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I remember going on joyful killing sprees with my brother on our visits to Calcutta in the seventies. The nightly ritual of eradicating mosquitoes from inside the net was an exotic adventure to us. Clapping mosquitoes to death was just challenging enough to be a exciting. The simple goal was to get every last one. Stalking them within the cube of the net required poise, patience, keen eyes and quick reflexes. The sense of achievement was clearly painted on our palms in our own blood. And it required lots of leaping about on pillows and mattresses.

Olivia Judson wouldn’t waste so much energy. She coolly describes her idea for the ultimate swat.

Why not? Human beings have rendered the smallpox virus pretty much extinct. And look how much happier we are than we have ever been. Why shouldn’t we conquer the next great hindrance to our untrammelled multiplication across the face of the earth?

Anyway, here’s my next object. A cupboard full of stuff that no-one’s had the time or resources to do much with in the last hundred odd years…

Africa Unlocated

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Sherri permalink
    01/07/2009 4:03 am

    Ansuman, you are a kidnapper, demanding beauty or argument as ransom for these poor objects. Museums are like tombs, for veneration of objects that are no longer living. How do we choose which dead to preserve? Or maybe the museum is their afterlife.

  2. Sherri permalink
    01/07/2009 4:53 am

    Wouldn’t it be gratuitous to destroy these objects since they’re going to decay anyway?

  3. arnab permalink
    01/07/2009 5:00 am

    Hello there, Just logging on whilst writing…have spent the weekend amongst 1800 year old cedar trees, some of the oldest trees in the world and a cathedral in the temperate rainforest. I was not aware of the details of hermitage till I hit your blog. I like the idea; taxonomy, like all structures require disruption in order to facilitate evolution. And although we may be a thriving eco-system, our communities are not and strive asymptotically for equilibrium. The idea of dynamic pruning, ordered work rather than disordered heat….I look forward to seeing what objects you pull out…
    take care raja.
    PS: was in Linz earlier this year for a conference, and ended up spending a few evenings with the curator of ars electronica.
    PPS: look forward to seeing you all soon. Give my love and hellos to mashi/mesho, barley, oshin&bela. You should come over….

  4. 01/07/2009 6:31 am

    while feeble attempts at mosquitocide in my environment aren’t causing me to lose sleep at night 🙂 I am much more intrigued by your desire to break things.

    A devotee of Shiva, no doubt 🙂 In Hinduism, we consider all matter to be a mirage — maya — and hence, even though we have a Creator-Maintainer-Destroyer divine trinity, we tend far more to worship the destroyer. I am told that at Pushkar is a very rare temple to Brahma, the god of creation, while temples to incarnations of Shiva, the destroyer, are found at every street corner.

    So break away, Ansuman, though I doubt they will actually let you break anything 🙂


  5. Cosi (feeling curious) permalink
    01/07/2009 10:14 am

    a cabinet full of stuff?
    a treasure trove??
    an alladin’s cave???
    oh how i wish i could explore it!

    is it all catalogued?
    do we even know what you would be chucking out?
    if not, let me at least make a record of the items inside before destruction!

    are you on day 4?
    how is the happy curve treating you?

    thoughts with you

  6. Stephen Welsh permalink
    01/07/2009 11:07 am

    Some of the African objects in the museum’s collection have lost the information about where they came from and who found them. This means they are unprovenanced. The information has been lost either in the museum or before it even came here. Such objects can remain anonymous until eventually identified.

