all photos by author unless otherwise noted
The Grassfields region of Cameroon is home to many museums. In a region that is known for its prolific, well-studied, vibrant arts and cultures, museums have been a part of the cultural landscape for nearly one hundred years. The earliest examples are the Musée des Arts et Traditions Bamoums and the Foumban Palace Museum, both of which opened in the 1920s.1 Since their creation, other kingdoms throughout the region have been constantly building, opening, and renovating museums.2 Many kingdoms in the Grassfields have independently invested in their museums or sought financial support from NGOs. In 1999, the Centro Oreintamento Educativo (COE) initiated a project that has played a pivotal role in the renovation or development of four such palace museums: the Mankon, Baham, Bandjoun, and Babungo Museums.3
COE is a nongovernmental organization based in Barzio, Italy, that seeks to support the arts and culture in developing nations around the world. According to the project website, the Grassfields region was selected as a focus for this COE initiative because it is an area “where the heritage is the richest and where the dangers of dispersion and decline of the objects of art are therefore more numerous.”4 Having narrowed the search to the Grassfields region for this reason, the art historian attached to the project, Jean-Paul Notué, chose five kingdoms from a field of nearly two hundred to participate in the museum project, only four of which fully realized the completion of building a museum.5 He selected them based upon four criteria: “the presence of a significant heritage; the willingness of the traditional authorities to allow the study and social enjoyment of the objects belonging to the heritage of their communities; the degree of the desire and wishes of the place to have a modern and suitable museum; the commitment of the traditional authorities to put an appropriate building at the disposal of the project and on schedule” (Notué and Triaca 2006b:15).
The objects in these Grassfields museums are multidimensional: they function as indicators of heritage; they embody personal histories and memories; they represent the pride and prestige of the kingdom and its people; and the individual objects work as part of a larger whole to communicate reimagined narratives of kingdom, tradition, and history. Yet some of the objects in Grassfields museums gain added meaning outside of the museum space. All of the Grassfields museums organized by the COE loan objects to the public so that these items may fulfill ritual functions. As such, these so-called living museums function as storerooms, lenders, conservators, educators, and protectors and arbiters of culture and heritage. This policy means the museum objects will remain functional in ritual settings. The “traditional” meanings of these objects are retained through their continued functionality, but never again can this meaning be viewed as a singular, or necessarily primary, meaning. Notué stresses that prior to their inclusion in the museum, the value of these works could have been “religious, social, political, mythical, or economic, or more than one of these together” (2006:63) and the act of moving these objects to the museum space makes them increasingly multifaceted.
In this article, I will examine various types of objects and their layered meanings from two museums located in the Anglophone Northwest Region of the Grassfields6: the Mankon Museum and Babungo Museum. The focus will be on the movement of objects to and from the museum sphere and the ways in which the works of art are affected as they move in and out of the museum and ritual spheres in the kingdom due to the lending policies of the museums. Specific instances when works are borrowed from the museum will be examined in detail, as well as groups of objects that are loaned in the event of annual festivals. In each case, the ways in which objects are used and understood elucidates the complexity of the object, as well as the complex nature of the museum space itself.
MANKON MUSEUM: PROCEDURE, PRACTICE, AND REASONS FOR LENDING
As “living museums,” all of the COE museums house objects that are more than historical artifacts of past traditions or representations of current practices. They are works of art that are still used by members of the community today. Objects housed in these museums are used for royal burials, enthronements, annual festivals, medicinal purposes, and marriages. The most consistent use of objects from the museums seems to be during annual festivals, when objects considered quintessentially local are put on various forms of display, a transition that could be viewed as a movement from museum to a locally conceived museological space. Garments are worn, musical instruments are played, ritual objects are used and sometimes transformed in the process, and statues and other prestige objects are scattered through festival spaces. As large, public displays, festivals connect the museum with narratives of collective heritage. Yet there are other loaned objects tied to more private ceremonies: a princely masquerade costume from Mankon, a medicinal basket from Baham, and funereal masks from Babungo, to name only a few. Such objects are borrowed predictably if infrequently, only when absolutely necessary.
The opportunity to borrow objects from the museum is not open to all members of the local community. As curators and donors explained, the only people who may borrow works from the museum are people who have a legitimate connection with the object. This generally means that borrowing is restricted to donors, the family members of donors, and members of the palace. As a point of clarification, locals would not seek to borrow objects that did not come from their family, and if they did, they would only be able to borrow those objects if they could show a genuine need to use them and receive explicit permission from the original donor. In reality, the most frequent borrowers of museum objects are the palaces. This is to be expected, given that the palaces are the largest donors to the museums and the local hubs of traditional practices.
