British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon HoganPolly Bence, British Museum

This painting is one of almost 6,000 objects from Australia and the Torres Strait Islands in the British Museum. This is a growing collection; the Museum continues to acquire contemporary Indigenous Australian objects, including contemporary art works.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka was painted by Simon Hogan, a senior custodian of Linka, the place where he was born and raised in Western Australia, known as Spinifex country. The Spinifex people or Pila Nguru live in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia, adjoining the border with South Australia.

Hogan’s paintings tell stories from his land, depicting specific places within Spinifex country. As is often characteristic of this genre, the painting collapses time: it shows several successive events on top of each other. The large U-shape in the painting is a rockhole with water in it known as Ilkurlka and the trees are mulga trees (wanarii). When describing this painting Hogan explained: ‘those trees belong to that place’.

The painting tells the story of a man who was camping at this rockhole. He woke up and travelled to another place where there was a very powerful watersnake that he was trying to capture.

In describing the painting the artist explained that in it the man is trying to eat the snake and at the same time he has eaten it – he is both a man and a snake. The oval shape depicts the man lying down, feeling sick having eaten the snake – but the man now has a great deal of power.

During the atomic tests at Maralinga in western South Australia during the mid-1950s, the Spinifex people were driven from their homelands. Many found themselves dispersed and others were forcibly relocated to mission stations hundreds of miles away. In the 1980s people returned to their land to find that specific settlement areas had been designated for them and some areas had been selected for mining.

The 1990s saw an arduous and lengthy period of negotiations over land rights and native title claims, and it was during this period that the Spinifex Arts Project was developed to help the group document and illustrate their Native Title claims. This decade of discussion culminated in 2000 with ground-breaking legislation and a new understanding: Spinifex people were finally recognised as the traditional owners of 55,000 square kilometres of land in Western Australia. Spinifex artists produce work to demonstrate and share their complex history and traditions.

The British Museum is working towards a major Indigenous Australian exhibition which will open in 2015, which will include Spinifex paintings.


This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 7 February 2013.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan is on display in Room 37

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of ChristChristopher Spring, British Museum

The modern state of Ethiopia was created from an ancient kingdom founded over two millennia ago. Originally extending across the Red Sea into what is now Yemen, the Aksumite Empire of Ethiopia became Christian in the fourth century. It is associated with the biblical mythologies of Solomon and of Sheba, and in the medieval west with the Christian Patriarch Prester John. Ethiopia is mentioned several times in the Bible, and its church is one of the oldest in the world. Although Ethiopia, then as now, is a country of many faiths and cultures, including Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Ethiopian Christian churches thrive among diaspora communities, with many congregations based in London. This remarkable painting tells multiple stories, with layered meanings, about Christianity and empire.

The Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of Christ

It was created in the mid-nineteenth century for the Church of the Saviour of the World at Adwa in northern Ethiopia. Its central image of the Crucifixion of Christ was painted to inspire devotion among Ethiopian Christians. There is a convention in Ethiopian religious painting for the unbelievers or evil-doers to be painted in profile and for the righteous to be painted full face – therefore the two thieves with whom Christ was crucified are depicted only in profile. At the foot of the cross Christ’s blood flows into the mouth of the skull of Adam signifying humanity’s redemption through the blood of the redeemer.

The smaller scenes around the edge of the painting celebrate Bishop Selama, the Abune (Patriarch) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from 1841-1867. One scene shows the arrival of the Abune in Gandabta in 1841; Bishop Selama is shown riding on a donkey being greeted by jubilant crowds.

Church paintings at this time were an important means of communication and observers would have been able to identify the recent events depicted. For example, the third scene to the left shows Bishop Selama, wearing a red, hooded cape, anointing Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia at his coronation in 1855. Tewodros had an ambitious plan to unite and modernise the country, and is still regarded as a hero by many Ethiopians.

These illustrations of Bishop Selama’s life provide an insight into the complex relationship between Church and state in Ethiopia at the time, depicting a struggle for power. The coronation of Emperor Tewodros by Abune Selama reflects on their initial alliance and the Emperor’s need for the church’s support in unifying Ethiopia politically. However, it was an alliance which eventually collapsed largely because of Emperor Tewodros’ almost unstoppable desire for modernisation and the control of ecclesiastical power.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard in January 2013.

