The British Museum houses one of the world’s 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 thousands of years tells the history of mankind from three major continents and many rich and diverse cultures; the collecting of modern artefacts is ongoing. Many individuals have added to the department’s collection over the years but those assembled by Henry Christy, Harry Beasley and William Oldman are outstanding. Objects from this department are mostly on display in several galleries on the ground and lower floors. Gallery 24 displays ethnographic from every continent while adjacent galleries focus on North America and Mexico. A long suite of rooms (Gallery 25) on the lower floor display African art. There are plans in place to develop permanent galleries for showcasing art from Oceania and South America.
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. A great addition was material amassed by Sir Henry Wellcome, which was donated by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1954. Highlights of the African collection include objects found at megalithic circles in The Gambia, a dozen exquisite Afro-Portuguese ivories, a series of soapstone figures from the Kissi people in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Asante goldwork and regalia from Ghana including the Bowdich collection, the rare Akan Drum from the same region in west Africa, the Benin and Igbo-Ukwu bronze sculptures, the beautiful Bronze Head of Queen Idia, a magnificent brass head of a Yoruba ruler and quartz throne from Ife, a similar terracotta head from Iwinrin Grove near Ife, the Apapa Hoard from Lagos, southern Nigeria, an Ikom monolith from Cross River State, the Torday collection of central African sculpture, textiles and weaponry from the Kuba Kingdom including three royal figures, the unique Luzira Head from Uganda, processional crosses and other ecclesiastical and royal material from Gondar and Magdala, Ethiopia following the British Expedition to Abyssinia, excavated objects from Great Zimbabwe (that includes a unique soapstone, anthropomorphic figure) and satellite towns such as Mutare including a large hoard of Iron Age soapstone figures, a rare divining bowl from the Venda peoples and cave paintings and petroglyphs from South Africa.
The British Museum’s Oceanic collections originate from the vast area of the Pacific Ocean, stretching from Papua New Guinea to Easter Island, from New Zealand to Hawaii. The three main anthropological groups represented in the collection are Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia – Aboriginal art from Australia is considered separately in its own right. Metal working was not indigenous to Oceania before Europeans arrived, so many of the artefacts from the collection are made from stone, shell, bone and bamboo. Prehistoric objects from the region include a bird-shaped pestle and a group of stone mortars from Papua New Guinea. The British Museum is fortunate in having some of the earliest Oceanic and Pacific collections, many of which were put together by members of Cook’s and Vancouver’s expeditions or by colonial administrators such as Sir George Grey, Sir Frederick Broome and Arthur Gordon, before Western culture significantly impacted on indigenous cultures. The Wilson cabinet of curiosities from Palau is another example of pre-contact ware. The department has also benefited greatly from the legacy of pioneering anthropologists such as Bronisław Malinowski and Katherine Routledge. In addition, the Māori collection is the finest outside New Zealand with many intricately carved wooden and jade objects and the Aboriginal art collection is distinguished by its wide range of bark paintings, including two very early bark etchings collected by John Hunter Kerr. A poignant artefact is the wooden shield found near Botany Bay during Cook’s first voyage in 1770. A particularly important group of objects was purchased from the London Missionary Society in 1911, that includes the unique statue of A’a from Rurutu Island, the rare idol from the isle of Mangareva and the Cook Islands deity figure. Other highlights include the huge Hawaiian statue of Kū-ka-ili-moku or god of war (one of three extant in the world) and the famous Easter Island statues Hoa Hakananai’a and Moai Hava.
Americas The Americas collection mainly consists of 19th and 20th century items although the Paracas, Moche, Inca, Maya, Aztec, Taino and other early cultures are well represented. The Kayung totem pole, which was made in the late nineteenth century in the Queen Charlotte Islands, dominates the Great Court and provides a fitting introduction to this very wide-ranging collections that stretches from the very north of the North American continent where the Inuit population has lived for centuries, to the tip of South America where indigenous tribes have long thrived in Patagonia. Highlights of the collection include Aboriginal Canadian objects from Alaska and Canada collected by the 5th Earl of Lonsdale and the Marquis of Lorne, the Squier and Davis collection of prehistoric mound relics from North America, a selection of pottery vessels found in cliff-dwellings at Mesa Verde, a collection of turquoise Aztec mosaics from Mexico (the largest in Europe), important artefacts from Teotihuacan and Isla de Sacrificios, several rare pre-Columbian manuscripts including the Codex Zouche-Nuttall and Codex Waecker-Gotter, a spectacular series of Mayan lintels from Yaxchilan excavated by the British Mayanist Alfred Maudslay, a very high quality Mayan collection that includes sculptures from Copan, Tikal, Tulum, Pusilha, Naranjo and Nebaj (including the celebrated Fenton Vase), a group of Zemi Figures from Vere, Jamaica, a number of prestigious pre-Columbian gold and votive objects from Colombia, ethnographic objects from across the Amazon region including the Schomburgk collection, two rare Tiwanaku pottery vessels from Lake Titicaca and important items from Tierra del Fuego donated by Commander Phillip Parker King.
Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
The collection of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas includes around 350,000 objects, representing the cultures of the indigenous peoples of four continents.
