Skip Navigation or Skip to Content

Scottish collectors and collecting in central Africa, 1870–1930

This project researched African collections acquired from Scottish travellers, missionaries and explorers, focusing on the period between 1870 and 1930.

Last updated: 21 March 2022

About the project

Late-19th and early-20th century Scottish travellers, missionaries and explorers were among the first Europeans to visit or settle in central Africa. Many returned with examples of African material culture that are now held in the African Collections of National Museums Scotland, forming the backbone of the museum’s early ethnographic collections.

We know very little about the circumstances of their collection, whether they were displayed, and how they were received and interpreted by early curators and museum patrons. Funded by a Carnegie Trust Research Initiative Grant, the project carried out research into selected collections and relevant archival sources focusing on the period between 1870 and 1930.

This project was timely as anthropologists and historians of science began to look at the role of missionaries in supplying the ‘raw materials’ by which the British scientific community and the wider public learned about central African environments and societies. With increased attention by historians to the roles played by Scots in the colonisation of Africa this project focused on questions about the field practices of Scottish travellers and missionaries and their position in institutional and informal networks that connected field and museum. Through study of how objects were acquired, from whom, why, and in what circumstances, we add to our knowledge of historical cross-cultural interactions. Through the rich source material including weaponry, textiles and personal adornment, wooden carving, metalwork, and objects of natural history, the agency of material culture during a period in Scotland that saw increasing public awareness of central Africa was explored.

Project details

Project title

Scottish collectors and collecting in central Africa, 1870–1930

Project active

2016 - 2017

Research theme

Scotland's Material Heritage, Identities and Cultural Contacts

Contributors

Dr Lawrence Dritsas - Principal Investigator

Dr Sarah Worden - Co-investigator 

The collections

The project included two collections from central Africa (covering modern-day Malawi, Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo): one made by Adam Purves (1892–1901), working for the London Missionary Society, in the region of modern day Zambia, and one from the Democratic Republic of the Congo made by the Rev. James Moon (1907–1910 and 1913–1916), working with the Regions Beyond Missionary Union.

The project survey and photography of the collections helped build a clearer and more detailed picture of the range of material. Archive research by Project Principal Investigator Lawrence Dritsas, collating missionary papers and secondary sources from the study period brought together fascinating contextual information, not only relating to the collectors but to the original contexts of use of objects in the collection.

Objects from the Moon collection

  • Beheadal knife of iron with crescentic point and handle of wood bound with iron fillet: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ngombe, early 20th century.

    Beheadal knife of iron with crescentic point and handle of wood bound with iron fillet: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ngombe, early 20th century.

  • Recurved beheadal knife of iron, hatched and blackened blade, with spool-shaped handle of wood studded with brass nails: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ngombe, early 20th century.

    Recurved beheadal knife of iron, hatched and blackened blade, with spool-shaped handle of wood studded with brass nails: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ngombe, early 20th century.

  • Thumb piano or likimbe, a hollowed wooden box with vibrating iron tongues, decorated with blue glass beads: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lokombe, early 20th century.

    Thumb piano or likimbe, a hollowed wooden box with vibrating iron tongues, decorated with blue glass beads: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lokombe, early 20th century.

  • Headrest of carved camwood with pyramidal foot: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mongo, early 20th century.

    Headrest of carved camwood with pyramidal foot: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mongo, early 20th century.

  • Headrest of carved camwood with two supports wrapped in brass and a base decorated with brass studs: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mongo, early 20th century.

    Headrest of carved camwood with two supports wrapped in brass and a base decorated with brass studs: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mongo, early 20th century.

  • Ceremonial knife of iron with double pronged curved head and wooden handle bound with iron fillet: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ngombe, early 20th century.

    Ceremonial knife of iron with double pronged curved head and wooden handle bound with iron fillet: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ngombe, early 20th century.

  • Ankle rattle of antelope hide with nutshells attached used for dance performances: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

    Ankle rattle of antelope hide with nutshells attached used for dance performances: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

View full screen

Objects from the Purves collection

  • Chief's ceremonial axe with iron flat celt blade with inserted copper 'eye' and wooden handle: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katanga, late 19th century.

    Chief's ceremonial axe with iron flat celt blade with inserted copper 'eye' and wooden handle: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katanga, late 19th century.

  • Agricultural knife with iron blade with curved point and wooden handle with finger-string: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Lake Tanganyika, Mambwe, late 19th century.

    Agricultural knife with iron blade with curved point and wooden handle with finger-string: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Lake Tanganyika, Mambwe, late 19th century.