There is a set protocol for borrowing objects from any of the COE museums. When individuals wish to borrow an object they speak with the curator. The borrower then signs out the object so that the museum may retain a record of the loan in case the object is lost. The curator removes the object from the exhibition space, and either the individual intending to use the object, or possibly a member of the palace, collects the item from the museum. In many instances, individuals or societies who borrow the objects decide that they must bless them before they can be used, but this is not always necessary. Once they have finished using the object, the borrower returns the object directly to the curator, who determines if repairs are required and then returns it to its place in the museum display.
In theory, everything in the museum is available to be loaned, but realistically there are a few items that would never be borrowed. Each museum contains objects that are historical and no longer serve any ritual function. The circumstances of their use have been lost and consequently there is no situation in which an individual would have a ritual need for the object. For example, each museum has medicine bags or statues necessary for clan or family rituals that are no longer practiced. At the same time, there are practical, nonritual objects that would also be unlikely candidates to loan. Items such as historical umbrellas or decorative food bowls would not be borrowed because no one in the community could justify using such museum objects. With this type of historical, functional object, museum curators take the position that only a real need for an object warrants the risk of damage or loss that accompanies the process of loaning them out.
The following case studies trace two sets of objects from the Mankon Museum—one dance costume and a suit of armor worn by the king, or fon—as they move in and out of the museum sphere and examine how this process impacts them in terms of their status as ritual objects, prestige items, and museum pieces. Both exemplify situations that necessitate borrowing objects from the museum: all museums house certain singular objects that must be used for important ceremonies on a very irregular basis, and they also house objects that can act as back-ups when extra are needed for especially sizable performances. Of the two scenarios, it is far more common that objects are borrowed from the museum when the palace does not have enough examples on hand for a specific occasion. As such, on more than one occasion, people described museum objects as functional only as a last resort. The palace will turn to the museum in cases where they need extra stools, costumes, or other masquerade paraphernalia to perform a ceremony.
Curators at Mankon, Babungo, and Baham all related examples of times when they lent objects from the museum because the palace did not have a sufficient stock. For example, Mankon Museum curator Vincent Nshey noted a display of ankle rattles that had recently been loaned to members of the palace for a masquerade, and he stated the reason was simply that the palace did not have enough rattles to supply all of the dancers. As a result of situations like this, the museums are able to classify most of the objects as functional objects, though the realistic chances of use for some are slim. Many in the palace view the museum as similar to a storeroom; its stocks are there to supplement what exists in palace storerooms and no object is made untouchable because of its place in the museum. The Mankon Museum, like all of the COE Grassfields museums, is at once museum, lender, and storeroom.
CASE STUDY: BORROWING THE ATUA AKAMØ AND MÜNANG
One important work in the Mankon Museum that has repeatedly been borrowed by members of the palace is a masquerade costume worn during performances of the atakügorü, a death celebration for princes (Notué and Triaca 2006b:250). The costume consists of a wooden mask (atua akamø) that represents a male face and an ankle-length tunic (münang), the entirety of which is adorned with rows of small locks of hair (Figs. 1–2). The atakügorü dance takes place upon the death of a prince and the accompanying dance is modeled after the nükwi masquerade that is performed during the death celebration for a fon. The atua akamø is a lead mask in the performance, and the number of dancers varies depending upon the importance of the prince who has died. According to one young Mankon prince, Valentine Ndoh Ndefru, this costume is only needed in the case of an especially large funeral celebration, which is an infrequent occurrence. Typically, younger princes wear this garment during the atakügorü because the dance that accompanies it is energetic. Mr. Ndoh, who had recently worn this costume in an atakügorü, commented that it does not require a lot of practice to dance this mask. It is a mask for young, energetic men who wish to participate in a dance that they have seen their elders perform.7 It is difficult to comment more specifically on the history and modern practice of this masquerade given the dearth of research on this topic. As Jean-Pierre Warnier noted, many precolonial Mankon rituals have been lost. He further comments that “access to those rituals that are still performed is restricted, and it is difficult to collect the kind of precise data needed for the analysis of rituals” (Warnier 1975:269).
