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Africa Galleries

Included with General Admission
Main Floor
Nail Figure

Gallery at-a-glance

  • Connect with Africa’s great kingdoms and rich material culture through around 300 objects on display.
  • Trace objects’ stories from their maker to the Museum: learn who made the objects, what they were used for, and how they came to be in the Museum’s collection.
  • See contemporary African artists’ reactions to the objects on display through four new commissioned art pieces.

Overview

The new Africa Galleries celebrate the richness and diversity of Africa’s artistic creativity, moral and spiritual practices, family and gender relations, languages, and organization of social, economic, and political systems. They explore the histories and connections of African material culture as a way to better understand our shared world. Organized by themes—including design, exchange, spirituality—the Galleries invite visitors to consider why, where, and how objects were made; how they were used in daily life, on special occasions, or in religious ceremonies; and why this object was meaningful to the culture that produced it.

The new Africa Galleries draw from information gathered through the previous Imagine Africa exhibition. They are designed to deepen the conversation about African material culture, its representation in Western museums, and its connection to the African Diaspora.

The objects on display—from 21 countries on the African continent—are from the Penn Museum’s Africa collection. As with most Western museums, the foundational objects of this collection were created in or taken out of Africa during periods of enslavement and colonialism. Most of the Penn Museum’s Africa collections were acquired by curators, ethnologists, archaeologists, antiquarians, or travelers in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Highlights

helmet mask

Helmet Mask

This Sowei helmet was worn by woman named Miata, a member of the secret Sande Society. The Society teaches girls in Sierra Leone and western Liberia about marriage, childcare, economics, and medicine. Masked dancers perform for the community during initiation ceremonies, which is when Miata would have worn this mask.
nigerian ivory figurine

Figurine

A member of Benin’s Igbesanmwan (Ivory Guild) carved this statue to represent the attendants of the Iyoba, or Queen Mother. It would have been placed as part of a pair on an altar dedicated to the Iyoba. The coral beads around the figure’s neck and tattoos across her stomach show that she did not have royal status.
nigerian plaque

Plaque

This commemorative plaque was made in the 16th century for the Benin Royal Palace (in modern-day Nigeria), where it was one of many similar plaques attached to wooden support pillars in the palace courtyard. The plaques recounted military victories and ceremonial life in the Palace. The military leader at the center of this plaque holds an eben (ceremonial sword) used in a festival to honor Ogun, the god of iron and war.