The Crucifixion of Christ is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: shield (gaschan)

ShieldChristopher Spring, British Museum

The Somali community has grown in London in recent years and its impact can be witnessed in one of the newest acquisitions to the British Museum’s collection, a button badge with the slogan ‘I love Mo Farah’, the Somali born runner who was such an inspiration throughout the 2012 Olympic Games. But the Museum’s collection contains many fascinating objects of Somali origin, such as this Hippopotamus hide shield on display in the Sainsbury African Galleries.

Shield (Gaschan)

Shield (gaschan)

Somali shields were very much smaller than those from neighbouring Ethiopia, being not much larger than a dinner plate, though their perfect circular shape was created in a similar way. The first stage was to cut out a piece of untreated hippopotamus hide, then to place it over a shaped wooden mould sunk firmly in the ground. Any hair would be scraped off at this stage, and the hide would be allowed to dry. Then several coats of oil would be applied over a period of days, causing the hide to swell, while at the same time being beaten with a mallet to achieve a tough and virtually impenetrable surface.

The shield maker would then use a number of special hammers to apply embossed markings to the supple surface before allowing the hide to dry out completely. Despite their small size, Somali shields are extremely strong – and may be looked upon almost as offensive rather than defensive weapons. They had a very large hand grip which would allow the owner to push the shield up his arm when not in combat.

Undoubtedly the significance of shields extended far beyond their purely functional capabilities. Possessing a fine, perfectly round and bleached white shield was an indication of a man’s standing in society. Some shields also have intricate designs, painted in henna, beneath the grip on the reverse side. These were known as ‘marriage shields’ and formed part of the dowry given by the bride’s father to his son-in-law. Similar shields were used in the Arabian Peninsula, and there is evidence to suggest they were made in Somalia for export, particularly to Oman.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 17 January 2013.

The shield is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi, 2001

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El SalahiChristopher Spring, British Museum

The Khartoum School, under the leadership of Ibrahim El Salahi, began to be recognised in the 1960s as an emergent modernist movement producing a distinctive means of expression known as Sudanawiyya – a synthesis of Western styles of art with other traditions, reflecting the remarkable ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of Sudan. Salahi explains part of the rationale behind the movement:

“Originality, human originality, does not mean creating something out of nothing as such a claim is well beyond the capability of mankind. Originality in my opinion means to be able to create the new out of what is already there in existence. One simply makes a new addition, a sort of a new idea, a fresh leaf atop that same old tree of creation”.

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi

Among the traditions which inspire and inform Salahi’s work is that of the patched tunic, jibba, which was the distinctive uniform of the followers of Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi or ‘rightly guided one’ who in 1884 led a jihad or Holy War to establish the Mahdist State in Sudan. The jibba was inspired by the ragged muraqqa’a which for centuries had been the dress of the Sufi religious orders, signifying their contempt for worldly goods.

The artist Ibrahim El Salahi, himself a member of a Sufi brotherhood, sees the jibba as a metaphor for the remarkably diverse nature of Sudanese society, the patches symbolising different cultures and beliefs in various parts of the country. In his Tree series El Salahi makes reference to the form of the jibba as well as to the human form, suggesting a Tree of Life in Sudan. Created in 2001 using coloured inks on paper, Tree was produced in the artist’s UK studio. Although the Mahdist State ceased to exist following the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, Mahdism, through the mouthpiece of the Umma party, remains a vital political force in Sudan today.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 6 December 2012.

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi is on display in Room 25: Africa

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The spirit of Sierra Leone in London

Sowei mask naming ceremonyPaul Basu, University College London

The latest Asahi Shimbun Display Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone opened to the public this week. The display is the most recent outcome of collaborations between the British Museum’s Africa Programme and various partners including the Sierra Leone National Museum, the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project based at University College London, and members of the Sierra Leone diaspora community in the UK.

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

The particular object in focus in the exhibition is a wooden helmet mask associated with the female Sande society. It was collected in the 1880s by Thomas J. Alldridge (1847-1916), whose entire career was spent in Sierra Leone, first as a trading agent and subsequently as a British colonial administrator. Alldridge, who travelled widely throughout the region, wrote two significant books about Sierra Leone, The Sherbro and its Hinterland (1901) and A Transformed Colony: Sierra Leone as it was and as it is (1910). Alldridge had a particular interest in native customs, cultural practices and masquerade traditions, and especially those associated with what were then described as ‘secret societies’ – chiefly the male Poro society, and its female counterpart, the Sande society. He wrote about these extensively in his books, assembled a large collection of local artefacts, and took some of the earliest photographs we have of traditional Sierra Leonean life. In 1886, Alldridge collected a number of objects from the Sherbro district of Sierra Leone specifically for display in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London that year. The mask on display in the British Museum was one of them, and to the best of our knowledge this is the first time it has been on public display for over 120 years.

