(Above) The African World gallery at the Horniman Museum. © Culture24
Ben Miller talks to Wayne Modest, Keeper of Anthropology at the Horniman Museum about the African World gallery, part of the Museum's Designated anthropology collection.
When Frederick Horniman opened his Museum in 1901, his vision was to bring the world to Forest Hill.
A tea trader who had amassed a colossal collection of archaeology, anthropology and musical instruments from travelling the globe, Horniman commissioned Whitechapel Art Gallery designer Charles Harrison Townsend to construct his gift to the people of London. The result was an Art Nouveau building of striking beauty.
Horniman's initial bequest now forms only ten percent of the entire anthropological collection. The tireless work of dozens of tenacious curators has swelled the ethnographic object count to more than 90,000 pieces since then, of which a quarter are African.
The African contingent of the collection now makes up more than a quarter of the total
"In 1995 the Museum had three choices for this gallery," explains Wayne Modest, who became the newest Keeper of Anthropology at the Horniman earlier this year.
"We could either show everything, dedicate the gallery to Asia, which forms the largest part of our collection, or devote it to Africa, which is the second-largest section."
Deciding that the space was too small to justify attempting to cover the entire collection, the Museum chose the latter continent because of its singularity in London.
"There wasn’t a gallery dedicated to exploring Africa," recalls Modest. "It was also significant that there was such a strong African immigrant population at the time here in South-East London.
"There was a lot of consultation – the voices of local people from the Diaspora informed our work."
Taslim Martin's Blue Earth was installed at the Gallery in 2007 in response to the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade
The result is the African World gallery, where sculptures and symbols from the continent's kaleidoscopic spectrum of intoxicating cultures dwell in shadowy cabinets.
It's a deeply atmospheric cavalcade of faraway lands and worlds, where mythical masks from Sierra Leone and Liberia face esoteric dolls from Botswana, ritualistic medicine-holding figures from the Congo and bodies preserved in elaborate ancient Egyptian tombs.
"When you go through the gallery you can see the dialogue we had in the way the objects are interpreted," says Modest. "That was important for us, and I think it's still a groundbreaking idea.
"It is built on very strong objects. An instrumental part of our thinking was to make it visually powerful. That's one of the brilliant things about our collection, and in fact the whole collection at the Horniman."
Dolls from Botswana are among the highlights of the display
Standing at the front of the exhibition as schoolchildren gallop past, Modest cuts an infectious and erudite curator. By way of introduction, a panel above his head quotes writer Ali Mazrui’s assertion that Africa "is not a country" but "a concept, a glimpse of the infinite".
"That's how the gallery wanted to position itself," he reveals. "It signals the possibility for Africa not just to be viewed in terms of geography, which in itself is massive and contains many countries and cultures, but also thinking about Africa's impact on the world."
The commission of Blue Earth, an iron globe with an image of an 18th century slave ship carved into a curve made of the kind of dark metal associated with the trade, was "an important moment for the Museum", according to Modest.
"It was made for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. There's tactility to it, it speaks to a particular kind of history.
"As a curator, I'm interested in how it plays with memory. After we clean it you can see the slave ship, the continent, the movements of enslaved Africans carved in it.
"But as time passes it takes on a pattern and you can't see it any more. The memory is recovered when you clean it. That process of fading and recovery is an important part of remembering the traumatic past. As a contemporary art piece I really love it."
The exhibition positions Africa as "a glimpse of the infinite"
Modest credits the growth of the gallery to "excellent fieldwork" by his predecessors throughout the 20th century, and believes inclusivity is a key aspect of its continuing success.
A pair of resident curators worked with counterparts from Africa and Trinidad to develop the displays in the late 1990s, and working with community groups ensures that audiences remain heavily involved.
"We believe there is information and understanding to be gleaned from them," he says. "It's very important to us. The objects are brought alive with these conversations."
At the centre of this lies an ijele, a giant mask made of layered platforms depicting scenes and creatures from African folklore.
In perhaps the ultimate testament to the authenticity of the gallery, the Nigerian tribesmen who unleash it on special occasions assembled the structure at the Horniman in 1998.
"We have tried to set up a tradition of inviting artists to come and work in the museum, and they made this mammoth mask," says Modest.
"It is compared with an elephant because of the grace with which it moves. Sometimes they don't get made for 25 years, but once it's done it unites communities."
Curators believe the collection is comparable with those at Pitt-Rivers and the British Museum
Opposite, a pair of Eloi figures show mothers feeding their children. "They represent the spirit of the maternal," Modest tells us.
"It signals another way of thinking about women in Africa. It rethinks and refocuses how we view gender roles, and symbolises the fertility of the land."
Through all these themes, the curatorial team have had to work "as much from the story we have to tell as the objects."
"The narrative responsibility is difficult, but it is fascinating as well," muses Modest, with a twinkle in his eye.
"The exciting moment when you’re a curator is to be able to be in the collection.
"We already knew that we had amazing things, but then we realised that people didn’t even know we had them. My task is to share them."
He compares his collection with those at the British Museum and Pitt Rivers in Cambridge, but keeps finding new surprises.
"I use the word sweet all the time," he grins. "I was with a scholar recently who studies the Pacific and we were looking at some collections.
"The conversation was so rich, and he got so animated about four objects. The excitement for me was unbearable."
The works never fail to grab the attention – the flurry of children circling the cases look spellbound – but the weight of history behind them is unquestionably emotive.
"As a curator you have an idea of what an exhibition will be, and you use things like light and colour to give them more atmosphere, but you cannot decide what a visitor comes away with," accepts Modest.
"From what people tell us they like the gallery, they think it's important. We know that we have that, but one of the best points as a curator is to go in there and think, 'wow, that's sweet'. It makes your job fulfilling in so many ways."
Watch Wayne Modest talking about the ijele mask below
For more stories from inside the Horniman Museum, visit Culture24's introduction to the Designated collection series.