    Stephen Welsh,
    Curator of Living Cultures
    The Mancheste Museum

  7. 01/07/2009 11:38 am

    अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवं रत्वीजम |
    होतारं रत्नधातमम ||
    अग्निः पूर्वेभिर्र्षिभिरीड्यो नूतनैरुत |
    स देवानेह वक्षति ||
    अग्निना रयिमश्नवत पोषमेव दिवे-दिवे |
    यशसं वीरवत्तमम ||
    अग्ने यं यज्ञमध्वरं विश्वतः परिभूरसि |
    स इद्देवेषु गछति ||
    अग्निर्होता कविक्रतुः सत्यश्चित्रश्रवस्तमः |
    देवो देवेभिरा गमत ||
    यदङग दाशुषे तवमग्ने भद्रं करिष्यसि |
    तवेत तत सत्यमङगिरः ||
    उप तवाग्ने दिवे-दिवे दोषावस्तर्धिया वयम |
    नमो भरन्त एमसि ||
    राजन्तमध्वराणां गोपां रतस्य दीदिविम |
    वर्धमानंस्वे दमे ||
    स नः पितेव सूनवे.अग्ने सूपायनो भव |
    सचस्वा नः सवस्तये ||

  8. arvind permalink
    01/07/2009 5:34 pm

    There is a gigantic science exhibition currently on in Bangalore; it is being supervised by the development authority. It involves bringing down and uprooting hundreds if not thousands of trees and paving up the emptied-out space, in order to demonstrate how climate change can be witnessed in real time. We take our children to the multiple sites of this audacious project, and they can feel the temperatures rise and the precipitation drop. I think (and this part is not scientific) that this is driving all the mosquito population to seek cover in the remaining few patches of bush or tree that are at hand. And as a result, we have droves of them banging our doors and windows down every evening. We have fortified our homes with electric gizmos and mechanical meshes, and yet they persist on rushing on towards certain death. Of course, they do manage to bring a few of us down, armed with not only the usual malarial parasite but also dengue’s vicious new mutations that almost got cast in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

  9. 01/07/2009 7:15 pm

    That cabinet provides a voyage of imagined discovery, anonymous objects allow for a narrative much greater than their true origin.

    I have the time to organise that cabinet, although it wouldn’t be conventionally catagorised I would have a new sense of understanding as well as gaining a sense of acheivement even from a seemingly meaningless task.

  10. Sucheta Rose permalink
    01/07/2009 10:20 pm

    Just came across your blog and got drawn in………wondering what you will pull out next and as time goes the the order in which you chose the objects will tell us more about you then the objects themselves. You are the object that will survive overall out of this project whether anyone wishes to preserve you or not…does that sound cold? sorry! What i mean is that the objects are at the end of the day just that, at the mercy of you, us! whether they exist or not now is of no consequence, it is what they once were that holds the meaning. Objects, collections are a glance at the past confirmation of the present and an insight into the future of this world but not beyond.

  11. alex permalink
    02/07/2009 9:16 am

    Africa unlocated? No, Africa well and truly located and looted ….. ok it may not be exceptional or valuable ‘stuff’ but to me this cupboard symbolises our greedy Western way of thinking – I want it so I’ll have it – and then shove it in a cupboard to never regard it again. Does that symbolism justify our keeping it for another hundred years?

  12. 02/07/2009 2:14 pm

    The cupboard labelled ‘AFRICA UNLOCATED’ is very useful for putting artefacts from Africa of unknown provenance. During my time as Keeper of Ethnology at Manchester Museum from 1982-2003, I occosianally showed visiting Africans and Africanists some of the items in this cupboard. So it is not true to say that the contents of this cupboard have not been looked at for 100 years.

    • 02/07/2009 2:41 pm

      My apologies, George, if I misrepresented the facts. What I said was that not much had been done with them. But I may well be wrong.

      Is it not true to say, however, that there are many objects in the Ethnology stores that have not been looked at for years?

      So, if I understand you correctly the ‘Africa- Unlocated’ cupboard is a kind of temporary holding bay?
      Well then, I would like to publicly invite Africans and Africanists to come forward and shed light on it. Where are you. Could anyone reading this please contact Africans or Africanist you know who might be interested. Expert or non-expert. Otherwise who are we holding it for?

      And how did it get into this cupboard. Who brought and left it? Who lost it and who then found it again? Perhaps there are mistakes. I found a drum in the stores kept on an African shelf which was identical in almost every respect to a drum I’d bought from a tourist shop in Burma.

