22 Jan 2018

Igbo Jug

Hi everyone! It’s Emma MacNicol, Collections Trainee here at Birmingham Museums Trust, and I’d like to share with everyone something about a jug…

I first came across this vessel when putting away objects from the World Arts collection emptied from Gallery 33 in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Tucked away in one of the cabinets was this very un-assuming jug. Made from clay and used to carry water or palm wine, it was made by an Igbo tribe in the Cross River state of Nigeria in the late 19th Century. Igbo are one of the many tribes in Nigeria and one of the many people who drink palm wine across West Africa. Made by collecting and then fermenting sap from the palm tree, palm wine is an alcoholic drink that had particular significance in traditional Igbo culture. It was incorporated into many customs such as weddings and gatherings. Vessels like this jug may have been used to carry palm wine by suitors who were meeting their future in-laws for the first time. As it was customary to bring large quantities of the drink as a gift to the family. There are different variants of palm wine, with each type being used for what occasion dependant on the various Igbo tribes. When distilled, palm wine becomes a stronger drink known locally as ‘Ogogoro’. Although, Ogogoro is largely associated more with other tribes in Nigeria, like the Urhobo.

Nigeria Cross River State Map

Map of Nigeria highlighting cross river state. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nigeria_-_Cross_River.svg

Seeing this object reminded me of home, as I’m from Nigeria and Igbo myself. It wasn’t the only object from Nigeria I came across when putting away ‘ethnographic’ items for storage at the Museum Collections Centre either. Ethnography is a term and study that deals with scientifically describing people and their cultures. The practice in the past has commonly been used to observe people from non-western society. Looting various cultures’ items and classifying people in harmful and derogatory ways was done in the name of ethnographic study. Collections of world arts and objects were put together and displayed so people could study and marvel at how different people in other parts of the world were. Primarily to assert the idea that people in the West were more advance than other cultures. Which was a useful tool in justifying the colonisation of different countries. Although we now know that using ethnography to study people, cultures and objects in this way, for such means, is no longer acceptable, the term ethnographic has stuck in the classification of certain objects in museum collections. Particularly as a number of museums started from these types of collections.

Objects that formed these early ethnographic collections were often collected by people like the acquirer of this object, Percy Amaury Talbot. Talbot was born in 1887 and was Oxford educated. As an accomplished surveyor, he moulded himself into the extensive ‘African Explorer’, assisting with expeditions to Lake Chad, Cameroon and French Central Africa in the early 1900s. However, his career is most defined by his time spent in Nigeria. Particularly as a British Government official who held various positions in the colonial administration of Southern Nigeria. In 1911 he was appointed District Commissioner of Southern Nigeria. A District Commissioner was the most senior British Government representative in the appointed district and when necessary, had the most administrative authority. By 1931, when he retired, he had held other positions such as census commissioner and appointed resident in Benin. He was also the first recipient of the Royal African Society’s first Silver Medal for ‘Services to Africa’. 

He authored many ethnographic books on life in Southern Nigeria during his time there. The most notable titled, ‘In the Shadows of the Bush’. The title of the book alone shows the perspective from which society and culture was viewed in Nigeria at the time. It also demonstrates the nature in which men like Talbot collected and viewed various objects from colonies during the course of their careers. To support the usual and demeaning narrative of ‘natives’ that was created at the time. Talbot seems to have acquired a number of objects through gifts and purchase. However, other objects that were collected by other men were not always acquired by means that would be ethically acceptable these days. Manipulating locals, using violent means and forcibly taking objects was not uncommon. 

There are many issues with objects having been acquired in this manner. Mainly that the true story of these objects could have got lost in translation. As the context in which the objects were acquired, used and displayed means that objects sometimes lost their true histories and were debased. The significance of certain objects held in local societies become trivialised and the role these objects played in societies lost. Some other items that held a deep religious or cultural significance were taken and displayed as novelties from the colonies. Some objects were given false histories and functions which were often created. Perhaps from a place of misunderstanding, or because of preconceptions that were held of local ‘savages’ and their customs. In other words, some objects collected have been influenced by the bias and narratives of the time, and their histories are now no longer authentic.

Igbo Jug

In the case of this ‘Ite’ or pot, I can’t say what its exact history is. That too has unfortunately been lost over time. I can say that jugs like it have played a part in important customs of Igbo tribes. I can say that this jug might have had a far more significant history than we know of. Especially if that history was not taken with the object when it was collected. I can also say it could have just been bought in a market and is a basic household item. Potentially collected to help support ideas from the ‘study’ of Southern Nigerian people or as a souvenir from the colonies. I know more about the man who collected the object than what the jug’s individual history is. But luckily, I do know about palm wine, traditions of Igbo tribes and am in a position to be able to share that. Which can perhaps be used to give the object some more context than it currently has. The way objects in museums have been collected and interpreted in that past cannot be changed. However, moving forward, more can be done to challenge those narratives. Through encouraging more inclusivity and representation in the sector. Which can lead to highlighting the truth behind objects and creating more authentic histories. 

Emma wrote this blog in response to the Change Maker programme and the Past Is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition currently on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery