The History of Weapons Collections and Display in the UK


Weapons in Museums, Galleries and Literature: extract

A 19th century weapons collection: extract


Extract from C. Spring's African Arms and Armour, 1993

Introduction: Weapons in Museums, Galleries and in Literature

(pp 12 - 14; references given by Spring can be found in the bibliography)

Weapons cannot on their own be used to explain the complexities of and the reasons for conflict. Nonetheless, it is pertinent to note that anthropologists have only recently begun to be forthcoming on the subject of warfare. As Hallpike (1973) bluntly puts it, warfare is a 'form of behaviour which particularly horrifies intellectuals'. If, as Fukui and Turton (1979) suggest, those intellectuals happen to be anthropologists, their aversion may be compounded by the fact that 'warfare is one of those rare topics of anthropological research, the overwhelming practical significance of which is immediately apparent to the non-anthropologist'.

In Africa, the colonial authorities had, to some extent, stamped out or at least suppressed warfare by the time most of the classic ethnographies came to be written. Perhaps the connivance, unwittingly or not, of some early twentieth-century anthropologists in this pacification process may have made the discussion of warfare somewhat distasteful to their immediate successors. As Hallpike points out, such attempts as there were unsuccessfully tried to explain away the sheer irrationality of certain aspects of warfare by forcing each of the large variety of cases to confirm to a simple, restrictive, functionalist model. More recently changes in anthropological theory have produced some stimulating work, for example the collection of essays edited by Fukui and Turton in 1979, but in general the study of traditional warfare in Africa has not received the attention it deserves.

The dissemination of information about African weaponry and the display of the objects themselves is the province of the museum curator. In this context Turney-High's Primitive Warfare of 1949 presented an almost apocalyptic vision of 'hundreds of museum cases housing weapons from all over the world, catalogued, marked with accession numbers and uncomprehended'. The situation has improved a little since then, though to be confronted with a collection of unclassified weaponry is still many a museum curator's idea of living hell.

Exhibitions with catch-all titles like 'African metalwork' have included weaponry, but so far as I know no major exhibition has previously been mounted exclusively on the subject of African arms and armour. Even in those exhibitions where a good deal of weaponry, and other items of material culture are displayed, the accompanying catalogues almost exclusively illustrate the customary selection of sculptural forms which have become accepted as the epitome of African art. A few exhibitions, notably 'African Furniture and Household Objects' (American Federation of Arts 1980) have deliberately set out to provide an antidote to this perspective, suggesting that so-called utilitarian objects 'may indeed reveal the breadth and range of the aesthetic life of traditional Africa with greater accuracy than the limited formulations which currently serve in the West as a basis for most studies in African art' (Sieber 1980). Yet in his accompanying catalogue Roy Sieber, while taking time to explain the absence of certain other categories of object from the exhibition, simply states that 'weapons of war and the equipment of the hunter have been omitted'. Other subsequent exhibitions which attempted a similar broadening of the perspective on African material culture also omitted arms and armour.

In recent years the picture of African material culture which museums present has become considerably less distorted, thanks largely to exhibitions such as those mentioned above and to serious studies and exhibitions related, for example, to textiles and to pottery. However, the display and analysis of arms and armour still remains the subject of long-standing taboos. This prejudice has its roots in a complex sequence of events which helped to shape the Western notion of African culture and began indirectly with the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species in 1858. This was followed by the emergence of social anthropology as a scientifically respectable discipline, a process which was concurrent with late nineteenth century European colonisation, in particular the 'scramble for Africa'. The final element was the appearance in the early years of the twentieth century of an avant-garde of young artists in Europe eager to break with tradition and to seek new sources of inspiration, which in part they found in the art of Oceania and Africa.

The process of colonialism suddenly made available a large number of African manufactured objects. The European avant-garde naturally seized upon the sculptural tradition as representative of African 'art', though as has often been pointed out, no indigenous African language contain a word or even a group of words which are equivalent to our Western concept of art. By contrast, weapons were largely adopted by academics as being the most suitable artefact to demonstrate theories encapsulated in a paper entitled 'The Evolution of Culture' by A.H.L.F. Pitt Rivers which was published in 1875 and was strongly influenced by Darwinian theories. In African ethnography these theories resulted in various spurious hypotheses which related the migration of peoples to the 'evolution' of their weaponry. Notably the musele and onzil, so-called bird-headed knives of the Kota and Fang of Gabon were thought to have evolved from particular types of throwing knife used by peoples living far to the east, and that therefore the peoples shared a common origin.

Midway through the twentieth century, it began to be recognised that the term 'primitive art' was a misnomer. The masks and wood sculpture which, at the beginning of the century, avant-garde artists had thought to express the unfettered creativity of people living in a primal state were now seen to be, in many cases, the products of long and conservative artistic traditions. Artefacts which only a few years before had been perceived simply as curios were re-contextualised as high art. The prices fetched in the salerooms for these particular types of objects rose rapidly, and the parameters of what seemed to constitute African art were rapidly established. Museum curators, instead of presenting a more balanced picture of African material culture, tended to conform to this selective view by exhibiting a large preponderance of the same type of material. The artefacts were African, but the selection process and the apportioning of merit were very much governed by a Western aesthetic.

Other areas of African material culture had little part to play in this highly ethnocentric picture. Weaponry in particular was irrevocably linked to the by then outmoded, typological method of display for which the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford had become famous, and to the equally outmoded and rightly condemned notions of cultural evolutionism which it had fostered. Museum curators are still apprehensive about the idea of displaying African weapons for fear of the negative connotations of 'savagery' which might be evoked.

The scholarly approach to the study of African weaponry was similarly impoverished, being confined to a handful of meticulous studies, such as that of Thomas in 1925, concentrating on the form and function of particular types of weapon, their diffusion from theoretical places of origin and their evolution from hypothetical models. Such studies were always likely to be misleading, not least because the widespread dispersal of weapons through long distance trade and warfare ensured that the determination of an accurate provenance for many types of weapon was almost impossible. More recently, certain authors (Fischer [and Zirngibl] 1978, and Zirngibl 1983) virtually abandoned attempts at accurate classification and analysis and simply used fine colour photographs to portray African weapons as individual works of art in their own right. Laudable as such an approach might be in contradicting the inbred western notion of a work of art as necessarily a non-utilitarian object, it is debatable whether it significantly deepens our understanding of the weapons themselves.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the attention of the commercial market during the 1980s rather than of museum curators and anthropologists, which led to a revival of interest in African arms and armour. The subject represented a rich, largely untapped seam of material, culture ripe for exploitation. In New York, gallery exhibitions of weaponry were mounted with misleading titles such as 'Abstraction in African Art'; eager and totally inappropriate comparisons were drawn between Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined tea cup, Claes Oldenburg's soft typewriter and Nkutshu currency blades from Zaire (Ward 1988). In London one Cork Street gallery obtained a number of circular hippopotamus hide shields from Ethiopia, polished them to shine like new pennies and arranged them on a pure white wall in a way which was obviously intended to suggest some sort of Minimalist assemblage.

In other words African weapons were being hyped by wringing out every last drop of comparison with the Western avant-garde. If African masks and wood sculpture could be mentioned in the same breath as the work of the Cubists and the Fauves, non-figurative objects such as arms and armour could not escape spurious comparison with Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists and even Pop artists.

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