      My interest is in how opinion, conjecture and preference become authoritative when bolstered by the citadel of a Public Institution. A grand Museum might seem beyond question but I want to have an open transparent debate about what is there, who put it there, who decides to keep it there, and to what ends.

      Thanks for joining that debate George. Do you think there is a case to be made for keeping these objects in a vault in Manchester for occasional visitors. Who gains by this? How best might we develop our knowledge of these objects?

  13. 03/07/2009 5:08 pm

    Thank you very much for your prompt reply. I am not surprised that you thought the ‘Africa Unlocated’ had not been used for some time, though not for 100 years!

    Kathleen Hunt, then Assistant Keeper of Ethnology, originally put these ‘Africa Unlocated’ items in the 1970s in that cupboard, when she was sorting out the new storage for the Ethnology collections, when they were moved from the main Museum basement (underneath the present Discovery Centre and where Education now is) to the basement of what was then Coupland 1 (now the Rutherford Building). The reason she put ‘Africa Unlocated’ was that the objects had lost their labels saying which part of Africa they came from. As you may gather, museums like Manchester Museum have only enough display space to show a very small part of their collections. I think some of the ‘Africa Unlocated’ artefacts have been lent to the Museum’s Education Department, which I think uses them for handling. Also I think some may have been displayed in temporary exhibitions or used in research by students.

    Also Manchester Museum has ‘Collective Conversations’, in which Africans and other indigenous peoples comment on an object or series of objects in the presence of an appropriate Curator. This is then put on a video. When you have completed your 40 days, about 7 of the videos of these ‘Collective Conversations’ can be seen at the entrance of the Living Cultures gallery on the left hand side as you leave the Manchester gallery. This is one way the Manchester Museum is trying to involve Africans in identyfing its African collections. A lady called Gurdeep ……… (sorry I cannot remember her surname) is in charge of ‘Collective Conversations’ and there is a web link on the Manchester Museum website but I cannot remember what it is.

    Also some museums open up some of their stores to visitors but I don’t think Manchester Museum has done that.

    I wish you well on your spell as a hermit and I hope you have not been too hot. I am writing this comment from my house in Bolton.

  14. 04/07/2009 3:55 pm

    Dear George,

    Thanks for your concern but no, I haven’t been too hot even though none of my windows opens. It’s a bit like a cave in this stone building, always a bit cooler than the rest of the world.

    I have some questions for you and anyone else who may be able to answer. They’re from mm who posed them on the webcam page. I’m just relaying them here.

    ‘– I’m trying to find out more information – more details on the contents of ‘unprovenanced – Africa’ cupboard we have talked about – this being one of you objects under question – you asked me to make contact with some people who may be interested in engaging with it – and I want to go and see a friend who may have some words of advice – is there anyone who you could direct me to – with info on the contents – what the contents is – where it has come from – who collected it – when it was collected – ‘(sic)

    As I understand it the objects are in this cupboard precisely because we don’t have any information on them, though I suppose we must have some.

    I’m intrigued by who gets to comment on, or handle these objects or use them in their ‘research’.
    I am familiar with the ‘Collective Conversations’ initiative. Those who aren’t may find out more here
    Or they can contact Gurdeep Thiara directly here:
    The Youtube channel is definitely worth checking out.

    My intention with this hermit project is not to lock myself away, or have a quiet holiday, but to widen out that ‘collective conversation’ even more, opening it up to newer voices. I applaud the Manchester Museum’s attempt to open its dusty cupboards and let in real live people. This is definitely a step in the right direction. But I want to push even further for a dissolution of the boundaries between expert gate-keepers and general public. I want to encourage both sides to take steps towards one another.

    I have chosen to prod the discussion into a new light by proposing to do away with this whole cupboard. Is it important to anyone? Does anyone care enough to advocate for it? Many people may think it should stay there just because it has always been there. But it hasn’t always been there. These things were collected under particular circumstances, the ethics of which may now come under question.

