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Reinventing Africa

abby rose's picture

        Museums are unique spaces that have the ability to promote their works and exhibitions as both entertaining and educational. In Reinventing Africa, Coombes details the crucial role that British and other European museums played in the creation of stereotypes of Africa from 1890 to 1913, which were upheld by both public and private agendas. Coombes begins this history in Benin, where Brits attacked and took over Benin City because of a trade dispute, and ultimately imperialism. This conquest was a critical example of the “civilizing” influence of Britain in African societies. The concept of degeneration, meaning in this case the loss of moral qualities deemed normal or desirable, became a common topic in the British public sphere in regards to Benin. When British imperials discovered upon overtaking Benin City that artists and craftsmen in Benin created bronze sculptures and detailed carvings in ivory, there were a multitude of conflicting reactions. Some intellectuals insisted that this art was modeled from European or Egyptian influences because of its “advanced” quality, while others used these sculptures as an argument for the promise that Benin showed of becoming civilized by the British. Narratives that asserted that these pieces were purely African in origin were silenced due to the political, professional, popular and institutional discourses in Britain at the time.

        European museums and exhibitions largely established and perpetuated the imperialist stance that flattened diverse African societies into a monolithic “African” continent and that benefitted from claiming Africans as “savages” in need of saving. In popular culture, definitions of Africanicity were modeled by white performers in blackface in theater or by black people in minstrel shows enacting stereotypes of blackness. These modes of entertainment set the tone for exhibitions on Africa in Britain, where one could “find ‘himself’ ‘in the heart of Africa’” (Coombes 69), surrounded by trophy displays of stolen weapons, artifacts and art

“[f]rom the untracked depths of one of Nature’s densest and most deadly forests, saturated with the tropical rains of countless ages, and alive with malignant pigmies, skilled in the use of poison arrows” (Coombes 68).

        Depictions of Africa became fantastical, yet since they were presented in museums they were granted scientific legitimacy in addition to their entertainment value. The sensational accounts of Africa and blackness were key for the privately-owned exhibitions to bring in visitors and thus sustain their businesses, and the science behind these exhibitions justified their importance. Additionally, there were literal human displays of life in Africa in these exhibits, which were justified as acts of humanitarian kindness since the Africans in the exhibitions were supposedly rescued from the “horrible” conditions of slavery and physical labor in their own societies.

        This vulnerability and scientific discovery increased British and European curiosity in the African Other. In the early chapters of section two, there was an emphasis on explaining the relationship of anthropology and Britain as a colony and how it was used as a tool to study the cultures that were engulfed by and under British voyeurism. The origins of anthropology can be described as ‘armchair anthropology’, this means that the anthropologist would sit and analyze the ‘data’ collected by other people and conduct ‘research’ on the culture at hand. When the intensity of research reached new highs, there was a very clear need to create a “division between the ‘scientific’ and the ‘popular’” (128). In relating observation and ‘scientific research’ a ‘new’ discipline found its way to the fore-front of African representation.

        It then later evolved into a discipline, that used to justify the bodies, the art and the false narratives that were collected. Anthropology developed from armchair anthropology to emphasizing the need for an ethnography. In traveling to then British colonies, to study the people under their power, the use of intellect and science allowed for studies to be conducted in the name of science and backed-up by anthropology.  For example, Emile Torday, who collected data in the Congo on particular social groups. He conducted research in categories he felt were important and essential to understanding their culture. It is important to note however, in efforts to be ‘objective’ it meant to compare the social groups of the Congo to the ‘civilized’ nation of  Britain. Torday paid close attention to “ Physical Appearance, Psychology ( which in fact meant an ‘intelligence’ assessment..)” (133). His efforts were in order to understand the social groups in every facet of their lives, however, already putting them in a subjective role, by feeling the need to study the bodies of the people in these communities. Another anthropologist W.H.R Rivers’ invented a ‘genealogical method’ that focused on sexuality. However there were many other aspects of his questionnaire that focuses more on the physical and how physical data could be scored and collected. This yearning lead to the use of diagrams, “ In the earliest editions, these included inventories of possible decorative motifs, together with eye color charts and skull measurements as well as limb calculations” (134).

        In attempt to more effectively promote the notion that African peoples were drastically, savagely different than Europeans, charts simply did not suffice. Thus introducing photography to the discipline to illuminate the diagrams, to make them come alive. Museums like the Liverpool Museum grew to depend “on photographic ‘evidence to enhance the significance of the objects on display” (136). So, the museum went from trying to create habitats and putting literal bodies behind bars, to putting bodies on the walls, to affirm and confirm British imperialism in the name of science and the glory of the ethnography.

Comments's picture

Wow. Thank you so much for this insightful distillation of a large, weighty body of material. Yes, the history of Anthropology was often very much the history of racial exploitation and spectacle disguised at science. Can you see why I became an anthropologist who studies anthropology? (Franz Boas almost redeems the discipline with  "cultural relativism" but still...) As Nora Chipamuire said in her Tedx talk, "You can believe your Margaret Meads... or you can think for yourself." For me, I needed to learn my Margaret Mead (my Franz Boas, my Zora Neale Hurston [yes, she was an anthropologist!, a student of Boas], my Stuart Hall etc.) before others would let me think for myself. Again, in the words of Nas, "Read more, Learn more, Change the Globe." Nyasa and Abby, thanks for getting our Wednesday conversation off to a great start.