuries: among the most spectacular additions were the 2,600 BC Mesopotamian treasure from Ur, discovered during Leonard Woolley's 1922–34 excavations. Gold, silver and garnet grave goods from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo (1939) and late Roman silver tableware from Mildenhall, Suffolk (1946). The immediate post-war years were taken up with the return of the collections from protection and the restoration of the museum after the blitz. Work also began on restoring the damaged Duveen Gallery.

A new public face (1950-75)

In 1953 the Museum celebrated its bicentenary. Many changes followed: the first full time in house designer and publications officer were appointed in 1964, A Friends organisation was set up in 1968, an Education Service established in 1970 and publishing house in 1973. In 1963 a new Act of Parliament introduced administrative reforms. It became easier to lend objects, the constitution of the Board of Trustees changed and the Natural History Museum became fully independent. By 1959 the Coins and Medals office suite, completely destroyed during the war, was rebuilt and re-opened, attention turned towards the gallery work with new tastes in design leading to the remodelling of Robert Smirke's Classical and Near Eastern galleries.In 1962 the Duveen Gallery was finally restored and the Parthenon Sculptures were moved back into it, once again at the heart of the museum.

By the 1970s the Museum was again expanding. More services for the public were introduced; visitor numbers soared, with the temporary exhibition "Treasures of Tutankhamun" in 1972, attracting 1,694,117 visitors, the most successful in British history. In the same year the Act of Parliament establishing the British Library was passed, separating the collection of manuscripts and printed books from the British Museum. This left the Museum with antiquities; coins, medals and paper money; prints & drawings; and ethnography. A pressing problem was finding space for additions to the library which now required an extra 1 1/4 miles of shelving each year. The Government suggested a site at St Pancras for the new British Library but the books did not leave the museum until 1997.

The Great Court emerges (1975-2000)

The departure of the British Library to a new site at St Pancras, finally achieved in 1998, provided the space needed for the books. It also created the opportunity to redevelop the vacant space in Robert Smirke's 19th-century central quadrangle into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – the largest covered square in Europe – which opened in 2000.

The ethnography collections, which had been housed in the short-lived Museum of Mankind at 6 Burlington Gardens from 1970, were returned to new purpose-built galleries.

The Museum again readjusted its collecting policies as interest in "modern" objects: prints, drawings, medals and the decorative arts reawakened. Ethnographical fieldwork was carried out in places as diverse as New Guinea, Madagascar, Romania, Guatemala and Indonesia and there were excavations in the Near East, Egypt, Sudan and the UK. The Weston Gallery of Roman Britain, opened in 1997, displayed a number of recently discovered hoards which demonstrated the richness of what had been considered an unimportant part of the Roman Empire. The Museum turned increasingly towards private funds for buildings, acquisitions and other purposes.

The Museum today
African Garden - The British Museum Facade - created by BBC TV programme Ground Force

The Museum was founded 250 years ago as an encyclopædia of nature and of art. Today it no longer houses collections of natural history, and the books and manuscripts it once held now form part of the independent British Library. The Museum nevertheless preserves its universality in its collections of artefacts representing the cultures of the world, ancient and modern. The original 1753 collection has grown to over thirteen million objects at the British Museum, 70 million at the Natural History Museum and 150 million at the British Library.

The Round Reading Room, which was designed by the architect Sydney Smirke, opened in 1857. For almost 150 years researchers came here to consult the Museum's vast library. The Reading Room closed in 1997 when the national library (the British Library) moved to a new building at St Pancras. Today it has been transformed into the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre. This contains the Paul Hamlyn Library of books about the Museum's collections, which is open to all visitors.

With the bookstacks in the central courtyard of the museum now empty, the process of demolition for Lord Foster's glass-roofed Great Court could begin. The Great Court, opened in 2000, while undoubtedly improving circulation around the museum, was criticised for having a lack of exhibition space at a time when the museum was in serious financial difficulties and many galleries were closed to the public. At the same time the African and Oceanic collections that had been temporarily housed in 6 Burlington Gardens were given a new gallery in the North Wing funded by the Sainsbury family.


In technical terms, the British Museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport through a three-year funding agreement. Its head is the Director. The British Museum was run from its inception by a 'Principal Librarian' (when the book collections were still part of the Museum), a role that was renamed 'Director and Principal Librarian' in 1898, and 'Director' in 1973 (on the separation of the British Library)

A board of 25 trustees (with the Director as their accounting officer for the purposes of reporting to Government) is responsible for the general management and control of the Museum, in accordance with the British Museum Act of 1963 and the Museums and Galleries Act of 1992.[33] Prior to the 1963 Act, it was chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The board was formed on the Museum's inception to hold its collections in trust for the nation without actually owning them themselves, and now fulfil a mainly advisory role. Trustee appointments are governed by the regulatory framework set out in the code of practice on public appointments issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. For a list of current trustees, see here.


The Greek Revival façade facing Great Russell Street is a characteristic building of Sir Robert Smirke, with 44 columns in the Ionic order 45 ft (13.7 m) high, closely based on those of the temple of Athena Polias at Priene in Asia Minor. The pediment over the main entrance is decorated by sculptures by Sir Richard Westmacott depicting The Progress of Civilisation, consisting of fifteen allegorical figures, installed in 1852.

The construction commenced around the courtyard with the East Wing (The King's Library) in 1823–1828, followed by the North Wing in 1833–1838, which originally housed among other galleries a reading room, now the Wellcome Gallery. Work was also progressing on the northern half of the West Wing (The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery) 1826–1831, with Montagu House demolished in 1842 to make room for the final part of the West Wing, completed in 1846, and the South Wing with its great colonnade, initiated in 1843 and completed in 1847, when the Front Hall and Great Staircase were opened to the public.The Museum is faced with Portland stone, but the perimeter walls and other parts of the building were built using Haytor granite from Dartmoor in South Devon, transported via the unique Haytor Granite Tramway.

In 1846 Robert Smirke was replaced as the Museum's architect by his brother Sydney Smirke, whose major addition was the Round Reading Room 1854–1857; at 140 feet (42.6 m) in diameter it was then the second widest dome in the world, the Pantheon in Rome being slightly wider.

The next major addition was the White Wing 1882–1884 added behind the eastern end of the South Front, the architect being Sir John Taylor.
Proposed British Museum Extension, 1906

In 1895, Parliament gave the Museum Trustees a loan of £200,000 to purchase from the Duke of Bedford all 69 houses which backed onto the Museum building in the five surrounding streets - Great Russell Street, Montague Street, Montague Place, Bedford Square and Bloomsbury Street.[36] The Trustees planned to demolish these houses and to build around the West, North and East sides of the Museum new galleries that would completely fill the block on which the Museum stands. The architect Sir John James Burnet was petitioned to put forward ambitious long-term plans to extend the building on all three sides. Most of the houses in Montague Place were knocked down a few years after the sale. Of this grand plan only the Edward VII galleries in the centre of the North Front were ever constructed, these were built 1906-14 to the design by J.J. Burnet, and opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1914. They now house the Museum's collections of Prints and Drawings and Oriental Antiquities. There was not enough money to put up more new buildings, and so the houses in the other streets are nearly all still standing.

The Duveen Gallery, sited to the west of the Egyptian, Greek & Assyrian sculpture galleries, was designed to house the Elgin Marbles by the American Beaux-Arts architect John Russell Pope. Although completed in 1938, it was hit by a bomb in 1940 and remained semi-derelict for 22 years, before reopening in 1962. Other areas damaged during World War II bombing included: in September 1940 two unexploded bombs hit the Edward VII galleries, the King's Library received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb, incendiaries fell on the dome of the Round Reading Room but did little damage; on the night of 10 to 11 May 1941 several incendiaries fell on the south west corner of the Museum, destroying the book stack and 150,000 books in the courtyard and the galleries around the top of the Great Staircase – this damage was not fully repaired until the early 1960s.