    Other people may have a vague notion that something might be worth keeping or that other people will care for things, but unless well-meaning fuzziness becomes active involvement things decay, information is lost. And when it does, when we do get into the specific details, the stories reveal themselves. Then interest burgeons. Decay is reversed to become creativity.

    So what exactly is in this cupboard? I’m afraid I doubt that it has been well used or cared for. Otherwise how did the labels get lost in the first place?

    Alex made the comment above that ‘this cupboard symbolises our greedy Western way of thinking – I want it so I’ll have it – and then shove it in a cupboard to never regard it again.’ Is that fair?

  15. 04/07/2009 4:19 pm

    Thank you for your reply. I am glad to hear you not too hot. The only person who can give you a list of what is in the ‘Africa Unlocated’ storage cupboard is Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures. Stephen has already commented on your initial comment on ‘Africa Unlocated’. All the material in ‘Africa Unlocated’ should be listed under ‘Africa Unlocated’ or something similar in the main Anthropology card index, but it will probably take Stephen quite a long time to list it, unless it is on the computer catalogue.

  16. 04/07/2009 4:49 pm

    Yes, I have spoken to Stephen. I know he’s away at the moment, so I’m looking forward to hearing his comments on his return.
    He may well be able to look through the card index. The trouble is that this stuff does take a long time and Stephen also has lots of other things to do. In fact I think my questions over the last few months have already taken up lots of his time.
    My impression of many of the sincere and dedicated curators in museums everywhere is that they are often drowning in a tidal wave of stuff. It is impossible to keep up with all the work of conservation, storage, research, exhibition, outreach, etc. Do we, as a society, value this role enough to support it to a reasonable degree?
    My question is quite stark. Either we value it or we don’t. Which is it?

  17. 04/07/2009 8:58 pm

    Do we only value things if they have been labeled?

  18. 05/07/2009 1:36 pm

    Museums are educational institutions. During my 30+ years in museums in Brighton and Manchester curating ethnographical collections in these 2 museums, the students who are most intterested are art students, who are mainly interested in the designs of artefacts but also want to know about the background. Doing a museum catalogue is very time consuming, especially if photos are included. I think you have unrealistic expectations in wanting a catalogue of ‘Africa Unlocated’ straight away. Also I found Africans only tend to know about the part of Africa from which they come. In October 2001 I invited members of the Community Relations Panel to view and comment on artefacts I had selected for display in the Living Cultures gallery. A Yoruba lady, who worked for Manchester University, provided some useful information about Gelede masquerades, Nigerian pottery and palm wine making, but she was, naturally, unable to comment on the other African objects. The accumulation of knowledge is a slow process as I am sure you will appreciate.

  19. 05/07/2009 8:50 pm

    I am not asking for a catalogue ‘straight away’. I am asking what it means that a cupboard of assorted bric-a-brac can sit in a store room for at least 30 years. You said it was in the seventies that Kathleen Hunt put things in that cupboard. Who knows how long they had lain uncared-for before that? Some of the objects may be so-called ‘sacred’ relics requiring nurturing. Others may be just junk collected by some over-enthusiastic ‘explorer’ and dumped here. Who knows?

    And you say even an authentic bona-fide African person is unable to comment on objects not from her part of Africa. How confidently, then, and on what basis has the museum lumped them all together? Africa is a vast continent. What kind of mind-set decides to treat it as a single entity? Is this the legacy of Victorian Imperialism? Has Ethnography yet to grow beyond that?

    I suggest that it’s high time the contents of that cupboard were disposed of. I kicked this conversation off with the deliberately emotive word ‘destroy’. In truth I don’t have to lift a finger. If something is unappreciated the laws of entropy ensure that is eventually destroyed anyway. It becomes unknown, un-located for ever.

    The various African peoples whose crafts and cultures are lost in the dark continent of this cupboard might be glad to be re-acquainted with their heritage. Or their descendants might be surprised at their inheritance. Before another 30 or 40 or a hundred years passes could these objects not be offered for disposal so that they can be better used elsewhere?

