Each year, University College London's Museum Studies MA programme offers its students a Collections Curatorship course for their second term. This year, Katy Bartosh joined the Ethnography team along with Alkisti Efthymious, Anita Francois and Hsueh-Chin Wang to work on the Horniman's collection under the supervision of Assistant Curator Johanna.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens is a veritable treasure trove of cultural artefacts and history, so when Johanna presented us with a choice of three objects we were ecstatic about the possibilities. Ultimately, we chose what had been described as a 'Congolese mansword,' fascinated by the options for research on this unique object.
At first, we didn't know much about the artefact besides the key facts: a Baptist missionary named Reverend Lionel G. West donated the knife to the collection in 1970. It was made in the 1930s with wood, iron and copper, and was attributed to the Mpama tribe.
West had donated this knife with 71 other 'Congo curios' from his personal collection and many were as unique and interesting as the human shaped knife. While these other objects showed us the scope of West's collecting, they didn't tell us anymore about the history and origin of our knife. At this point, we expanded our research.
Our project took us on various adventures. We spent hours at the British Museum's Anthropology Library and Research Centre learning about the evolution of Congolese weaponry. We also studied Congolese cultural practices, symbolism and art to understand the context of the artefact.
Our most exciting journey however was our trip to the Angus Library at Regent's Park College, Oxford, the leading collection of Baptist history and heritage worldwide. We were greeted by librarian Emily Burgoyne who had gathered the entirety of Reverend West's personal papers for us to sort through. Faced with several boxes and thousands of newspaper clippings, papers and records, we set to work to understand more about the man behind the knife and to discover why he had brought it with him on his return to England in the 1960s.
Lionel George West was a Baptist missionary born in Paulton, Somerset on 28 November 1904. After receiving his Baptist training at Rawdon College, he was accepted by the Baptist Missionary Society and sent to Bolobo, Congo in 1930. While conducting missionary work at the station he met Elsie May Palmer, who he would marry three years later. They were both transferred to Lukolela, a small missionary station on the Congo River, where they lived until 1961.
Reverend West was known in the Congo as 'Ebaka,' and he was well regarded by the local population who often sought his guidance and advice. While West and his wife built churches, schools and dispensaries he also acted as an amateur anthropologist, collecting artefacts and studying the culture and customs of the various people.
Interspersed throughout his missionary records we found notes on cultural practices and drawings of tools, animals and plants from the area. West was obviously interested in all aspects of life in Lukolela, not just his missionary work, and the notes he provided about the artefacts he brought back makes the collection even more interesting for the museum.
Reading through his diary and the scrapbooks he kept, we watched as he became accustomed to life in Lukolela and his family grew. We read about the birth of his sons and the milestones in their lives, and the difficulty with which they left the Congo when political tension forced them to leave. It was as if we were with him, in Lukolela, and this personal connection to West brought his collection alive for us.
Before donating his collection to the Horniman the Reverend displayed it in his house, the Bratton Manse in Wiltshire. The Manse was located in the back of the Baptist chapel where West was ministering, and he dedicated a room of his home to his collection of Congolese artefacts. West and his wife had even decorated the curtains with names of Congo towns, maps, local proverbs, and pictures of animals. Reverend West had eagerly explained the stories behind each object to local journalists because for him, the artefacts that he had collected were not just curios, but also mementos of the thirty years that he had spent in Lukolela.
Our research culminated in a report on the artefact's history, production, cultural and historical context, and symbolism. It is a complex object that represents a vast number of histories that extend from Congolese iron working, to the role of British Missionaries in the history of the Congo people.
However, it was the story of the man who received the knife, conserved it, and donated it to the Horniman that connected us with this unique and foreign object. Today, the knife remains in storage, but we hope that in upcoming years it will be put on display so visitors can connect with the story of Reverend Lionel G. West, and learn how a single artefact can represent a diverse, and interesting history.