As part of our Collections People Stories project, Sophie Mew was asked to give us information on our collections from Mali. Here she tells us about two of her favourite objects.
My interest in West African material culture stems from 2003 when I completed an internship at the Musée National du Mali, working with the collections on display.
Since then, I have carried out repeated visits and went on to pursue doctoral research investigating a wider range of museums in Mali and Ghana. My fieldwork kept bringing me back to the question of the relationships between museums' collections and their visitors, focusing especially on what I call the 'non-visitor' (members of local communities that do not frequent their museums).
The training that I received from colleagues during my first trip to Mali and the subsequent familiarisation with museum collections were invaluable for carrying out research on the collections records at the Horniman.
I was sent a file containing records and images of over 250 objects. My task was to work through each entry, searching for omissions, anomalies, and contributing background information such as the dates of the objects, their material and brief descriptions. I then made a selection to provide more in-depth comments about contexts and local uses.
Some of the collections that stood out included this hunter's shirt. Bamana hunter shirts are dyed a similar colour as the Sahelian landscape, a sandy brown that camouflages the hunter.
Small amulets of leather pouches are sewn into the material, and these contain protective objects or inscriptions.
Mirrors to confuse the hunted animals are also attached, and verses from the Koran are directly applied to the shirt to further protect the hunter. These shirts are culturally significant and aesthetically very impressive pieces.
One of the cloths I liked was this 'Miss RTM' beauty contest commemorative cloth that was made in 1986.
The Museum's Malian collection also contains a large number of commemorative cloths, which are designed and worn as wrappers to show to others your allegiance to particular organisations or your support for certain political parties, for example.
This cloth is covered in printed black and white portraits with colourful designs of wheat-sheafs on a bright yellow background.
The competitions are hugely popular among young women and are still sponsored by what has now become 'ORTM' (the national radio and television company).
During my investigation, I found out that because of the political crisis in Mali in 2012, the organisers of the contest focused their support on people suffering in the north. Instead of the annual festivities, they arranged a 'night of solidarity'. There will certainly be new commemorative cloths designed, produced, and worn to mark this particular occasion.
It was a fantastic experience to research these collections, from their varied nature (masks, textiles, jewellery) to being able to place older pieces within contemporary contexts.
In searching for information, I frequently returned to the notes I had made during my training with museum staff in 2003. This brought back fond memories and a profound recognition of my colleagues’ patience and of the in-depth knowledge they took the time to share with me.