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is a covered square at the centre of the British Museum designed by the engineers Buro Happold and the architects Foster and Partners.The Great Court opened in December 2000 and is the largest covered square in Europe. The roof is a glass and steel construction with 1,656 uniquely shaped panes of glass. At the centre of the Great Court is the Reading Room vacated by the British Library, its functions now moved to St Pancras. The Reading Room is open to any member of the public who wishes to read there.

Today, the British Museum has grown to become one of the largest Museums in the world, covering an area of over 75,000 m² of exhibition space, showcasing approximately 50,000 items from its collection. There are nearly one hundred galleries open to the public, representing 2 miles (3.2 km) of exhibition space, although the less popular ones have restricted opening times. However, the lack of a large temporary exhibition space has led to the £100 million North West Development Project to provide one and to concentrate all the Museum's conservation facilities into one Conservation Centre. This project was announced in July 2007, with the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and is expected for completion by 2011.


The British Museum houses the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A collection of immense importance for its range and quality, it includes objects of all periods from virtually every site of importance in Egypt and the Sudan. Together they illustrate every aspect of the cultures of the Nile Valley (including Nubia), from the Predynastic Neolithic period (c. 10,000 BC) through to the Coptic (Christian) times (12th century AD), a time-span over 11,000 years.

Egyptian antiquities have formed part of the British Museum collection ever since its foundation in 1753 after receiving 160 Egyptian objects from Sir Hans Sloane. After the defeat of the French forces under Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile in 1801, the Egyptian antiquities collected were confiscated by the British army and presented to the British Museum in 1803. These works, which included the famed Rosetta Stone, were the first important group of large sculptures to be acquired by the Museum. Thereafter, Britain appointed Henry Salt as consul in Egypt who amassed a huge collection of antiquities. Most of the antiquities Salt collected were purchased by the British Museum and the Musée du Louvre. By 1866 the collection consisted of some 10,000 objects. Antiquities from excavations started to come to the Museum in the later 19th century as a result of the work of the Egypt Exploration Fund under the efforts of E.A. Wallis Budge. The collection stood at 57,000 objects by 1924. Active support by the Museum for excavations in Egypt continued to result in useful acquisitions throughout the 20th century until changes in antiquities laws in Egypt led to the suspension of policies allowing finds to be exported. The size of the Egyptian collections now stands at over 110,000 objects.

In autumn 2001 the eight million objects forming the Museum's permanent collection were further expanded by the addition of six million objects from the Wendorf Collection of Egyptian and Sudanese Prehistory.[44] These were donated by Professor Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University in Texas, and comprise the entire collection of artefacts and environmental remains from his excavations between 1963 and 1997. They are in the care of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan.

The seven permanent Egyptian galleries at the British Museum, which include its largest exhibition space (Room 4, for monumental sculpture), can display only 4% of its Egyptian holdings. The second-floor galleries have a selection of the Museum's collection of 140 mummies and coffins, the largest outside Cairo. A high proportion of the collection comes from tombs or contexts associated with the cult of the dead, and it is these pieces, in particular the mummies, that remain among the most eagerly sought after exhibits by visitors to the Museum.

Key highlights of the collections Include

    * The Rosetta Stone (196 BC)
    * Limestone statue of a husband and wife (1300 BC)
    * Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the "Younger Memnon" (1250 BC)
    * Colossal granite head of Amenhotep III (1350 BC)
    * Colossal head from a statue of Amenhotep III (1350 BC)
    * Colossal limestone bust of Amenhotep III (1350 BC)
    * Fragment of the beard of the Great Sphinx (1300 BC)
    * Mummy of 'Ginger' which dates to about 3300 BC
    * List of the kings of Egypt from the Temple of Ramesses II (1250 BC)
    * Limestone false door of Ptahshepses (2380 BC)
    * Granite statue of Senwosret III (1850 BC)
    * Mummy of Cleopatra from Thebes (100 AD)
    * Amarna tablets (Collection of 95 out of 382 tablets found, second greatest in the world after the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin (203 tablets)) (1350 BC)[45]
    * Obelisk of Pharaoh Nectanebo II (360–343 BC)

The British Museum, Room 4 - Egyptian Sculpture

Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities
The British Museum, Room 18 - Parthenon Galleries, Temple of Athena Parthenos (447-438 B.C.)

The Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the British Museum has one of the world's largest and most comprehensive collections of antiquities from the Classical world, with over 100,000 objects. These mostly range in date from the beginning of the Greek Bronze Age (about 3200BC) to the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century AD, with some pagan survivals.

The Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures are represented, and the Greek collection includes important sculpture from the Parthenon in Athens, as well as elements of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos.
The British Museum, Room 83 - Roman Sculpture

The Department also houses one of the widest-ranging collections of Italic and Etruscan antiquities and extensive groups of material from Cyprus. The collections of ancient jewellery and bronzes, Greek vases and Roman glass and silver are particularly important.

Key highlights of the collections include:

    Athenian Akropolis

    The Parthenon Gallery (Elgin Marbles)

        * The Parthenon Marbles are one of the finest manifestations of human creation. The Magnificent Relief Frieze showing the Panathenaic procession, from Ancient Greece, often praised as the finest achievement of Greek Architecture, its decorative sculptures are considered one of the high points of Greek art.

The British Museum, Room 21 - Mausoleum of Halikarnassos


        * One of six remaining Caryatids
        * Surviving Column

    Athena Nike

        * Surviving Frieze Slabs

    Bassae Sculptures

        * Twenty three surviving blocks of the frieze from the interior of the temple are exhibited on an upper level.

    Mausoleum of Halikarnassos

    One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

        * Two colossal free-standing figures identified as Maussollos and his wife Artemisia.
        * Part of an impressive horse from the chariot group adorning the summit of the Mausoleum
        * The Amazonomachy frieze - A long section of relief frieze showing the battle between Greeks and Amazons

    Temple of Artemis at Ephesos

    One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

    Asia Minor

    Nereid Monument

        * Partial reconstruction of the Monument, a large and elaborate Lykian tomb from the site of Xanthos in south-west Turkey
        * Payava Tomb from Xanthos in south west Turkey

    Wider Museum Collection

        * Material from the Palace of Knossos
        * Portland Vase
        * The Warren Cup
        * Discus-thrower (Discobolos)
        * Towneley Sculptures

[edit] Department of the Middle East
The British Museum, Room 7 - Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud
The British Museum, Room 6 - Pair of Human Headed Winged Lions and Reliefs from Nimrud with The Gates of Balawat
The British Museum, Room 10 - Human Headed Winged Bulls from Khorsabad, companion pieces in the Musée du Louvre
The British Museum, Room 8 - Human Headed Winged Lion and Bull from Nimrud, companion pieces in Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The British Museum, Room 6 - Assyrian Sculpture
The British Museum, Room 55 - Cuneiform Collection, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Formerly the Department of the Ancient Near East, the Department recently became the Department of the Middle East when the collections from the Islamic world were moved from the Department of Asia into this department.

With approximately 330,000 objects in the collection, the British Museum has the greatest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq. The holdings of Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian antiquities are among the most comprehensive in the world.

The collections represent the civilisations of the ancient Near East and its adjacent areas. These include Mesopotamia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, parts of Central Asia, Syria, Palestine and Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean from the prehistoric period until the beginning of Islam in the 7th century. The collection includes six iconic winged human-headed statues from Nimrud and Khorsabad. Stone bas-reliefs, including the famous Royal Lion Hunt relief's (Room 10), that were found in the palaces of the Assyrian kings at Nimrud and Nineveh. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh and Sumerian treasures found in Royal Cemetery's at Ur of the Chaldees.

The earliest Mesopotamian objects to enter collections purchased by the British Museum in 1772 from Sir William Hamilton. The Museum also acquired at this early date a number of sculptures from Persepolis. The next significant addition (in 1825) was from the collection of Claudius James Rich. The collection was dramatically enlarged by the excavations of A. H. Layard at the Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh between 1845–1851.

