The African Galleries

Originally Published in 1932

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THE formal opening of the galleries of the African Section of the Museum will take place on the afternoon of December eighth. Inasmuch as the April issue of the Bulletin was devoted to a brief survey of the Museum’s collections in this field, it is not necessary here to discuss in detail the contents of the new halls. It seems, nevertheless, desirable again to draw to the attention of the members of the Museum and of the public certain features in the manner of installation which may not perhaps be immediately apparent. In the first place, it is well to mention that the collections on display represent only a fraction of the African material in the possession of the Museum: in the case of virtually every ethnological group there is a considerable body of study material in storage. It is increasingly appreciated that to cram all the possessions of a museum into display galleries defeats the fundamental purpose of exhibiting them at all, which is to instruct or to give pleasure to the museum visitor. The objects placed on exhibition in the African Section, therefore, are the results of a fairly rigorous selection, and all have been chosen that they may illustrate as fully as possible the material culture of the various tribes, with those objects that mark artistic achievement particularly emphasized. In addition, every effort has been made so to display this carefully selected material that it may, on the one hand, content the seeker after scientific knowledge and, on the other, interest and please the many visitors who are not at all concerned with ethnological problems, yet are receptive to the aesthetic qualities of negro art.

Part of the African sculpture gallery showing carved elephant tusks and bronze busts
Plate I — The North Gallery of African Sculpture

The long gallery, which is the first to be entered, contains chiefly the collections from tribal groups of Eastern and Central Africa, and these are arranged to illustrate roughly the cultural attainments of the various tribes, from the most primitive to the more advanced. Because many of the objects are, inevitably, strange and outlandish to those who have no familiarity with African ethnology, the exhibits have been comprehensively labelled in the hope that the interest, even of the most casual visitor, will thus be increased.

In the somewhat smaller hall to the north are concentrated those objects that come chiefly from the West Coast tribes and those inhabiting the basin of the Congo and its tributaries. It so happens that these peoples are, and apparently have long been, more given to expressing their religious feelings by means of sculpture than those of East Africa. The various images and masks, icons and fetishes play a fundamentally important part in their life. It is, therefore, proper that these should be brought particularly to the fore as illustrations of the foremost accomplishments of these people; the fact that, quite possibly, artistic excellence was not the motive that inspired the production of any one of them does not diminish their cultural importance, and if western eyes find a strange beauty-unsophisticated but not necessarily wholly primitive-in the majority of those displayed, no harm can come from making every effort to encourage such appreciation of their innate qualities. In the installation of this hall, therefore, every effort has been made to heighten the inherent artistic quality of the objects. In certain instances it was found that the sculpture gained immensely by being massed, and this dictated the installation of the large group of Ivory Coast figures at the east end of the hall; in other cases it was discovered that simple but effective groupings of figures enhanced interest in the individual pieces; in the case of masks, an effort has been made to remove these from the category of mere museum specimens by giving them a certain dramatic grace, through displaying them upon carved wood pedestals roughly suggestive of human figures. In the design of these pedestals the Museum is greatly indebted to the talent and sensitive understanding of the problem of Mrs. Henry U. Hall, after whose designs they are fashioned.

Only time can show whether these somewhat revolutionary methods of installing ethnological material may be successful. The University Museum is essentially a research institution concerned with gathering facts about the peoples of the earth, living and dead. But so long as it displays any collections at all for the edification and education of the public, it is its duty to see that these objects are exhibited in as effective a manner as possible.

Cite This Article

"The African Galleries." Museum Bulletin IV, no. 1 (December, 1932): 3-5. Accessed July 12, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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