The scope of the collection is contemporary, archaeological and historical, and includes a large pictorial collection. It comprises most of Africa (outside Ancient Egypt, Sudan and the Mediterranean), the Pacific and Australia, as well as North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Most of the collections were acquired during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though research and collecting continues today.
The Anthropology Library and Research Centre includes the Museum’s Anthropology Library and provides access to information about its ethnographic collections, as well as an identification service; all enquiries are welcome.
Living and Dying (Room 24)
The Wellcome Trust Gallery
People throughout the world deal with the tough realities of life in many different ways. The displays in Room 24 explore different approaches to our shared challenges as human beings, focussing on how diverse cultures seek to maintain health and well-being.
The new displays provide case studies on the theme Living and Dying using material from New Zealand, Ghana, the Solomon Islands, South America and the North American Arctic.
The displays consider different approaches to averting illness, danger and trouble, and investigate people’s reliance on relationships – with each other, the animal kingdom, spiritual powers spirits and the world around us.
Objects range from ancient gold artefacts and sculptures to a specially-commissioned art installation, Cradle to Grave by Pharmacopoeia.
Africa (Room 25)
The Sainsbury Galleries
The diverse cultural life of Africa has been expressed through everyday objects and unique works of art since ancient times. The Museum’s collection of over 200,000 African items encompasses archaeological and contemporary material from across the continent.
Highlights on display in Room 25 include a magnificent brass head of a Yoruba ruler from Ife in Nigeria, the Tree of Life (a sculpture made out of guns) and some objects from the Torday collection of Central African sculpture, textiles and weaponry.
North America (Room 26)
8000 BC – present
The indigenous peoples of North America have maintained their cultural identity since ancient times. Room 26 explores both historic artefacts and the contemporary art of the Native inhabitants of Canada and the United States, while illustrating the effect of European contact and colonisation on their communities.
Objects on display in Room 26 range from pipes in the form of animals made by the Hopewell people in 200 BC, to maps outlined on deerskins by the Wea tribe of the eighteenth century. Texiles, clothing, carved posts and pottery are also on display.
Mexico (Room 27)
About 2000 BC – 16th century AD
Distinctive regional cultures flourished in Mexico from prehistoric times, until its contact with Europe during the sixteenth century. Early Mexican civilization is explored in Room 27, along with the Classic Veracruz and Huastec cultures and the Maya city states of the first millennium AD.
The display includes stunning objects, including highly-prized turquoise mosaic, dating from the Mixtec-Aztec culture of AD 1400–1521, and stone sculptures of Huastec female deities from AD 900-1450.
Key highlights of the collections include:
Room 26 – Stone pipe representing an otter from Mound City, Ohio, USA, 200 BC – 400 AD
Room 2 – Stone tomb guardian, part human part jaguar, from San Agustín, Colombia, c. 300-600 AD
Room 1 – Maya maize god statue from Copán, Honduras, 600-800 AD
Room 24 – Gold Lime Flasks (poporos), Quimbaya Culture, Colombia, 600-1100 AD
Room 27 – Lintel 25 from Yaxchilan, Late Classic, Mexico, 600-900 AD
Room 24 – Bird pectoral made from gold alloy, Popayán, Colombia, 900-1600 AD
Room 24 – Rapa Nui statue Hoa Hakananai’a, 1000 AD, Wellcome Trust Gallery
Room 27 – Double-headed serpent turquoise mosaic, Aztec, Mexico, 1400-1500 AD
Room 27 – Turquoise Mosaic Mask, Mixtec-Aztec, Mexico, 1400-1500 AD
Room 2 – Miniature gold llama figurine, Inca, Peru, about 1500 AD
Room 25 – Part of the famous collection of Benin brass plaques, Nigeria, 1500-1600 AD
Room 25 – Detail of one of the Benin brass plaques in the museum, Nigeria, 1500-1600 AD
Room 25 – Benin ivory mask of Queen Idia, Nigeria, 16th century AD
Room 24 – Hawaiian feather helmet or mahiole, late 1700s AD
Great Court – Two house frontal totem poles, Haida, British Columbia, Canada, about 1850 AD
Room 25 – Mask (wood and pigment); Punu people, Gabon, 19th century AD
Room 25 – Otobo masquerade in the Africa Gallery, Nigeria, 20th century AD
Room 25 – Modern interpretation of kente cloth from Ghana, late 20th century AD
British Museum, London, United Kingdom
The British Museum, located in the Bloomsbury area of London, United Kingdom, is a public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection numbers some 8 million works, and is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence having been widely sourced during the era of the British Empire, and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. It’s the first national public museum in the world.
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, on the site of the current building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries was largely a result of expanding British colonisation and has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington in 1881 (it is nowadays simply called the Natural History Museum).
In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum, but it continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum until 1997. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all other national museums in the United Kingdom it charges no admission fee, except for loan exhibitions.
In 2013 the museum received a record 6.7 million visitors, an increase of 20% from the previous year. Popular exhibitions including “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” and “Ice Age Art” are credited with helping fuel the increase in visitors. Plans were announced in September 2014 to recreate the entire building along with all exhibits in the video game Minecraft in conjunction with members of the public.