  • Axe with copper celt blade driven through head of wooden handle carved in form of a woman pounding grain, grip bound with copper ribbon: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katanga, late 19th century.

    Axe with copper celt blade driven through head of wooden handle carved in form of a woman pounding grain, grip bound with copper ribbon: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katanga, late 19th century.

  • Carved wooden male figure with elongated body, hands on hips, bent knees, elaborate hair style, facial and body scarification decoration and shell eyes: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katanga Province, Tabwa people, late 19th century.

    Carved wooden male figure with elongated body, hands on hips, bent knees, elaborate hair style, facial and body scarification decoration and shell eyes: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katanga Province, Tabwa people, late 19th century.

  • Carved wooden standing female figure  with dressed hair and body scarification, holding a jar with both hands: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katanga, late 19th century.

    Carved wooden standing female figure with dressed hair and body scarification, holding a jar with both hands: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katanga, late 19th century.

  • Slightly curved oblong wooden stool on four legs, with carved linear ornament: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Tanganyika Plateau, Awemba, late 19th century.

    Slightly curved oblong wooden stool on four legs, with carved linear ornament: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Tanganyika Plateau, Awemba, late 19th century.

  • Circular wooden stool with wire repair on seat, curved back and open lattice-work base, carved geometric patterns on seat back and serpent carved on back of stool from top to base: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanganyika Plateau, Bemba people, late 19th century.

    Circular wooden stool with wire repair on seat, curved back and open lattice-work base, carved geometric patterns on seat back and serpent carved on back of stool from top to base: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanganyika Plateau, Bemba people, late 19th century.

  • Antelope horn decorated with an iron bell, Palm Civet (Nandinia binotata) skins and a length of red cotton cloth, attached to a woven basket core, known as a lilamfia, used for divination in warfare: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Tanganyika Plateau, Awemba, late 19th century.

    Antelope horn decorated with an iron bell, Palm Civet (Nandinia binotata) skins and a length of red cotton cloth, attached to a woven basket core, known as a lilamfia, used for divination in warfare: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Tanganyika Plateau, Awemba, late 19th century.

  • Knife with ridged iron blade and wooden handle carved with zigzags and sheath made from two pieces of wood bound with brass wire and iron shoe, surface carved with zigzags: Africa, Southern Africa, Malawi or Zambia, late 19th century.

    Knife with ridged iron blade and wooden handle carved with zigzags and sheath made from two pieces of wood bound with brass wire and iron shoe, surface carved with zigzags: Africa, Southern Africa, Malawi or Zambia, late 19th century.

  • Armlet of stained ivory, with local repair of brass wire: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Mweru district, late 19th century.

    Armlet of stained ivory, with local repair of brass wire: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Mweru district, late 19th century.

  • Waistband of iron, copper and glass beads threaded on length of cotton: Africa, Southern Africa, Malawi or Zambia, late 19th century.

    Waistband of iron, copper and glass beads threaded on length of cotton: Africa, Southern Africa, Malawi or Zambia, late 19th century.

  • Length of barkcloth constructed from smaller pieces stitched together: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Awemba Country, early 20th century.

    Length of barkcloth constructed from smaller pieces stitched together: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Awemba Country, early 20th century.

  • Piece of raw bark, for cloth: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Awemba Country, early 20th century.

    Piece of raw bark, for cloth: Africa, Southern Africa, Zambia, Awemba Country, early 20th century.

  • Basket-bowl of plaited grass figured with stepped bands in black: Africa, Southern Africa, Malawi or Zambia, late 19th century.

    Basket-bowl of plaited grass figured with stepped bands in black: Africa, Southern Africa, Malawi or Zambia, late 19th century.

View full screen

Focused survey of the objects in the collection has taken us into the lives of the people who produced and used them. Many items had an active role in the networks of exchange in which both Purves and Moon were living and working. Their acquisition of objects, such as the elaborate ceremonial weaponry and the personal adornment of high status materials including brass, copper and ivory armlets and anklets, is likely to have involved negotiation and reciprocity within and beyond local communities.

Many of the objects collected were worn, as indicators of age grade, status, wealth and ethnic identity. Highlights of the Moon collection include the palm fibre raffia textiles. Collected during the period of change from locally sourced and manufactured clothing to imported cotton cloth, these finely woven, corded, plaited and decorated women’s girdles and skirts are important material evidence of local styles. Other objects of dress include those described in the Museum register as ‘used’ ‘or ‘worn’ by ‘medicine men’ and ‘witchdoctors’. These include waist belts hung with multiple attachments of animal skin pouches, bones, horns, shells, beads and amulets. Further identification of the species used and contents of the pouches bound up with natural fibres (using the latest scanning techniques) would help build on our knowledge of the symbolic hierarchy of materials used in different communities.

Raffia textiles from the Moon collection

  • Waistbelt of woven patterned grass fibre decorated with blue glass beads and large 'pom-pom' worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from a village near Itoko, early 20th century.

    Waistbelt of woven patterned grass fibre decorated with blue glass beads and large 'pom-pom' worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from a village near Itoko, early 20th century.

  • Waistbelt of woven patterned grass fibre with large 'pom-pom' worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from a village near Itoko, early 20th century.

    Waistbelt of woven patterned grass fibre with large 'pom-pom' worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from a village near Itoko, early 20th century.

  • Waistbelt of woven patterned grass fibre with large 'pom-pom' worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from a village near Itoko, early 20th century.

    Waistbelt of woven patterned grass fibre with large 'pom-pom' worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from a village near Itoko, early 20th century.

  • Waistbelt of woven patterned grass fibre with large 'pom-pom' worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from a village near Itoko, early 20th century.

    Waistbelt of woven patterned grass fibre with large 'pom-pom' worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from a village near Itoko, early 20th century.

  • Skirt, lisaga, made of raffia fibre with a woven waistband, worn by women in mourning: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

    Skirt, lisaga, made of raffia fibre with a woven waistband, worn by women in mourning: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

  • Waistbelt of woven patterned raffia fibre, worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

    Waistbelt of woven patterned raffia fibre, worn by women: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

  • Woven raffia fringed skirt rolled and tied with raffia in a bundle, used as a standard of value for trade and exchange: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

    Woven raffia fringed skirt rolled and tied with raffia in a bundle, used as a standard of value for trade and exchange: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

  • Waist belt of woven raffia with decoration of cowrie shells and black and white glass beads: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kasai District, early 20th century.

    Waist belt of woven raffia with decoration of cowrie shells and black and white glass beads: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kasai District, early 20th century.

  • Woven raffia and bamboo leaf cloth mat, with red dyed and natural warp and weft threads: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bateke, early 20th century.

    Woven raffia and bamboo leaf cloth mat, with red dyed and natural warp and weft threads: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bateke, early 20th century.

  • Rectangular raffia cloth, decorated with cut pile lozenge pattern, in three colours on a natural ground, border with small pom-poms at intervals: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kasai, early 20th century.

    Rectangular raffia cloth, decorated with cut pile lozenge pattern, in three colours on a natural ground, border with small pom-poms at intervals: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kasai, early 20th century.

  • Rectangular raffia cloth, decorated with cut pile lozenge pattern, in three colours on a natural ground, border with small pom-poms at intervals: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kasai, early 20th century.

    Rectangular raffia cloth, decorated with cut pile lozenge pattern, in three colours on a natural ground, border with small pom-poms at intervals: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kasai, early 20th century.

  • Five samples of undyed palm raffia thread twisted into skeins attached to a carrying ring of split bamboo cane, probably for use by raffia producers to merchandise their thread to weavers: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

    Five samples of undyed palm raffia thread twisted into skeins attached to a carrying ring of split bamboo cane, probably for use by raffia producers to merchandise their thread to weavers: Africa, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early 20th century.

View full screen

This project is situated within NMS Colonial Histories and Legacies research objectives to unlock the collections, asking how the ‘lives’ of objects contribute to our understanding of cultures and interactions between peoples, and the impact of cultural contact over time. Connections and networks forged through academic collaboration will contribute to a higher profile for both the African collections and National Museums Scotland. This in turn will provide new perspectives for future development of new galleries and displays.

Further reading

Breitenbach, E. Empire and Scottish Society (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

Coombes, A.E. Reinventing Africa : museums, material culture, and popular imagination in late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1997)

Gosden, C., Knowing things : exploring the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, 1884-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Longair, S. and J. McAleer, eds., Curating empire: museums and the British imperial experience (Manchester: Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2012)

Ross, R., Hinfelaar, M. and Peša, I., eds., The objects of life in Central Africa: the history of consumption and social change, 1840–1980. (Leiden: Brill, 2014)

Tilley, H. and R.J. Gordon, eds., Ordering Africa: anthropology, European imperialism and the politics of knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)

Wingfield, C., '‘Scarcely more than a Christian trophy case’?: The global collections of the London Missionary Society museum (1814–1910).' Journal of the History of Collections  (2016), doi:10.1093/jhc/fhw002.

Email icon Dr Margaret Maitland

Partners

You may be interested in

Back to top