At Nimrud, Layard discovered the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, as well as three other palaces and various temples. He also opened in the Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh with 'no less than seventy-one halls'. As a result a large numbers of Lamassu's, bas-reliefs, stelae, including the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III were brought to the British Museum. Layard's work was continued by his assistant, Hormuzd Rassam and in 1852–1854 he went on to discover the North Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh with many magnificent reliefs, including the famous Royal Lion Hunt scenes. He also discovered the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, a large collection of cuneiform tablets of enormous importance. W. K. Loftus excavated in Nimrud between 1850–1855 and found a remarkable hoard of ivories in the Burnt Palace. Between 1878–1882 Rassam greatly improved the Museum's holdings with exquisite objects including the Cyrus Cylinder from Babylon, the bronze gates from Balawat, and a fine collection of Urartian bronzes. Rassam collected thousands of cuneiform tablets, today with the acquisition of further tablets in the 20th century, the collection now numbers around 130,000 pieces. In the 20th century excavations were carried out at Carchemish, Syria, between 1911–1914 and in 1920 by D. G. Hogarth and Leonard Woolley, the latter assisted by T. E. Lawrence. The Mesopotamian collections were greatly augmented by excavations in southern Iraq after the First World War. From Tell al-Ubaid in 1919 and 1923–1924, directed by H. R. Hall came the bronze furnishings of a Sumerian temple, including life-sized lions and a panel featuring the lion-headed eagle Indugud. Woolley went onto to excavate Ur between 1922–1934, discovering the 'Royal Cemeteries' of the 3rd millennium BC. Some of the masterpieces include the 'Standard of Ur', the 'Ram in a Thicket', the 'Royal Game of Ur', and two bull-headed lyres.

Although the collections centre on Mesopotamia most of the surrounding areas are well-represented. The Achaemenid collection was enhanced with the addition of the Oxus Treasure in 1897, by acquisition from the German scholar Ernst Herzfeld, and then by the work of Sir Aurel Stein. From Palmyra there is a large collection of nearly forty funerary busts, acquired in the 19th century. A group of stone reliefs from the excavations of Max von Oppenheim at Tell Halaf, purchased in 1920. More excavated material from the excavations of Max Mallowan at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak in 1935–1938, and from Woolley at Alalakh in the years just before and after the Second World War. The collection of Palestinian material was strengthened with the acquisition in 1980 of around 17,000 objects found at Lachish by the Wellcome-Marston expedition of 1932–1938.

A representative selection, including the most important pieces, are on display in 13 galleries and total some 4500 objects. The remainder form the study collection which ranges in size from beads to large sculptures. They include approximately 130,000 cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia.

The museum's collection of Islamic art, including archaeological material, numbers about 40,000 objects, one of the largest of its kind in the world. As such, it contains a broad range of Islamic pottery, paintings, tiles, metalwork, glass, seals, and inscriptions.

Key Highlights of the Collections include


Alabaster bas-reliefs from:

    * The North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II
    * Central- Palace of Tiglath-Pileser III
    * South-West Palace of Esarhaddon
    * Palace of Adad-Nirari III
    * South-East Palace ('Burnt Palace')
    * The Nabu Temple (Ezida)
    * The Sharrat-Niphi Temple
    * Temple of Ninurta


    * Pair of Human Headed 'Lamassu' Lions (883-859 BC)
    * Human Headed 'Lamassu' Bull (883-859 BC), sister piece in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    * Human Headed 'Lamassu' Lion (883-859 BC), sister piece in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    * Colossal Statue of a Lion (883-859 BC)
    * Rare Head of Human Headed 'Lamassu', recovered from the South-West Palace of Esarhaddon
    * The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC)


Alabaster bas-reliefs from:

    * North-Palace of Ashurbanipal
    * Royal Lion Hunt Scenes
    * The 'Dying Lion', long been acclaimed as a masterpiece
    * The 'Garden Party' Relief
    * South-West Palace of Sennacherib   

Royal Library of Ashurbanipal:

    * A large collection of cuneiform tablets of enormous importance approximately 22,000 inscribed clay tablets
    * The Flood Tablet, relating part of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh


    * Alabaster bas-reliefs from the Palace of Sargon II
    * Pair of Human Headed Winged 'Lamassu' Bulls

Wider Collection:

    * Cyrus Cylinder, from Babylon
    * The Balawat Gates of Shalmaneser III
    * A fine collection of Urartian bronzes, which now form the core of the Anatolian collection
    * The Oxus Treasure
    * The Standard of Ur
    * The 'Ram in a Thicket'
    * The Royal Game of Ur
    * Queen's Lyre

Department of Prints and Drawings

The Department of Prints and Drawings holds the national collection of Western Prints and Drawings. It ranks as one of the largest collections in existence alongside the Musée du Louvre and the Hermitage as one of the top three collections of its kind.
The British Museum, Room 90 - Michelangelo, Epifania - Last surviving large scale cartoon by the artist

Since its foundation in 1808 the Prints and Drawings collection has grown to international renown as one of the richest and most representative collections in the world. There are approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints.The collection of Drawings covers the period 14th century to the present, and includes many works of the highest quality by the leading artists of the European school. The collection of Prints covers the tradition of fine printmaking from its beginnings in the 15th century up to the present, with near complete holdings of most of the great names before the 19th century.

There are magnificent groups of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, (including his only surviving full-scale cartoon), Dürer (a collection of 138 drawings is one of the finest in existence), Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Claude and Watteau, and virtually complete collections of the works of all the great printmakers including unsurpassed holdings of prints by Dürer (99 engravings, 6 etchings and a substantial number of his 346 woodcuts), Rembrandt and Goya. More than 30,000 British drawings and watercolours include important examples work by Hogarth, Sandby, Turner, Girtin, Constable, Cotman, Cox, Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank, as well as all the great Victorians. There are about a million British prints including more than 20,000 satires and outstanding collections of works by William Blake and Thomas Bewick.[citation needed]

Department of Asia

Amravati Gallery

The scope of the Department of Asia is extremely broad, its collections of over 75,000 objects covers the material culture of the whole Asian continent (from East, South, Central and South-East Asia) and from the Neolithic up to the present day.

Key highlights of the collections include:

    * The most comprehensive collection of sculpture from the Indian subcontinent in the world, including the celebrated Buddhist limestone reliefs from Amaravati
    * An outstanding collection of Chinese antiquities, paintings, and porcelain, lacquer, bronze, jade, and other applied arts
    * A fine collection of Buddhist paintings from Dunhuang and the Admonitions Scroll by Chinese artist Gu Kaizhi (344–406 AD)
    * The most comprehensive collection of Japanese pre-20th century art in the western world

Painting by Chinese artist Gu Kaizhi, c. 380 AD.

Painting by Chinese artist Gu Kaizhi, c. 380 AD.
Portrait of Ibrâhîm 'Âdil Shâh II (1580–1626), Mughal Empire of India, 1615 AD.
A Hamsa sacred swan vessel made of crystal, from Gandhara, 1st century AD.

Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

The British Museum houses one of the world's greatest and most comprehensive collections of Ethnographic material from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, representing the cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the world. Over 350,000 objects spanning two million years tells the story of the history of man, from three major continents and many rich and diverse cultures.
The British Museum, Room 24 - The Wellcome Trust Gallery with Hoa Hakananai'a in the centre

The Sainsbury African Galleries display 600 objects from the greatest permanent collection of African arts and culture in the world. The three permanent galleries provide a substantial exhibition space for the Museum's African collection comprising over 200,000 objects. A curatorial scope that encompasses both archaeological and contemporary material, including both unique masterpieces of artistry and objects of everyday life.

Highlights of the African collection include a magnificent brass head of a Yoruba ruler from Ife, Nigeria; Asante goldwork from Ghana and the Torday collection of Central African sculpture, textiles and weaponry.

The Americas collection mainly consists of 19th and 20th century items although the Inca, Aztec, Maya and other early cultures are well represented; collecting of modern artefacts is ongoing.

Department of Coins and Medals

The British Museum is home to one of the world's finest numismatic collections, comprising about a million objects. The collection spans the entire history of coinage from its origins in the 7th century BC to the present day. There are approximately 9,000 coins, medals and banknotes on display around the British Museum. More than half of these can be found in the HSBC Money Gallery (Gallery 68), while the remainder form part of the permanent displays throughout the Museum.

Department of Prehistory and Europe

The prehistoric collections cover Europe, Africa and Asia, the earliest African artefacts being around 2 million years old. Coverage of Europe extends to the present day.

Department of Conservation, Documentation and Science

This department was founded in 1920. Conservation has six specialist areas: ceramics & glass; metals; organic material (including textiles); stone, wall paintings and mosaics; Eastern pictorial art and Western pictorial art. The science department has and continues to develop techniques to date artefacts, analyse and identify the materials used in their manufacture, to identify the place an artefact originated and the techniques used in their creation. The department also publishes its findings and discoveries.

Libraries and Archives

This department covers all levels of education, from casual visitors, schools, degree level and beyond. The Museum's various libraries hold in excess of 350,000 books, journals and pamphlets covering all areas of the museum's collection. Also the general Museum archives which date from its foundation in 1753 are overseen by this department; the individual departments have their own separate archives covering their various areas of responsibility.

A few of the Elgin Marbles (also known as the Parthenon Marbles) from the East Pediment of the Parthenon.

It is a point of controversy whether museums should be allowed to possess artefacts taken from other countries, and the British Museum is a notable target for criticism. The Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes are among the most disputed objects in its collections, and organisations have been formed demanding the return of both sets of artefacts to their native countries of Greece and Nigeria respectively.

The British Museum has refused to return either set, stating that the "restitutionist premise, that whatever was made in a country must return to an original geographical site, would empty both the British Museum and the other great museums of the world". The Museum has also argued that the British Museum Act of 1963 legally prevents any object from leaving its collection once it has entered it. Nevertheless, it has returned items such as the Tasmanian Ashes after a 20 year long battle with Australia. Critics have particularly argued against the right of the British Museum to own objects which it does not share with the public.

Supporters of the Museum claim that it has provided protection for artefacts that might have otherwise been damaged or destroyed if they had been left in their original environments.[citation needed] While some critics have accepted this, they also argue that the artefacts should now be returned to their countries of origin if there is sufficient expertise and desire there to preserve them.

The British Museum continues to assert that it is an appropriate custodian and has an inalienable right to its disputed artefacts under British law.

Disputed Items in the Collection

    * Elgin Marbles - claimed by Greece and backed by UNESCO among others for restitution.
    * Benin Bronzes - claimed by Nigeria, 30 pieces sold already by The British Museum privately in the 1960s.
    * Ethiopian Tabots - claimed by Ethiopia.
    * 4 stolen drawings (Nazi plunder) - Compensation paid to Uri Peled in the amount of £175,000 by the British Museum.
    * Achaemenid empire gold and silver artefacts from the Oxus Treasure - claimed by Tajikistan.
    * Aboriginal human remains - returned to Tasmania by the British museum.
    * Mold's Golden Cape - claimed by Wales
    * Rosetta Stone - claimed by Egypt[



Main Staircase, Discobolus of Myron (the Discus-Thrower)

Floor Plans

Upper Floors (Rooms 36-73, 90-94)

Museum Galleries

Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Room 4 - Egyptian Sculpture, view towards the Assyrian Transcept

Room 4 - Egyptian Sculpture

Room 4 - Egyptian Sculpture

Room 4 - Egyptian Sculpture

Department of the Ancient Near East

Room 10 - Khorsabad Palace Reliefs

Room 9 - Nineveh Palace Reliefs

Room 10 - Nineveh, The Royal Lion Hunt

Room 89 - Nimrud & Nineveh Palace Reliefs

Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Room 18 - Parthenon Freize

Room 18 - Ancient Greece

Room 84 - Towneley Sculptures

Room 19 - Athens, Erechtheion Sculptures from the Acropolis


Forgotten Empire Exhibition (October 2005 - January 2006)

Room 5 - Exhibitions Panorama

Room 5 - The Persepolis Casts

Room 5 - Exhibitions Relics

Room 5 - The Cyrus Cylinder

See also

    * Employees of the British Museum
    * People associated with the British Museum


a. ^  Sculptures and applied art are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum houses earlier art, non-Western art, prints and drawings, and art of a later date is at Tate Modern. The National Gallery, holds the National Collection of Western European Art, with Tate Britain deposited with British Art from 1500.

b. ^  By the Act of Parliament it received a name - the British Museum. The origin of the name is not known; the word 'British' had some resonance nationally at this period, so soon after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745; it must be assumed that the Museum was christened in this light.

c. ^  The estimated footage of the various libraries as reported to the Trustees has been summarised by Harris (1998), 3,6: Sloane 4,600, Harley 1,700, Cotton 384, Edwards 576, The Royal Library 1,890.

d. ^  This was perhaps rather unfortunate as the title to the house was complicated by the fact that part of the building had been erected on leasehold property (the Crown lease of which ran out in 1771); perhaps that is why George III paid such a modest price (nominally £28,000) for what was to become Buckingham Palace. See Colvin et al. (1976), 134.

e. ^  Understanding of the foundation of the National Gallery is complicated by the fact that there is no documented history of the institution. At first the National Gallery functioned effectively as part of the British Museum, to which the Trustees transferred most of their most important pictures (ex. portraits). Full control was handed over to the National Gallery in 1868, after the Act of Parliament of 1856 established the Gallery as an independent body.

f. ^  Ashmole, the Keeper of the Greek and Roman Antiquities appreciated the original top-lighting of these galleries and removed the Victorian colour scheme, commenting:

    The old Elgin Gallery was painted a deep terracotta red, which, though in some ways satisfactory, diminished its apparent size, and was apt to produce a depressing effect on the visitor. It was decided to experiment with lighter colours, and the walls of the large room were painted with what was, at its first application, a pure cold white, but which after a year's exposure had unfortunately yellowed. The small Elgin Room was painted with pure white tinted with prussian blue, and the Room of the metopes was painted with pure white tinted with cobalt blue and black; it was necessary, for practical reasons, to colour all the dadoes a darker colour.

g. ^  Ashmole had never liked the Duveen Gallery:

    It is, I suppose, not positively bad, but it could have been infinitely better. It is pretentious, in that it uses the ancient Marbles to decorate itself. This is a long outmoded idea, and the exact opposite of what a sculpture gallery should do. And, although it incorporates them, it is out of scale, and tends to dwarf them with its bogus Doric features, including those columns, supporting almost nothing which would have made an ancient Greek artist architect whince. The source of daylight is too high above the sculptures, a fault that is only concealed by the amount of reflection from the pinkish marble walls. These are too similar in colour to the marbles...These half-dozen elementary errors were pointed out by everyone in the Museum, and by many scholars outside, when the building was projected.

It was not until the 1980s that the installation, of a lighting scheme removed his greatest criticism of the building.

h. ^  The Cairo Museum has 150,000 artefacts, with leading collections reposited at the Musee du Louvre (60,000), Petrie Museum (80,000), The Metropolitan Museum of art (36,000), University of Pennsylvania (42,000), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (40,000), Museo Egizio, Turin (32,500 objects).

african art / art africain / primitive art / art primitif / arts premiers / art gallery / art tribal / tribal art / l'oeil et la main / galerie d'art premier / Agalom / Armand Auxiètre / www.african-paris.com / www.agalom.com



Learning & Information Department 
Telephone +44 (0)20 7323 8511/8854 
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London WC1B 3DG 
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Commemorative head of a Queen Mother  
From Benin, Nigeria, early 16th century AD 2
What is African art?  If the answer seems self-evident, this is probably 
because the concept rests on assumptions which we seldom think to 
question.  This booklet aims to provide both background information on the 
range of artwork created in Africa and also address some of the issues and 
questions which arise from any attempt to define African art. 
The booklet begins by considering what is meant by ‘African’, goes on to 
look at some of the things Africans actually do and make, and then asks 
how such things reflect upon activities which the West understands as ‘Art’. 
The booklet is designed as a resource to support the teaching of art at all 
Key Stages. It takes a cross-curricular approach which looks at the historical 
and cultural context of art in Africa, and what it means to the West.   
Examples of some of the African objects on display at the British Museum 
can be found on COMPASS - the British Museum’s web-based collections.  
This be accessed either via the main British Museum website 
www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk or directly at  
Information about visiting the British Museum to view the African galleries 
can be found on the main Museum website. 
Ben Burt 
Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas 
The British Museum 3
1 What is African? 
We might begin by considering what, or who, is African?  Is it just a matter 
of geography, of living in the continent of Africa?  If so, should African 
include the peoples from other continents who have migrated there over 
centuries?  Europeans have been settling in southern Africa since the 17th 
century.  Some of these people do indeed call themselves ‘Afrikaans’, but 
they have clung to a cultural identity very different from those who were 
there before them, and their artefacts are certainly not represented in 
museum collections and books on African art.  Going further back, there are 
the peoples of north Africa whose ancestors brought the culture and 
religion of Islam from the southwest Asia (Europe’s ‘Middle East’) in the 7th 
century.  And long before that, people were coming across the 
Mediterranean under the Roman Empire in the first century BC, and with 
the Greek and Phoenician traders and colonisers several hundred years 
earlier.  The Mediterranean was a highway for the spread of cultures 
between Africa, Asia and Europe.  Perhaps this is why museum curators and 
art historians have tended to group North African cultures of various 
periods with classical Europe, Islamic and oriental civilisations. 
If cultures are to be identified by their place of origin, should the people of 
Madagascar be regarded as African, when they have ancestors from 
Indonesia, India and Arabia who began trading, migrating and intermarrying 
along the east African coasts at least 1,500 years ago?  And what of the 
cultural traditions which people already in Africa have adopted from 
visitors and invaders from overseas, such as the Christian and Muslim 
religions, as long established in Africa as in most parts of Asia and Europe?  
Africa has had wide-ranging historical and cultural links with other 
continents since ancient times.  But what about the civilisation which 
originated in Africa more than 5,000 years ago and flourished there 
continuously for 3,000 years?  Objects from ancient Egypt fill countless 
museum cases; should they not also feature in exhibitions and books of 
African art?  Is Africa really a cultural entity at all? 
2 Who defines Africa? 
And then there are the people of African ancestry who have moved to live 
elsewhere.  The greatest emigration from Africa came about with the age of 
European expansion which has transformed the world during the last 500 4
years.  It was the trans-Atlantic export trade in African slave-labour, 
promoting the economic development of Europe and the countries settled 
by people from that continent, which established the commercial 
economies of the Americas and their black populations.  Generations later, 
descendants of these forced migrants have migrated again, many to 
Europe, in their own search for the prosperity founded upon that trade and 
the industrial development which succeeded it.  With such a recent history, 
it has not been easy for people of this African diaspora to hold on to a 
culture which is distinctly African.  Many have long sought to regain or 
reconstruct a culture and identity for their own time and place, deriving 
more from Africa and less from the European culture they have had to 
share on unequal terms for so long.  Who is to say how African their culture 
As far as culture and art is concerned, ‘African’ so often seems to be defined 
by people who are not African, including museum curators and art 
historians who identify themselves and their own cultural heritage as 
unambiguously European.  This includes people from far beyond Europe, 
and some of the finest collections, publications and scholars of African art 
are to be found in North America.  Peoples and cultures do indeed travel, 
and that continent now shares a Western cultural and artistic tradition 
which traces its origins to Europe.  Considering how many North Americans 
have African ancestry, we might also consider whether the artists among 
them are creating African art.  If they are, maybe being African is more than 
just a matter of geography.  If they are not, this may have something to tell 
us about the way Europeans and Africans have influenced not only each 
other’s culture, but also their definitions of cultural identity. 
Africa is a diverse continent of many cultures, but one experience shared by 
the vast majority of its people and emigrants, is life under political and 
economic systems developed by Europeans and still dominated by them.  
For many of them, identifying with Africa has been a way of uniting to 
assert the right to self determination.  So whoever is defined by, can 
African identity, African culture and African art avoid reflecting Africa’s 
relationship with the West? 
3 Where does African Art come from? 
Insofar as Africa has been defined by its relationship to the West, so has its 
art, and we can begin by looking at how Western art historians and 
museum curators came to identity African art.  It is now 500 years since 
European voyages around the world began to bring home goods and 
information from other continents.  250 years ago some of the artefacts 
they obtained in Africa were being included among the ‘artificial curiosities’ 
in the developing collections of the newly formed British Museum.  But it 
was not until the late 19th century that Europeans, especially 
anthropologists, began to treat some of these things as ‘art’.   
Scholars then were interested particularly in trying to explain how they 
cultures of the world had developed and spread to produce what they 
regarded as the pinnacle of human achievement, the European culture of 
their day.  Among the other peoples of world, some, including most 
inhabitants of Africa, were taken to represent ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ stages 
of cultural development, and insofar as their artefacts seemed to be 
versions of the arts which were a mark of so-called ‘civilisation’, these 
became ‘primitive art’.   
In American museums these cultures were often classified with ‘natural 
history’, but in the British Museum they came under the loose heading of 
‘ethnography’.  In either case this distinguished them from the civilisations 
of Europe, Asia and parts of Africa such as Egypt and the Arab states of 
North Africa.  Later generations of Europeans, more cautious about 
insulting people by calling them ‘primitive’, have adopted words like ‘tribal’ 
or ‘ethnic’.  How far this represents a change of attitude is another 
question, especially when so many writers feel the need to fall back on 
expressions like ‘so-called primitive’. 
As the colonial conquest of Africa proceeded during the 19th century, more 
and more African artefacts appeared in the museums and art markets of 
Europe.  The idea of African art received a big boost in the 1890s when 
hundreds of fine brass sculptures, looted during the British conquest of 
Benin City in Nigeria, were sold on the open market, and many found their 
way into the British Museum. 
Later colonial adventurers continued to bring new surprises as they shipped 
back to Europe large collections of exotic artefacts in styles which 6
Europeans had never seen before.  Some of this was also loot from military 
expeditions, but much more was purchased from people who prized the 
wealth and exotic goods of Europe more than their familiar local products.  
Some African artefacts were presented to colonial administrators, 
missionaries and residents.  Some were purchased, with detailed 
documentation by anthropologists, other by expatriate residents, collectors 
and art dealers.  Such people have all contributed to the collections of the 
British Museum. 
4 What does the West see in African Art? 
For a long time African artefacts in Europe, unlike European and Asian 
‘works of art’, were of more interest to anthropologists than to art 
historians.  Then in the 1900s the avant garde art movement in Paris began 
to take an interest in sculpture from West and Central Africa, which came 
to the notice of art historians through its influence on their work.  What 
was its appeal?  Artists described their perceptions of remarkable formal 
qualities quite different from those in their own cultural tradition.  They 
read into them the kinds of symbolic meanings they were seeking to 
express in their own work, promoting the view that Africans could create 
art, but of a very particular kind.  To those struggling against the 
constraints of the naturalistic artistic tradition of Europe, such African art 
offered a refreshing and potent vision of the creativity of ‘natural man’, 
which scholars had already compared to the work of children or psychotics.  
This was particularly appealing to those seeking creative inspiration from 
