Monday, 22 May 2017

Assessment of K.0020 Five bells, UCL Ethnography Collections

Figure 1 Each bell has former accession numbers from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) painted on the surface. From the left: 60424; 60428; 60425; 60426; 60427.

Figure 2 The detatched cane that was originally part 60428.


Accession No. K.0020 consists of five bells (fig.1, fig.5) and a detached cane (fig.2). Each bell consists of a hollowed oblong Borassus seed shell (fig.3) tied with strings that have one or two clappers fastened inside. The natural shape of the seeds have been used as a basis to create idiophones with clappers to strike against the hard shell to produce sound. The strings are made of twisted plant fibres while all the clappers are carved wood, apart from the forged iron clapper in 60424.  
Figure 3 Anatomy of the Borassus flabellifera fruit.


Figure 4 BaAka (also known as Congo Pygmies)
in hunting gear and a Basenji dog
with a dibu around
its neck.
Madibu for dogs were usually simple, though
they could be decorated to express an
owner's love (Thompson 1989,42).

Figure 5 An Azande 'witchdoctor' with madibu
fastened to his 
belt. The sounds produced during
dances were associated 
with hunting and chasing away
evil spirits, bad luck and illnesses 
(Evans-Pritchard 1976, 73;
Thompson 1989, 42; MacGaffey 2002, 15).
Original accession records from the Wellcome Collection (Wellcome Library Accessions register: WA/HMM/CM/Acc/20, Vol 20: 60000-60514. Oct 1932 - May 1933. Box No 251) documents at least two, if not three different provenances within former Belgian Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, DNR) and possibly in what was the French colony of Ubangi-Shari (Miers and Roberts 1988, xx), where they may have been produced with locally available materials The bells appear characteristic for madibu[1], which were used as dog bells during hunts (fig.4) and as ritual accessories (fig.5) by ethnic groups habiting these areas, namely the BaAka, Azande and Bakongo, at least by 1875 (Evans-Pritchard 1960, 319; MacGaffey 2002, 12, 16). Wellcome was interested in collecting objects associated with medicine in the broadest sense, considering activities such as the provision of food and protection from the elements as relevant for his collection (Lawrence 2003, 63). In this context, ethnographic materials of colonised African peoples represented ‘primitive’ stages in a cultural evolution of health-preservation (Lawrence 2003, 51-52).

Condition Assessment

The bells and clappers are structurally sound, apart from the loose clapper of 60427. The insides of the bells have layers of surface dirt, while dirt on the resin and strings looks partially ingrained. The iron clapper is rusted, but the corrosion has not interacted with the surrounding material and looks stable. The cane, wood, resin and string elements show evidence of hygroscopic damage from gaining and loosing moisture too rapidly in the form of splitting, embrittlement, cracking and warping (Carter and Walker 1999, 77-78).

Damage mapping

Statement of Significance

It is difficult to assess the original function of the bells due to lack of documentation. They have historic significance as examples of African crafts and traditions, and illustrate human ingenuity in exploiting plant materials for creating musical instruments. They also signify Western Darwinist ideas of colonised peoples, cultural development, social organisation and hierarchies of race (Keim 1998, 111).
Figure 5 Frontal view of the bells.

Carter, D. and Walker, A. K., 1999. 
Vascular plants, Collection environment. In: D. Carter and A. K. Walker (eds) Care & Conservation of Natural History Collections. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 61–80, 139–151.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E., 1960. A contribution to the study of Zande culture, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 30/4, 309–324.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E., 1976. Witch-doctors. In: E. Gillies (ed.) Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Abridged ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 65–89
Keim, C. A., 1998. Artes Africanae: The western discovery of “art” in Northeastern Congo. In;  E. Schildkrout and C. A. Keim (eds) The Scramble for Art in Central Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 109–132.
Lawrence, G., 2003. Wellcome’s museum for the science of history. In: K. Arnold and D, Olsen (eds) Medicine Man. London: The British Museum Press, 51–71
MacGaffey, W., 2002. Ethnographic notes on Kongo musical instruments, African Arts, 35/2, 12–19.
Mason, R., 2002 Assessing values in conservation planning: methodological issues and choices. In: M. de la Torre (ed.) Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 5–30.
Miers, S. and Roberts, R. L., 1988. Note on Orthography. In: S. Miers and R. L. Roberts (eds) The End of Slavery in Africa. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, xix–xx. 
Thompson, R. F., 1989. Body and voice: Kongo figurative musical instruments. In: M. T. Brincard (ed.) Sounding Forms. African Musical Instruments. New York: The American Federation of Arts, pp. 39–45.

Figure 3 is reproduced from Griffiths, D. A., 1991. Useful palms of the Borassoideae family: Borassus and Hyphaene. In: Palms of Economic Value [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 17 April 2017).

Figure 4 is reproduced from Tudor-Williams, V., 1976. Basenjis: The Barkless Dogs of Central Africa. Vermont: David and Charles Inc.

Figure 5 is reproduced from the Wellcome Library, London, V0015964.

[1] Proto-Western Bantu word for bell, madibu in plural (MacGaffey 2002, 12). They were carved either from borassus pods or from the mumpala madibu tree (ibid.).

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2016-17), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

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