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Typical of collectors of his day, Alldridge recorded very little information about the mask. It was described in the lurid language of the time as ‘one of the most prominent Fetishes worshipped in [the region]’. In fact, as visitors to the exhibition will discover, such masks were – and continue to be – regarded as manifestations of particular spirits who act as guardians and teachers of the Sande society. They are mediators between the human world and the world of the spirits. Like people, every mask/spirit has a name and an individual personality.

In preparation for this display we worked closely with members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora community in London. On 16 February 2013 visitors to the British Museum were treated to a rare opportunity to see a special performance of the ndoli jowei, the Sande masquerade, to celebrate the opening of Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone.

During initial meetings with the Sierra Leonean community, the women were concerned that the mask to be displayed had lost its name. They proposed holding a special ceremony to give the mask a new name and, 127 years after originally entering the Museum’s collections, to formally present the mask to the British Museum on behalf of the Sande society.

The ceremony took place in a private room at the British Museum on 23 January 2013. The women were dressed in white and had white clay daubed on their skin as is customary in the Sande society. Accompanied by the shegbureh, a shaker made from a gourd surrounded by a network of beads, the women sang traditional Sande songs and danced around the as yet nameless mask. The participants then surrounded the mask in silence as the head woman addressed the spirit of the mask directly. After pouring a libation, the naming itself took place. Four cowrie shells were thrown to determine the name. If all four land the same way up, this is a sign that the spirit has accepted its name. After numerous attempts, the mask accepted the name Gbavo (meaning ‘to attract people’s attention’, ‘crowd-puller’ in Mende). A celebratory song was then sung in praise of the mask.

The mask is received by the British Museum

The mask is received by the British Museum

The next part of the ceremony involved the newly-named mask being presented to the British Museum. Accompanied by more singing, the mask was wrapped in white cloth, lifted onto the head of one of the participants and carried to a female representative of the Museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, also dressed in white. The mask is presented three times. Only on the third presentation is the mask received. Having accepted the mask, the Museum representative then stood at the centre of the women, while they danced around her, singing a farewell to the spirit: Oh Gbavo, Ggavo ma kɔlɛ ma sina fɔndei ta ngaye ta yi ma ju nga li nya ye [roughly translated as Oh Gbavo, when we separate tomorrow, tears and sweat will mingle and run down my face].

It was a privilege to be able to witness something of the spirit of Sierra Leone in the singing, dancing and traditional customs of the women gathered in this room in London. The ceremony was also an important moment in the ‘biography’ of this mask – another story to add to the others that we explore in the exhibition itself.

Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone is on display at the British Museum
until 28 April 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

To find out more about Sierra Leone, please visit www.sierraleoneheritage.org

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Throne of Weapons

Throne of weaponsChristopher Spring, British Museum

Throne of weapons

Throne of weapons. © Kester 2004

From 1977 until 1992 Mozambique, in south-east Africa, fought a civil war which was fuelled by a global power struggle between east and west – the ‘Cold War’. During this period millions of guns were poured into the country via the international arms trade.

Many weapons remained buried or hidden after the war, representing a threat to peace and stability. In 1995 Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane of the Christian Council of Mozambique set up the Transforming Arms into Tools project, which offered farming equipment and other materials in exchange for guns. Mozambican artists then turned these weapons into sculptures that reflect the collective creativity of the people of Mozambique and their refusal to submit to a culture of violence.

The Mozambique civil war claimed almost one million lives and left five million people displaced. The Throne of Weapons represents both the tragedy of that war and the human triumph of those who achieved a lasting peace. Its anthropomorphic qualities – it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face – actually two faces – link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen and described as human beings.

Although made of guns, the Throne of Weapons harks back to older wooden African stools and thrones used by leaders that showed their prestige, but also their willingness and ability to talk to their fellow men and to the ancestors. The throne is also a contemporary work of art with a global significance, linking the arts of Africa with the Western arts scene, and Mozambique with the global arms trade. None of the guns used were made in Mozambique, or even in Africa, thus it becomes a sculpture in which we are all, one way or another, complicit.

The throne is a war memorial, but it celebrates another kind of courage and another kind of victory. Museums are more and more concerned with portraying intangible as well as tangible heritage as a way of building an emotional bridge with a past inhabited by people rather than by the objects they created, especially when charged with describing traumatic histories of warfare, slavery and the abuse of human rights. The Throne of Weapons allows us to cross that bridge.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 29 November 2012.

The Throne of Weapons is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: eagle coffin from Ghana

Eagle coffinFiona Sheales, British Museum

The past 60 years have seen the emergence and development of a dynamic and unique art form in coastal towns situated close to Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa.

This trend began in 1951 when two carpenters decided to honour their late grand-mother’s dream to fly by burying her in a coffin shaped in the form of an aeroplane. Soon other families began to commission other coffins that represented the life achievements or aspirations of deceased relatives, or characterised aspects of their personality.

Many coffins take the form of traditional status symbols such as this eagle which is believed to have been inspired by the eagle-shaped palanquins used to carry chiefs on important public occasions. A coffin of this shape would therefore be suitable for the burial of a man of some social standing in his community.

Eagle coffin

Eagle coffin

This eagle coffin was made in 2000 in the workshop of Paa Joe (full name Joseph Tetteh Ashong) by a team of specialist carpenters. Paa Joe was one of the first craftsmen to make representational coffins, which are all hand-made on commission. Plans, photographs and sketches are rarely used, instead the components are drawn directly on to the wood which is then sawn out, planed and painted. In some cases up to 20 individually cut and shaped pieces of wood are required to form the shape of the coffin, depending on the model ordered. The eagle coffin’s body, lid and base are carved from the hardwood of the wawa tree (triplochiton scleraxylon) which does not crack and resists attacks from insects. The two wings are carved from separate pieces of wood and are joined to the body using metal hinges which allow them to be folded down flat or to be extended.

In Ghana, death is traditionally viewed as a transition from the world of the living to that of the ancestors. Ancestors are believed to exert influence and power over their living relatives so it is important to show them love and respect. One of the ways of doing this is to bury deceased family members in expensive coffins and hold big funerals. On the day of the funeral the deceased is processed through town to the graveside and large crowds of mourners will have the opportunity to see the coffin for the first time.

Although traditional subjects such as the eagle remain popular, casket choices reflect changing fashions and social aspirations. Modern consumer goods such as laptops and mobile phones provide the models for innovative new coffin shapes.

The popularity of these so-called fantasy coffins continues to grow and has stimulated a thriving industry in Ghana. Thanks to the Internet, fantasy coffins can now be ordered online and are exported all over the world to meet the needs of the diasporic Ghanaian community.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard 15 November 2012.

The Eagle coffin from Ghana is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Taíno sculpture

 Taino sculptureRebecca Allen, British Museum

This is a Taíno sculpture, probably dating from the fifteenth century. The Taíno were one of the pre-European, native peoples of the Caribbean, and this figure is from Jamaica. The sculpture stands at just over a metre tall, and is made of a very dense tropical hardwood called Guayacan, which has been polished with pebbles to give the surface a deep shine.

It depicts a male spirit-being in a drug-induced trance, and may have been used in religious rituals. In Taino culture this figure embodied the life force, or cemi, which takes many forms and which could do powerful things. The figure is beautifully carved; the sculptor has seen the form of the figure within the wood and carved through to it, meaning that the spirit is found within the wood itself.

 Taino sculpture

Taino sculpture

On the figure’s back a prominent spine has been carved, showing each individual vertebra very clearly, while on the face of the figure tear channels are shown. These are made more conspicuous by the use of gilding. The figure is in suspended animation, frozen in time, as tears stream down his face.

This object featured in the British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, supported by BP. At first glance it may seem an odd choice for an exhibition which focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean London, but it has very strong visual and imaginative links with one Shakespeare play in particular: The Tempest.

In the play, a group of sailors are frozen in time by Prospero, a shaman-like figure with magical powers. Prospero commands Ariel, a spirit of the island who owes his freedom to Prospero, to tell him how the enchanted prisoners are faring. Ariel describes the enchantment and tells how one man in particular – Gonzalo – has been trapped in time while tears flow down his cheeks:

Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo:
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds.
(The Tempest 5.1.17-19)

This description is evocative of the kind of magical transformation represented by this sculpture. The enchantment Ariel describes is matched in the face of this figure.

Another thematic link with The Tempest lies at the point where Ariel is freed by Prospero from being trapped in an enchanted tree: ‘it was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out’ (1.2.340-2). This is reminiscent of the Taíno understanding that to carve wood is to free the form within it. Ariel, the spirit, has been freed from his imprisonment in the pine.

There are surprising and poetic links between the way Shakespeare imagined the nature of enchantment, and the understandings and insights of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 1 November 2012.

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Maori cloak from Aotearoa

Maori cloak from AotearoaPolly Bence, British Museum

Maori cloak from Aotearoa

Maori cloak from Aotearoa

This feather cloak is made from woven New Zealand flax fibre (Phormium tenax). It is decorated with dyed fowl feathers and the green feathers are from the rare kākāpō bird – a ground-dwelling parrot species native to New Zealand.

This is one of 153 cloaks in the British Museum’s Oceanic collection, 49 of which have feathers as a decorative element. Feathered cloaks (kahu huruhuru) became increasingly popular from the end of the nineteenth century, becoming the most prestigious type of cloak at the beginning of the twentieth century. This cloak is in superb condition, dating between 1900 and 1906. It was donated to the British Museum by Sir Herbert Daw in 1936 after being one of several cloaks placed on the coffin of Richard John Seddon, a former New Zealand Prime Minister at his funeral in 1908.

Weaving is predominantly undertaken by women, and cloak manufacture (whatu kākahu) is one of most highly respected of all fibre arts. Historically the finest cloaks were worn by high status men, reserved for special occasions. Some were given personal names, reinforcing their significance. Starting with the collection and preparation of the flax fibre and made without using a loom, a cloak can take several months to make depending on the style, complexity and materials used. It is thought that early cloaks took up to two years to finish. Today cloaks are held in extremely high regard because of their associations with chiefly status.

A large number of people visit the Oceanic collection every year, many of whom come to research, contemplate and admire the fibre arts in the Māori collection. The manufacture of cloaks experienced a number of stylistic and material adaptations over time and they continue to be made today. Many contemporary fibre artists are keen to study and to replicate traditional techniques, as well as introduce new materials.

The London-based community group Ngāti Rānana promotes Māori values and traditions, welcoming anyone with an interest in Māori culture. Also part of this wider community is Te Kōhanga Reo o Rānana, an environment for young children and families to experience and learn Māori language.

Ngāti Rānana actively participates in a wide variety of events including those in the museums and gallery sector. When the Māori display case was opened in the Wellcome Trust Gallery in 2008, the group performed a traditional blessing of the taonga or treasures on display.

Cloaks in particular are widely understood to be symbols of national Māori identity. The complex artistry is not only respected by the local London Māori community but by those farther afield, by fibre artists, academics and Museum professionals alike.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 18 October 2012.

The Māori cloak from Aotearoa is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figureNeil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

Otobo masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figure

This extraordinary painted steel sculpture was made in London by British/Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp, CBE. It depicts a man of the Kalabari people of southern Nigeria in an Otobo or hippopotamus masquerade costume; masquerade is a composite phenomenon in which song, movement, music and the different elements of the dancer’s costume are all integral parts of the performance.

The Otobo masquerade has been danced by Kalabari men for at least 200 years, yet here is a version made by a woman working in metal, a traditionally male medium of expression in Africa. Masquerade in Africa is an art of transformation, harnessing the powers of the natural and spirit worlds for the benefit of humankind, so Sokari’s innovative re-interpretation of a long-standing tradition would seem entirely appropriate.

Sokari was born in 1958 in Buguma, Nigeria, the cultural capital of the Kalabari people who live on 23 islands in the Niger Delta. She moved to Britain as a child and now lives and works near the Elephant and Castle in London. “My work is about what’s going on in London” she says, though part of that is a celebration of her own Kalabari culture, a theme which occurs in different ways in her work. “I live the reality of being both Nigerian and British, but feeling outside both cultures”.

The UK’s largest Nigerian population is found in the capital, in Lambeth and Southwark, but in particular, Peckham. Census figures show Peckham – one of the most diverse areas of the country – with the most Nigerian-born people in Britain.

Sokari’s version of an Otobo masquerader is displayed in the African Galleries next to three examples of carved wooden Otobo masks, one of which (collected by Sokari herself) was made in the late twentieth century, over a century after the other two, though stylistically they are almost identical.

However, avant-garde European artists of the early twentieth century would almost certainly have assumed these masks to be examples of spontaneous creativity, unfettered by the artistic conventions of Western tradition, rather than representing slowly changing, highly conservative artistic traditions – the very things European artists were trying to escape.

The African Galleries – with the help of artists such as Sokari – seek to overturn this approach, showing the strength and diversity of art from across the continent from the earliest times to the best of contemporary art from Africa.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 4 October 2012.

The Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure is on display in Room 25: Africa

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