impulses which their own culture defined as psychologically deep, intuitive 
and primitive.  But such interpretations were founded on a myth of 
‘primitive man’ which explains more about the Western culture which 
created it than the other cultures it has been applied to. 
Myths of the primitive serve as imagined alternatives which may both 
justify and challenge Western culture, or ‘civilisation’ as it is often defined.  
In various times and places these myths have employed either demonic 
images of childlike but bestial savages and ignorant, backward peasants, or 
utopian visions of noble savages and primal, tribal peoples living in 
harmony with nature.  The more unpleasant stereotypes have supported 
self-serving historical theories about Western domination.  These have 
ranged from the ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ which 
justified European conquest of other continents, to the ‘civilising mission’ 7
of the colonial period and the ‘economic development’ policies which now 
seek to integrate everyone within the global economy.   
More benevolent images, supporting arguments in defence of the victims of 
these brutal philosophies, are often ineffective and paternalistic.  For Africa, 
the issues in this one-sided Western debate with other cultures have 
moved from the export of Africans as slaves to the conquest of their lands, 
more recently to the formation of nation states, and now to the promotion 
of capitalist economies through aid and development programmes.  For the 
West, ‘Darkest Africa’ became and remains a powerful symbol of the 
primitive, and as far as art is concerned, ‘primitive’ often seems to be an 
criterion for defining what is ‘African’. 8
Some Comments on ‘Primitive Art’ by Artists and Art Historians 
... these cultures show developments more closely allied to the fundamental, 
basic and essential drives of life that have not been buried under a multitude of 
parasitical, non-essential desires. 
From: Wingert, Primitive Art  (Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 7  
The increasing knowledge of the thinking of so-called primitive peoples, during 
the last fifty years, has contributed a great deal to the change [in modern 
cultures] – especially the acquaintance with works of art made by these people… 
It may be refinement, celebrations, depth of mind, are on their side, not ours.  
Personally, I believe very much in values of ‘savagery’; I mean: instinct, passion, 
mood, violence, madness. 
From: Jean Dubuffet, quoted (with parenthesis) in “Primitivism” in 20th Century 
Art: Affinity of the Tribal with the Modern. (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 
Picasso responded with intense emotion to a magical force he sensed in the 
[“Tribal art”] objects he encountered in the Trocadero Museum.  He regretted 
that the Western tradition lost touch with the primordial sense of image-making 
as a magic operation.  Tribal art led him back to such origins. 
From: “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal with the Modern. 
(Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1985), p. 17 
Henry Moore writes of the inspiration he drew from exhibits in the British 
Museum, now in the Museum of Mankind: 
I was particularly interested in the African and Pacific sculptures and felt that 
‘primitive’ was a misleading description of them, suggesting crudeness and 
incompetence.  It was obvious to me that these artists were not trying – and 
failing – to represent the human form naturalistically, but that they had definite 
traditions of their own. 
From: Henry Moore at the British Museum (British Museum Publications, 1981), 
p. 119
5 African Art or Western Exhibit? 
Until the late 20th century, geographical and cultural barriers gave most 
Westerners little opportunity to find out what people in Africa themselves 
thought of the artefacts they made and used.  But this has not been a 
problem for those Western artists and art critics who maintain that such 
objects can ‘speak for themselves’.  To give their subjective impressions an 
apparently objective value, some even proclaim universal standards of art 
criticism and good taste.  However, few art critics would deny that the 
appreciation of art in the Western tradition is enhanced by knowledge of 
classical mythology, medieval Christianity or 19th century European 
culture.  So why do they not draw upon African history and culture in the 
same way when they make aesthetic assessments of African art?  Would 
their artistic judgements about African artefacts be confirmed by the 
people who made or used them?  Or have the objects viewed by art critics 
been changed by their changing contexts, altering their significance, even 
their appearance?  As presented in books and museums, African artefacts 
often produce a peculiarly Western kind of artistic experience: the art 
We can see this most clearly in the kind of African artefact first recognised 
as both ‘African’ and as ‘Art’.  Since Renaissance times Europeans have 
placed a special value on sculpture, which may explain why figurative 
carvings and castings from such evocative Western symbols of African 
culture, sometimes treated as if they outweighed all other African 
contributions to human development.  Such objects still dominate Western 
books and exhibitions of African art and command the highest prices in the 
art salesrooms of Europe and America.  But is African sculpture really the 
kind of art which Europeans take it to be?   
When we visit a museum we are accustomed to see African carvings in 
glass cases, standing on plinths, hanging from walls, much as they appear in 
studio photos, carefully posed and lit.  But in viewing such things in this 
way, are we not indulging peculiarly Western fantasies of African art and 
Certainly we are looking at African sculpture in a very different light from 
that intended by its makers and original users.  Are Westerners actually 
more interested in creating their own fantasies about other people’s 
cultures from the people who bear them?  The comments of Western 10
critics often ‘speak for themselves’ more eloquently than any African art 
Malcolm McLeod writes, To [Paolozzi] these societies [of “the native peoples of 
America, Africa and the Pacific”] are ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’, potent realms of the 
imagination.  The world he has imagined is not one which can be found in the 
prosaic accounts of geographers or art historians.  It is one which combines the 
modern and the archaic, the prosaic and the fantastic, and which interpenetrates 
his own experiences.
From: Lost Magic Kingdoms (British Museum Publications, 1985), page 5  
Sally Price reflects on… the plight of objects from around the world that – in 
some ways like the Africans who were captured and transported to unknown 
lands during the slave trade – have been discovered, seized, commoditized, 
stripped of their social ties, redefined in new settings, and reconceptualized to fit 
into the economic, cultural, and ideological needs of people from different 
From: Primitive Art in Civilized Places (University of Chicago Press, 1989), page 5
Some More Reflections from the Art Historians 
A view from an eminent scholar of African art, Frank Willet:  
The greatest contribution Africa has made so far to the cultural heritage of 
mankind is its richly varied sculpture.   
From: African Art (Thames & Hudson, 1971/1993), page 27 
Susan Vogel comments on museum displays:  
In their original African setting most works of art… were literally viewed 
differently from the way we see them.  Masks were seen as part of costumed 
figures moving in performance, or not seen at all.  Figures often stood in dark 
shrines visible only to a few persons, and then under conditions of heightened 
sensibility.  Other objects were seen only swathed in cloth, surrounded by music, 
covered with offerings or obscured by attachments.  Most sculpture could be 
seen only on rare occasions… the primacy of the visual sense over all others is 
particular to our culture: African objects were made to belong to a broader realm 
of experience.  If we take them out of the dark, still their movement, quiet the 
music, and strip them of additions, we make them accessible to our visual 
culture, but we render them accessible to our visual culture, but we render them 
unrecognizable or meaningless to the cultures they come from.  
From: African Art in Anthropology, (the Centre for African Art, 1988)11
6 Woodcarving 
Western sculpture has indeed found inspiration from some very distinctive 
styles of African figurative wood-carving.  But such sculpture is most 
developed only in certain regions of Africa, particularly in West and Central 
Africa where people still follow local religions rather than Islam or 
Christianity and, predictably enough, where there are plenty of trees.  As far 
as art is concerned, these areas seem to be particularly African, perhaps 
because the contrast between European and African forms is so striking 
that it confirms the image of Africa as exotic and primitive.  It may not be a 
coincidence that these were also the principle areas from which Africans 
were once exported as slaves in a trade which justified itself by accusing its 
victims of savagery. 
African carving develops from woodworking skills common to most men in 
rural communities, who make many of the things they need in daily life.  
Most carvings are cut from a single piece of wood using an adze, then 
finished with a knife or chisel, and pieces are seldom joined, in contrast to 
Western carpentry techniques.  But although every man (seldom women) 
may know how to handle the tools, the most elaborate carving requires 
special aptitude and practice.  Where there is a highly developed tradition 
of figurative sculpture this may involve a long apprenticeship.  Only by first 
finishing work for an established master-carver, then imitating it, will the 
apprentice become proficient enough to develop his own distinctive style 
from the local sculptural conventions.  He may also seek spiritual support 
for his work through prayers and offerings to ensure its success. 
When making things for their own communities, skilled sculptors usually 
work to commissions, whether they are fashioning decorated utensils and 
tools for everyday use, ceremonial objects or architectural features to 
enhance the status of chiefs or kings, or images and masks to embody 
invisible gods or spirits or to contain magical forces.  The things they make, 
and the styles in which they work are often as distinctive and varied as the 
language and customs which distinguish each ethnic group from its 
neighbours.  Yet people may also make or use certain kinds of objects in 
styles used by other ethnic groups, and the local origin or appearance of an 
object may be less important than the purpose it serves.  Indeed, this 
purpose does not always depend on the appearance of the object at all, and 
some sculptures are not even seen when in use.  When the appearance of a 
carving does matter, local people will judge it by what they already 12
understand about its purpose and the symbolic meanings it conveys, as art 
historians do with Western art. 
Further reading: Frank Willet, African Art (Thames & Hudson, 1971/1993), 
chapters 5 and 6. 
7 Masks 
Some of the artefacts most evocative of African art for Europeans are 
masks, or at least the things Europeans recognise as masks; usually 
sculptures designed to represent and transform the human face.  But what 
they mean to those who make, wear and view them is another matter. 
To begin with, masks in Africa are not just sculptures, and often they are 
not sculptural at all.  There are many reasons for disguising or transforming 
a person’s appearance.  In some parts of Africa men (and it is seldom 
women) may dress to impersonate the spirits, male and female, whom they 
wish to involve in human society, or to give these spirits a form they can 
inhabit by possessing the wearer; or they may wish to repel hostile spiritual 
forces.  But of course the human-but-not-quite-human presence is also 
designed to impress a human audience, usually with a dramatic show which 
will stir emotions of awe, amusement, fear or excitement, sometimes all at 
once, in a way that even the most imaginative sculpture cannot do when 
mounted, disembodied, in a museum case.  The whole person must be 
transformed, usually with a fantastic costume to conceal the body, and 
with the face covered by a carving, or by a piece of cloth with a carving on 
tip of the head, or just cloth or fibre with no carving at all.  Then the figure 
needs to move, usually dancing to music in an atmosphere which evokes 
the emotions of the audience, of the masker and maybe of the spirits too. 
Such scenes would have been hard to imagine for audiences in Europe and 
America when little more than sculptures and traveller’s writings reached 
their museums and galleries.  Today we have the benefits of photography, 
film and video, even travelling performers and musicians, to demonstrate 
the artistic power of masks and masquerading.  Africans in other continents 
have developed masquerades for new purposes, usually more entertaining 
than religious, under the influence of rather different festival traditions 
originating from Europe.  What are we missing when we gaze at African 
masks in glass exhibition cases? 13
8 Costume 
Anthropologists have long treated African costume as ‘art’, and it is often 
included in art books and museum collections.  In some parts of the 
continent, in the past and sometimes today, people actually wore very 
little, and that was mostly what Europeans would recognise as ‘ornaments’ 
rather than ‘clothing’.  Some painted their bodies in elaborate designs, or 
marked them with permanent ornamental scars.  Some plaited or sculpted 
their hair into elaborate patterns or shapes.  Some wore ornaments of 
strung or woven glass beads, or shell, wire and other materials, local or 
imported.  And in the regions which have the longest history of migration 
from Asia and Europe, people also wore more concealing garments of cloth, 
especially in the Muslim areas of North Africa. 
With the increase of European colonial trade, which reached all but the 
remotest communities of Africa by the late 19th century, fabrics from 
other parts of the world became more available, and so eventually did 
Western styles of dress and manufactured clothing.  The new colonial 
countries were increasingly dominated by European and Asian immigrants 
who proclaimed their own conventions of dress as marks of civilisation 
while they sought out markets for cloth and clothing.  What began as 
exotic luxury goods for people who needed few clothes became necessities, 
often adapted to new African styles of dress.  Today, with every part of 
Africa linked to these international markets, local costumes are often kept 
only for special occasions, particularly when they involve more expensive, 
hand-made, local crafts.  Africans have been adopting, and adapting, 
imported costume materials for centuries.  Exactly when and how do their 
exotic, traditional costume ‘arts’ become just plain ‘clothing’? 
9 Textiles 
Many parts of Africa have rich traditions for making and decorating cloth 
which compare with textile arts from other parts of the world, with which 
they are indeed interwoven.  In many areas people once made bark cloth, a 
kind of felt beaten from the bark of suitable trees, which is widespread in 
tropical regions around the world.  Woven cloth was being made in Egypt 
5,000 years ago, and there are much more recent local weaving traditions 14
in most regions of Africa, particularly where a settled farming way of life 
enabled people to develop the specialised skills required.  Being labourintensive to make, most local cloth was valuable, used particularly by the 
rich or kept for special occasions, and decorated in a range of techniques 
and styles.  Being durable and portable too, cloth has long been traded 
within Africa and beyond. 
The textile trade promoted by European colonisation introduced cloth to 
new areas and provided new materials for local textile arts.  African 
technology changed, adopting industrial yarns and dyestuffs, machine 
sewing, embroidery and appliqué in cheap and colourful imported cloth.  
Many of the new styles and fashions which developed could only be 
satisfied by industrial production, mostly in Europe.  But although 
manufactured cloth undermined some markets for handloom weaving, it 
also stimulated new ones, and there may now be more hand-woven cloth 
produced in Africa than ever before.  Textile printing has developed too, as 
a result of intercontinental textile trade going back to the 17th century.  
Imported Indonesian batiks were imitated by the factories of England and 
Holland during the 19th century, making colourful cotton prints for export 
to West Africa, where factories now produce similar designs. 
Although much of the cloth now worn in Africa is made industrially in other 
continents, African textile arts continue to flourish.  Some cloth is woven, 
and more is printed, in factories in Africa, and most people can afford to 
buy more clothes than ever before.  In some areas this still gives scope for 
the creativity of African textile workers as they adapt to new materials and 
changing local fashions.   
Further reading:  
African Textiles by John Picton and John Mack  
(British Museum Publications, 1979/1991) 
North African Textiles by Chris Spring and Julie Hudson  
(British Museum Press, 1995) 
10 Weapons 
Art historians would not consider the majority of weapons used in Africa 
today to be particularly artistic or indeed African (although there is a 
modern arms industry in South Africa).  As in the arms trade today, the 
hand weapons which Africans produced in the past were also as lethal as 
their technology allowed, and indeed the most sophisticated local metal 
technology was often devoted to weaponry, as it is in the West.  But these 
artefacts also gave scope for the creative imaginations of the African 
craftsmen.  During the colonial period this was recognised by the Europeans 
who mounted African weapons as exotic wall displays, and now they 
appear in saleroom catalogues as African art.  The virtuosity of blacksmiths 
in parts of central African in particular produced spectacular parade 
weapons in elaborate shapes, and stimulated European fantasies of the 
savage purposes these might have served. 
But the arms trade to Africa is far older than the colonial period.  From 
medieval times the kingdoms of North Africa and the savannah region 
south of the Sahara depended on large supplies of edged weapons from the 
metalworking centres of Europe and southwest Asia.  Further south, 
weapons production depended more on local blacksmiths, who usually 
inherited the secrets of an esoteric craft which kept them apart from the 
communities they served.  With the development of the trans-Atlantic 
slave trade from the 16th century, many parts of southern and western 
Africa became increasingly militarised, as trading communities and 
kingdoms purchased guns from Europe to gain prosperity from the sale of 
But it was not until breech-loading, and later, repeating rifles became 
available in the 19th century that guns began to give a decisive military 
advantage over African hand weapons.  Locally made weapons remained 
important, if not for fighting, then as valuable possessions and appropriate 
symbols of political authority. Ceremonial weapons enhanced the status of 
rulers and officials, military officers or simply the young men who defended 
their own communities.  Defensive weapons such as shields and body 
armour, also less effective against guns, have scope for decorative designs 
to identify their bearers or intimidate their adversaries, and so did the 
protective charms and amulets which often adorned military uniforms. 16
The kinds of African weapons which form such a large part of museum 
collections are still used ceremonially in some parts of Africa, even more so 
than archaic weapons in the state ceremonials of Europe.  Some are still 
used in anger when no more effective weapons are to hand, but their power 
was eclipsed long ago by the arms trade with the industrial countries of the 
Further reading:  
African Arms and Armour by Chris Spring (British Museum Press, 1993) 
11 Pottery 
Clay is a material with special artistic potential, not only because its 
