Nigerian deity statuettes at The Collection, Lincoln.
By Emma Fox, History, Level 3
Many objects that are displayed in Britain’s museums today were obtained during the colonial period. Some were purchased or gifted from colonised peoples, however some have violent and coercive collecting histories. Here in Lincoln, The Collection holds ‘4 wooden household Gods’ from the Ofante Area of Nigeria. At the time, the museum existed as the City and County Museum to which the four figures were donated by Major W. G. Cragg in 1937. In a letter, also kept by the museum, Cragg told the story of how they came to be in his possession:
I have here 4 wooden household Gods (not in a very good state of preservation) which I obtained from a small village in the Ofante Area of the Munshi Province of Northern Nigeria […]
In 1928 this area revolted, refused to pay their taxes, beseiged [sic] the District Head in his Headquarter Town and sent insulting messages to myself, saying amongst other things that if I came they would kill me. I was at that time the District Officer in charge of that Division of the Munshi Province.
I went down with armed Police and after a slight skirmish during which some of them were unfortunately killed, most of the inhabitants of this particular area fled across the Southern border, their goods and chattels being seized and sold to pay their just dues.
Major W. G Cragg, 1937
A further document is kept with the figures and letter and appears to be a draft for a potential museum label, likely also written by Cragg as his name is signed at the bottom. It is edited in pen, though it cannot be said whether it is by him or by someone at the museum. It states that ‘the effigy of the burutu bird [more commonly referred to as buruto] was stuck in the ground at the main entrance to one village and the other three were found in the houses of the inhabitants after they had fired on my party and had fled from the village’. Interestingly, the part where Cragg had written about the ‘people of this tribe’ refusing to pay their taxes was scribbled out.
Three of the wooden figures depict humans and the fourth is the buruto bird mentioned above. The largest is ‘not over 18” high’ and Cragg wrote that they were designed to protect the inhabitants, remarking rather sardonically that this was ‘a function which in this instance did not work’. Beyond this, little else is known about the figures’ original functions and the significance of their depictions.
‘Nigerian deity statuettes’
Images courtesy of The Collection and Usher Gallery 2020.
The collecting story of the figures highlights the controversies surrounding museum collections obtained in the colonial era. More well-known objects acquired through violent means include the ‘Benin bronzes’, also from Nigeria and kept in the British Museum. The Benin plaques were looted during the Punitive Raid on Benin City in 1897 in retaliation to the killing of a British envoy and members of his party. The envoy, seeking to broker trade treaties, had been warned not to interrupt the sacred rite that was occurring at the time. The retaliation allowed the British to capture trading rights in this region, oversee the loot of incredibly valuable art and, ultimately, bring Benin under the British flag.
There is therefore an argument for the return of such objects to the people or nations that they were taken from. Others, however, argue that Britain’s acquisition of these objects is an integral part of their stories, with Tristram Hunt (the director of the V&A and former Labour MP) writing that ‘to decolonise is to decontextualise’. He therefore argues for museums to be transparent about how their objects were acquired.
In November 2017, The Collection displayed the four figures alongside Cragg’s letter, being very open about their collecting history. Furthermore, their museum label asked visitors to read the letter and consider the following questions:
- Does it change how you feel about them as objects?
- Was Major Cragg justified in his raid on the village and his subsequent taking of the villagers’ possessions?
- Does it make you question the role Britain has played in the world in the past?
These are clearly powerful and challenging questions, asking visitors to engage with the wider implications of colonialism.
As Cragg’s letter highlights, he was a District Officer in Northern Nigeria. Perhaps in a bid to appear humble, he wrote that the figures were ‘of no interest to anyone but [himself]’, while subsequently noting that he was initially thinking of offering them to the British Museum but wondered, ‘having seen your fine museum’ if the City and County Museum was interested instead. Naturally, his letter focused on how he came about these figures and, as highlighted by explicitly stating his personal interest in them, they clearly held personal value to him as symbolic of his career in Nigeria. His home was in Lincolnshire and it is notable that he wanted the county’s museum to have the figures. He would have been one of numerous returning officers giving Nigerian material to the British Museum but one of very few to the City and County Museum, so maybe hoped for greater individual recognition.
The Collection’s possession of these four figures from Nigeria shows the multiple stories and histories objects carry, particularly those collected in a colonial context, and the complexities relating to where they belong and who should have ownership over them.
Thank you to Jenny Gleadell and the collections department at The Collection and Usher Gallery and Dr Sarah Longair for their help and the information they provided for this post!
https://www.thecollectionmuseum.com/about-us/history-of-the-museum accessed 2 May 2020.
Smith, Alison, Blayney Brown, David and Jacobi, Carol. Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (London, 2015).