The Sainsbury African Galleries and the Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery
Firstly, it is necessary to mention that Galleries in the British Museums involving the Sainsbury African Galleries and the Cabinet of Curiosities are of great interest not only for arts historians, bit also for every art lovers as the galleries represent masterpieces with each displaying its own politics, culture and society. Each peace of art has its history preserved and secured by both galleries. Therefore the galleries are the keepers of the history for the present and future generations. The galleries are unique as they are the only possible way for visitors to get acquainted with famous works. That is why the aim of the paper is to provide a critical review of two famous galleries in British Museum – the Sainsbury African Galleries and the Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery as they have the strongest impact on visitors. Crook 1972
The first the Sainsbury African Gallery is trying to make people acquainted with African collection returned to the British Museum after being housed for nearly thirty years in the Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens. The installations the Sainsbury African Gallery are presented in a highly aesthetic way with white walls, open displays, enormous but very light cases, a steel tree of pots and a clear plastic cliff.
The gallery nowadays is offering 850 square meters of exhibition rooms dedicated to the history of African continent presenting in such a way new ideas about cultural diversity for visitors. It is mentioned that the African gallery is the major step in the phased creation of the new ethnography space. The permanent exhibition has been firstly open since March, 2001. that step was very important for the whole British Museum community, because the African Gallery not only re-contextualizes African material “moving it from a self-contained ethnographic institution into one that features major collections from the classical world”, the Gallery makes British museum less Western focused and more global both in scope and vision as the problem of cultural diversity is very important for modern world.(Encyclopedia)
Apparently there are lots of possible ways how to structure the African exhibition. It is interesting that the space in the gallery has its demands. It means that the galleries can be entered at three different points: any single and linear narrative is excluded and every section in African exhibition has to work separately on its own terms. Nevertheless, most visitors prefer to enter the gallery from the main entrance. At the first sight visitors encounter a group of brand-new fantasy coffins from Ghana and then they are faced with huge banners symbolizing the hard work of artist John Muafangejo from Namibia.
The purpose of African works of art is to send the message that Africa is a place not simply where traditions are lost but where traditions are constantly invented and reinvented. If to “sink” into exhibition the firstly it is possibly to see the swelling and organic form of a ceramic vessel by Magdalene Odundo. African Gallery exhibits also the works of other artists: a massive welded-metal figure by Sokari Douglas Camp, a decorated drum by Nja Mahdaoui, an elegant ceramic column made by Tunisian artist Khaled Ben Slimane and a pair of characteristically bold linocuts by John Muafangejo. (Campbell 2004)
The next moment to mention is that African art has many objects which are not familiar to African continent. Some works were created in the most remote parts of the African continent, although they are not thought of being African by some scholars. Other works were not even created in the continent. In such a way the Sainsbury African Gallery question visitors what they understand to be African art and Africa in the globalizing world of the 21st century. Therefore the Gallery highlights the continent’s extraordinary diversity such as geographical, cultural, ethnic, and artistic. The African art has immense impact on the whole world. For example, the works of Magdalene Odundo “provides more than a visual contrast to that of Chant Avedissian”. It is known that her techniques are coiling and burnishing rather than wheel-turning and glazing. (Hudson 2002)
Like other artists mentioned above, Odundo and Avedissian could be described as African artists, although it is possible to suggest that their multiple identities may, on occasion, make such a label unnecessary or even restrictive. The transition from the Contemporary section is made easier by exhibiting Sokari Douglas Camp’s Big Masquerade with Boat and Household on His Head. This art work is pointing the way to the thought-provoking presentation of Kalabari masquerade displaying masks that arouse usually great interest among visitors. It is necessary to feature the very same hippo mask in an ethnographic installation which is considered to be an actual multimedia performance and a contemporary artwork interpretation.(Crook 1972)
The last exhibition section is textile section providing significance of patterning on African cloth – “those designs intended to protect the wearer from the Evil Eye”. The African Gallery exhibits rather interesting cloth and costume associated with life-cycle ceremonies such as initiation, marriage, and funerals. Finally the textile section includes textiles which communicate details of the owner’s status, beliefs, rank and other affiliations. The extremely significant part in Benin art is portrayal of animals. Also the symbols of power and prestige are fixed in the woodcarving section providing visitors with palace doors, stools, back rests, “chair of power”.
In conclusion to the first section it is necessary to say that visitors are strongly affected by the African Gallery as they appeared to be in the new unknown world full of unexpected turns and moments. And the African Gallery is trying to intensify the African image in the global society. (Hudson 2002)
The second Cabinet of Curiosity is also attracting attention of international visitors as it contains extraordinary art works aimed at children attention. Cabinet of Curiosities complements the British Museum’ Education Room. The Cabinet of Curiosity was firstly opened in British Museum in 1752. The Gallery contains works representing cultural and society differences in different epochs. (Bezin 1967)
Cabinet of curiosities is a gallery of interactive exhibits that were firstly developed for children of 3-12 years of age. The Gallery is trying to provide children with opportunity to explore different aspects of art works, the working process of the artists. They can examine the objects and learn something new from them. Children would also find out how and why people like collecting. It is apparent that little visitors are strongly affected by the Gallery as they open a new interesting world of art; they develop their intelligence and creative thinking as well. Therefore the Gallery arouses interest among publicity. (Simmons 1997)
It is necessary to point out what goes in the Cabinet of Curiosities. The most interesting exhibits are marbles, tomb robbings and relics involving the Tutenkhamen mummy and different sorts of goodies belonged to Indiana Jones, for example, such as porcelain and fine china. The exhibition also presents Chinese screens and other objects of art which were many thousand years ago traded through the well-known silk routes.
Nevertheless the particular subject of interest in the Cabinet was nature – stuffed, collected and arranged in aristocratic manner. For example, pressed flowers and birds “perched” with Chinese silk which were painted backdrops. Nowadays the Cabinet of Curiosities is famous for “monsters” preserved in spirits, an un-burnt brick from the Tower of Babylon and a landscape painted on a spider’s web. Also in the late 17th century cabinet was complemented by a “genuine werewolf. (Robbin 2003)
The British Museum nowadays is opened to international visitors interested in the history not only of African continent, but also in the history of the cultures. The Museum’s Galleries are representing a really cultural diversity for visitors allowing them to be involved in one or another unique culture. What is more important is the Museum provides interesting information also for small visitors as it is the first stage of their intelligence development.
Bezin, Germin. The Museum Age. Brussels: Desser, 1967.
Campbell, Peter. At the British Museum. Available at http://www.lrb.co.uk, 22 January, 2004.
Crook, Mordaunt. The British Museum. London: Allen Lane, 1972.
Encyclopedia: British Museum. Available at http://www.infoplease.com, 2006.
Hagen. H. The History of the Origin and Development of Museums, Illustrated Magazine of Natural History, 10 (1987).
Hudson, S. British Museum Galleries. A Social History of Museums, 2, 4 (2002).
Robbin, Libby. Museums, Nature and Nation. Australian Historical Studies, 2003.
Simmons, Jan. Out Come the Freaks. Available at http://www.blather.net, 1997.