versatile plasticity, but also because, in Africa, it is mainly worked by 
women.  Only in the urban centres of North Africa, culturally close to the 
rest of the Mediterranean, is there a longstanding tradition of making pots 
on the wheel as a men’s craft.  Elsewhere, wheel-turned and industrially 
produced ceramics imported from Europe and Asia have long been a 
desirable alternative to local pottery, as metal and plastic utensils are 
today.  In some countries, such as Nigeria, and in areas of European 
immigration such as South Africa, these things are also manufactured 
Even so, hand-built African pottery is so cheap and practical to use that it 
continues to be the essential equipment of households throughout the 
continent.  It is nearly always locally made by women, who often inherit 
their skills within families in which the men work as blacksmiths.  Their 
work has not usually been regarded as very prestigious by Africans or of 
great aesthetic interest by Western art historians.  But local technology and 
domestic requirements enable simple pots to take on regular and elegant 
forms, often enhanced by surface decoration, and gives them a strong 
tactile as well as visual appeal.   
Such pots are usually made by pulling and coiling the basic shape, spreading 
the clay by pressing and hammering.  This requires only the simplest of 
tools such as pieces of potshard, pebbles and sticks.  The clay is mixed with 
a high proportion of sand or organic matter as fill, and fired at a low 
temperature in a bonfire.  This produces a coarse ceramic, resilient enough 
to cook in on the hearth and ideal for holding water, which cools by 17
evaporation from the surface of the pot.  It may be finished with pressed, 
incised, or modelled patterns, to aid grip and evaporation as well as for 
decoration.  Or, it may be more or less sealed, not by glazing but by 
burnishing while leather hard, or coating with oil or vegetable liquor while 
still hot from firing.   
Since women are the main users of pots as well as their makers, the kind of 
household post used for water and cooking are often treated as symbols of 
women’s roles, of their bodies, and identities as wives and mothers.  But for 
special ceremonial or religious purposes, post may be modelled in relief or 
in the round.  The most elaborate, bearing human and animal sculptures are 
not really pots at all.  As such, they may be made by men or by women 
past menopause.  Clay is used for all sorts of other purposes too, from 
lamps and braziers to tobacco pipes and drums, all of which depend on the 
same basic pottery technology. 
Further reading:  
Smashing Pots: Feats of Clay from Africa by Nigel Barley  
(British Museum Press, 1994) 
Pottery is seen as dramatically endangered.  It is probably more than a 
coincidence that it is this ‘disappearing’ pottery that is the latest African 
artefact to enter the Western art market.  The beauty, elegance and 
ingenuity of African pottery are beginning to gain wider appreciation just 
as the sales catalogues announce its imminent extinction. 
From: Nigel Barley, Smashing Pots (British Museum Press, 1994), p. 9 
12 Art for What? 
Since Europeans discovered ‘African art’, the notion seems to have 
gradually expanded to from figurative sculpture to include more and more 
types of African artefacts.  However, the distinction between ‘art’, ‘craft’ or 
other kinds of artefact would not have made much sense to most of the 
African artists whose work now graces Western museums.  This is not to 
say that Africans do not have well-considered aesthetic judgements and 
criticisms to make of each other’s work.  Certain objects were intended to 
have visual impact, to be aesthetically pleasing or disturbing and to convey 18
symbolic meanings, and they were assessed in these terms.  But they were 
seldom made just to be looked at ‘for arts’ sake’ as we say. 
Most of the people who made the objects now regarded as ‘African art’ 
were skilled artisans working for a particular kind of clientele.  Some 
everyday utensils and textiles, tools and weapons, may have been made for 
trade, exchanged for other goods or money with whoever needed them.  
Some things, often special versions of utilitarian objects, were in demand as 
valuables, to be given for particular ceremonial purposes such as marriage 
or funeral gifts.  Some objects, including some of the most elaborate and 
expressive works were commissioned from their makers by religious and 
political organisations for use in rituals and ceremonies, both public and 
private.  Some could only be made for titled community leaders, chiefs or 
kings, to symbolise or celebrate their high status and political power.  And 
some things were made for Western markets. 
The idea of ‘art’ as a particular field of activity is a peculiarly modern 
European one, which even Europeans have problems defining, especially 
when applying it to other cultures.  But if Africans seldom created things 
for the sake of art, does this really make them so different from the West?  
We know that most of the older European pieces now in art galleries were 
made to decorate palaces and shrines, to glorify the people who 
commissioned them and their deities, while providing a living for the 
artists, and we can read many of their symbolic messages about power, 
status, religion and morality.  Creating things for display in galleries and the 
other public and private places governed by art experts is quite a recent 
phenomenon, even in the West.   
Is art for the gallery really less ‘applied’ to the social purposes of its time 
than earlier traditions of African or European art?  In the West at the end of 
the 20th century, art serves some very particular purposes, not the least of 
which is to provide commodities which can be bought and sold, sometimes 
for very large sums.  This monetary value, reflecting judgements on 
authenticity as well as aesthetic and symbolic values, plays an essential 
part in the role of art objects as status symbols for individuals or public 
institutions, and there is a massive international business around the 
exchange, reproduction and publication of such things.  It is hardly 
surprising to find Africans too creating art with an eye to this market.  We 
may debate the aesthetic and symbolic value of so-called ‘tourist art’ which 
Africans mass-produce mainly for sale to Western buyers, but is it any less 19
a part of the art world than Western artists’ reproductions of ‘limited 
editions’, or copies of famous Western works of art? 
13 Galleries and Markets 
Africans have been making things for sale abroad for hundreds of years, but 
during the 20th century the African art market, governed by Western 
artistic and commercial values, has had an increasing influence on African 
products.  On the one hand, large local craft industries have developed, 
mass-producing the kind of objects that appeal to Western notions of 
African culture as exotic, primitive and sometimes beautiful but often 
crude, to be bought and sold as commodities for a Western market of 
tourists and curio shoppers.  At the same time, in Western societies where 
manufactured objects are industrially mass-produced as commodities, the 
uniqueness of personal creativity has itself become a commodity.  In this 
market, objects made for local use may acquire a commercial value out of 
all proportion to their local economic value, often tempting African 
peasants to sell personal and community heirlooms, their own or other 
people’s, to dealers who pass them on at great profit to overseas collectors.  
The market in status symbols and investments for Westerners attaches a 
special value to things which are old, well used and hence apparently 
authentically African.  Faithful copies, however well made, are liable to be 
denigrated as ‘fakes’, and are indeed often made to deceive those seeking 
‘authentic’ African art.   
Art historians acknowledge that an appreciation of art is enhanced by 
understanding the purposes for which things were made and used and the 
social and cultural contexts which give them their aesthetic and symbolic 
value.  For Western art we might want to go beyond the values which the 
artists themselves proclaim to consider, also the social role of the galleries 
and other places where it is displayed.  And in a world now dominated by 
the values of the market, perhaps we should also acknowledge the market 
value which plays such an important part in our judgments of African as 
well as Western art. 
Africans also work as artists within this Western art market.  Since the 
colonial period an increasing number of Africans, often educated in the art 
colleges of Europe and America, have been drawing upon their experience 
of Western as well as African culture to develop new, often very individual, 20
styles and forms of objects as works of art.  Like many of the educated 
urban middle-class of Africa, they seem to find the relation between the 
two traditions both enriching and full of troublesome contradictions, which 
may be expressed in their work.  They bring African forms and imagery to 
an artistic purpose originating in the west; in the search for a new African 
art which can hold its own in terms of Western artistic values without 
losing its African identity.  But the identity of the educated and 
cosmopolitan African elite is rather different to that of rural villagers or 
town craftsmen working within local artistic traditions.  Now that so many 
Africans work as artists in the Western sense within an increasingly 
homogenous global culture, the next question may be, ‘What is so African 
about African art?’   21
More than twenty years ago the historian of African art Frank Willet asked; 
What then is happening to art in Africa today?  It is changing with the 
times as it has always done, but whereas the traditional artist drew on 
traditional forms to serve the needs of the community in which he lived – 
and this still continues in many areas – the Western-trained artist has the 
whole world on which to draw, and has still to find an adequate patronage 
within Africa… the Western trained artists may well remain part of the 
cosmopolitan world of art.   
From: African Art by Frank Willet, (Thames & Hudson, 1971/1993)


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