    And does disposal have to mean circulation amongst the same closed cabal of institutions? In the age of the internet cannot a much wider space open up?

    Forgive me if I’m unjustified in my comments. I’m no Ethnographer or Museologist. I’m just a member of the general public. Through this project I am trying to provoke any expert or passionate person anywhere to make their case on a public platform. My hope is that the museum and its objects might become actively cherished as part of the public good, as a truly educational institution.

    Personally, as a member of the public, I had no idea before I started this project that there were vast stores of discarded and forgotten objects lying in vaults. Some of which looked like they’d been lifted from my grandmother’s Bengal village kitchen. I was shocked by the incongruity of this powerful institution and the lived context of some of the objects I saw. This incongruity was the emotional shock of the colonized suddenly being reminded of the real relations of power.

    I believe the incongruity needs to be exposed, explained and justified. It needs to be cleared up. That which is unconscious and forgotten in society exerts a more pernicious influence than that which is open and transparent.

    As a member of the public, I’ll ask again, if you don’t know you’ve got it, does it matter if it goes?
    My place as an artist is merely to frame the question. But if no-one else out there cares then let’s just forget about it.

  20. Gurdeep Thiara Curator of Community Engagement permalink
    06/07/2009 12:00 pm

    Museums stores are fascinating places which is why I’m particularly intrested in working with people to go visit them and see what’s there and talk to us, each other about what they find. This is the main focus of Collective Conversations.
    Who gets to speak or ‘tell the story’ about an object, I think is an important question for a Museum, and when is the story complete…if ever?

  21. 06/07/2009 5:26 pm

    I apolologise unreservedly for misinterpreting your request for a catalogue straight away. This morning I emailed Stephen to ask if he had a volunteer to do a catalogue for you. In my last comment I wrote Community Relations Panel when it should be Community Advisory Panel (CAP). A useful exercise would be for the African members of the CAP to look through all the contents of ‘Africa Unlocated’ to see if they can identify any of the artefacts. Gurdeep and Stephen will be able to arrange this.

    When I said, in my experience, Africans usually are familiar with their own culture, it was just based on my own memories and not in any way meant to be condascending. One of my most rewarding experiences was going through our Tanzanian collection with an ethnographer from the National Museum of Tanzania in Dar-es-Salaam. African Art is mainly a white person’s invention, but I have one book on West African Art written by a Ghanian.

    The contents of ‘Africa Unlocated’ have been looked at my me during my employment at the Manchester Museum but as I am an Andeanist, I have been unable to securely identify anything. So the contents of Africa Unlocated have been looked at since Kathleen Hunt put them there. Also they have been kept safe for future generations.

  22. 08/07/2009 1:02 pm

    Malcolm, thank you for repairing this blog after my difficulties with it on Monday afternoon.

    I imagine Kathleen Hunt would have noted the museum accession numbers on the unprovenaced items and looked them up in the museum accession register and found they came from Africa, but the region was not given. Alternatively she may have compared the provenanced African items with the unknown similar ones and concluded that they came from somewhere in Africa. When I looked at the contents of ‘Africa Unlocated’, all the items looked African and there was quite a lot of beadwork, which looked similar to South African beadwork.

    One way to get the contents of ‘Africa Unlocated’ more widely known would be to put details and photos on the world wide web. This would help with identifying the objects in this store cupboard. Anita Herle has done this with the Northwest Coast items which are in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to inform the First Nations of British Columbia what is held by the Cambridge Museum.

    Getting artefacts identified can take some time. There is an Indian figure showing a lady on display in the Manchester gallery at Manchester Museum, which Stephen and I have just managed to identify as probably coming from Rajastan. To do this I showed some photos of this figure to a Professor of Indian Art at Columbia University, New York, who came to our house in Bolton. Stephen sent photos to an Indian Folk Art specialist in India. This process took several months and needed outside specialists, who were both of Indian ancestry. I had originally tried to find out something about this figure in about 1982 but had not succeeded. So it took some 30 years to identify an Indian figure.

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