Spring: Just to add a footnote, partly in response to the extension of Chika’s original question, partly regarding Marla’s very interesting anecdotes.

I do believe that having a ‘hybrid’ identity is in many ways an advantage; I also believe that in the 1990s some “ethnology” museums were rather relentless in pursuing one or two artists in an attempt, as Marla puts it, to “contemporize” their displays, possibly to the detriment of the artists themselves. Interestingly, this did not happen in El Anatsui’s case –quite the contrary in fact—partly, I think, because so many more artists had come to prominence in the intervening years and partly because the appeal of his work was universal and was perceived and appreciated in different ways across a spectrum of museums, galleries, other institutions and private individuals. I acquired for the BM the first of El’s cloth-like, liquor bottle wrapper sculptures, Man’s Cloth and Woman’s Cloth, and displayed the former in the African galleries, the latter elsewhere in the BM. This was not an attempt to “contemporize” the African galleries—they were contemporized already—but it was simply an appreciation of these sculptures as remarkable works of art, and I still think they are the finest he has created. I also think it is important that artists’ works are shown in the semi-permanent context of museum galleries as well as in touring shows.

The purchase of Man’s Cloth and Woman’s Cloth for the BM, as well as the acquisition a couple of years later of Romuald Hazoume’s La Bouche du Roi, was made possible through the help of the Art Fund, and in this context it is worth reading the talk (attached) given by the Fund’s then Director, now retired, David Barrie at UEA last year, particularly his observations on how works of art have shifting meanings and are perceived and appreciated in different ways in different contexts. When Romuald was showing his work La Bouche du Roi at the BM in 2007 he was invited by Tate Modern to give a talk in one of their lecture series. When asked why La Bouche was showing at the BM rather than in an “art” museum such as Tate, Romuald replied in typically forthright manner: “Because the British Museum is avant-garde.” I’ve heard the BM called a lot of things in my time, but this was a first! The truth is, his work would have been equally spectacular at Tate Modern (where I’m sure it will be shown in due course) but it would have been perceived and understood in a host of different ways, some subtle, some more obvious.

It is important that museums—art, ethnology or hybrid—strive to be as dynamic and flexible as possible, offering artists the possibility of showing their work in a variety of discursive spaces. By doing so the discourse will become ever richer and more powerful, and less likely to be appropriated.