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Monday, 7 November 2011

Triumphant Trophy or Ill-gotten Gain?

Lots of the items in our collection stores haven't been researched - here are some objects I've been investigating over the past few months!

Many of them arrived here by donation, yet others have come into our hands for very different reasons, mainly as trophies and spoils of war. The circumstances surrounding their acquisition pose a difficult question: Is it right for us to keep them in our museum? or should they be viewed in their original context?

The Benin Tusk

Detail - the Oba (divine king) wears the sacred beads of kinship across his chest
In 1897 the Kingdom of Benin (modern day Nigeria, west Africa) was purged of its cultural artefacts. Thousands of objects in brass and ivory were shipped to Britain, to be sold by Queen Victoria's government. This ivory tusk was taken from the Oba's palace and (in its original context) played a vital role in the spiritual connections between past and present for all the Nigerian people of the Edo tribe.

Arabic Manual of Astronomy and Divination

Translation: "The Star-signs: The Aquarius: God knows the month of the Aquarius (which is the eleventh zodiac) brings hot wind with humidity, settled when the moon goes down. This is a good time for digging wells, rivers, plantations, plotting and trading...anyone who travels at the end of the month of the Aquarius will always come back with good things..."
Looted from M'wele (modern day Kenya, east Africa) in 1895 this manuscript is equipped with diagrams, charts and text that prophecise future events. Divination was not merely a cultural hobby, but a highly regarded social science of the time, for African people believed that the true explanations for all events could be known.

 The Lord of the Dance

Detail of plate - Natraja/ Shiva performing his cosmic dance
This plate depicts the Hindu deity Natraja (the Lord of the Dance), a pictorial symbol of creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion. It was made using an important process of classical south Indian metalwork that is nearing extinction. This plate was awarded to Rear Admiral Frank Ballance for his service in the Indian Navy (1950-53).

The Sultan's visit

Abdulaziz modernised the Ottoman (Turkish) navy and was the first Ottoman Sultan to visit western Europe in 1867. On 18th July he visited London where he was invited to a banquet by the Corporation of the City of London. Above is a commemorative medallion made to mark this occasion, the City of London (figure on the left standing in front of St Paul's Cathedral) clasps the hand of the Ottoman Empire (figure on right standing in front of the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed).  

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