Paper short abstract:
This paper discusses a collection of African sculpture purchased from European art galleries in the 1960s. Records show how these purchases seem aimed at distorting the profile and significance of the existing African collections, mainly from the early colonial period, at the museum.
Paper long abstract:
The paper concerns a collection of West African sculpture from Francophone countries purchased for the Liverpool Museum in the 1960s, as well as a series of memos relating to the purchases addressed to Mr Hume, the Director of the Liverpool Museum, from the Curator of the Ethnology Department, Richard Hutchings. All the memos were written between 1965 and 1968 and were evidently part of the requirement for the Museum's governing body to approve new acquisitions for the Ethnology Department. The Museum was bombed and severely damaged in 1941 and about 24 years later was given a War Damage Fund by the government in order to help rebuild the collections. A large portion of the fund was spent on Papua New Guinean and on Francophone West African and Central African pieces purchased from dealers in London, Paris and the Netherlands and at Sotheby's auctions in London.
In this paper I focus on the historical discourses that can be said to have shaped Hutchings' perception and understanding of 'African art' and how they helped determined his acquisitions policy. I show how a work of 'African art' is created through a process of denial or forgetting of the original significances of the object in order to confer upon it new, supposedly universal, aesthetic values based on a Western view of art. I go on to look at the way understanding distorted his reading of the existing African collections of the museum, whose strengths lie in their holdings from coastal western Africa and strongly reflect Liverpool's longstanding links with this strip of the continent and its prominent role as Britain's second most important gateway to the Empire. Finally, I draw some conclusions about wider issues at play behind Hutchings' project.
Museums, anthropology and the representation of the colonial past