Mr. Ndoh explained in detail the specific process of borrowing the atua akamø and münang from the museum. When this costume is needed from the museum, either the person to wear it or a palace representative comes to collect the piece. He must sign the object out with the curator, noting who has taken it and when. The atua akamø is then taken into the palace to be “blessed.” Mr. Ndoh was vague regarding what occurred in the process of “blessing” an object, describing only the use of traditional medicines and words being spoken over the costume. He could not be more specific because he has never been present for the ceremony. He was adamant, however, that the mask and costume could not be taken straight from the museum to any type of ritual setting; it is imperative that it first be blessed in the palace. After the conclusion of the masquerade, the mask and costume are returned to the museum, seemingly without any corresponding blessing to make it safe to place back in the museum. As Simon Angwafor from Mankon explained, it is like returning a library book, in that they check it in and assess the state in which you return it. If it is damaged, repairs are made at the palace's expense, and it is then placed back in the exhibition space. Interestingly, Michael Rowlands has stated that Notué “ensured that objects, and in particular elements of masqeurade costumes used in rituals, were ‘cleaned up’: that is, rendered impotent to be made available to be touched or handled by visitors” (Rowlands 2011:S30). While I was never told this, I spoke to the curators six years after the museums opened and it is possible that they were not privy to this. Regardless, nothing is done today when objects recently used for ritual purposes are returned to the museum.
It is a constant in the Grassfields that ritual objects are imbued with a form of potency that, as Notué summarizes, gives objects the ability to “[capture] the forces of nature” (Notué and Triaca 2006a:55). Throughout the region, blessed objects are imbued with power by applying ritual medicine, which gives them, or those using them, the ability to communicate with the spiritual world and nature (Koloss 2008:74). Hans-Joachim Koloss also makes the excellent point that, locally, both masks and medicines are colloquially referred to as juju, indicating the close connection between the two with regards to power (Koloss 2008:74). This power makes these objects inherently dangerous. They should be treated with respect and hidden away for public safety as long as they are considered to be in a state of being blessed. The atua akamø would have been no exception to this.
Upon completion, the mask would have been treated with traditional medicine in order to permit the wearer access to the world of ancestors and spirits. Anthropologist Nicolas Argenti's comments on masking in the kingdom of Oku can be applied generally to the Grassfields when he states that “masking is a source of power and danger” because it allows for “transformation and access to another world of ancestors and deities” (Argenti 2007:122). All masks undergo this initial process of activation with traditional medicines, and some masks, such as the atua ngang (Fig. 3) in the Mankon Museum, even have medicines applied before every performance in order to protect the wearer and other dancers from evil spirits and witchcraft (Fru 2006:185). It does not appear that the atua akamø historically received this type of treatment with every performance, as there is no mention of it in the Mankon Museum catalogue, nor by Mr. Ndoh. Yet this is no longer the case today, because Mr. Ndoh has indicated that once objects enter the museum space in Mankon they are no longer considered to be blessed. Consequently, they must undergo ritual treatment before each time they are used in a ritual setting.
The mutable potency of objects, being blessed or unblessed, cannot be exaggerated today. When asking Mr. Ndoh if he felt that displaying the atua akamø and münang in the museum in any way changed the way that he, as someone who wears this in a performance setting, thinks of the object, his answer was an unequivocal “no.” Mr. Ndoh has worn masks that have been kept in palace storerooms and the atua akamø on display in the museum. His experience performing the masks that have been housed in both places were the same. It does not matter that anyone coming into the museum, man or woman, could touch the mask. It does not matter that non-royals and non-locals could see the full costume. In his experience, these elements of museum display have no impact on the mask and the costume's ability to be used as ritual objects. In his view, the primary distinction is in seeing or wearing the mask before or after it has been blessed in the palace. Once a museum object has been blessed, he feels differently when he looks at it and when he wears it. While Mr. Ndoh may not know what occurs when an object is blessed, it feels distinctly different to him to touch and wear the costume after it has been blessed, as though it has been imbued with something. This sanctity is not present when the object resides in the museum. In terms of its ritual status, it is inert in the museum space. This is made clear by the way that he treats the mask when it is in the museum. When I asked Mr. Ndoh to point out the costume, he went into the museum, pulled the münang off the mannequin and put it on as if putting on his shirt. He walked around wearing it for a minute, put on the atua akamø to show me how the two pieces looked when worn together, and then took it off and replaced it on the mannequin (Fig. 4). From his treatment of the objects, it was clear that there is a stark difference in the way that certain objects are treated in the museum and outside of it.
When worn during a masquerade, Mr. Ndoh does not think of these pieces as museum items and there is no concern about damaging the pieces. For tourists, the museum is a place to learn about Mankon history and heritage, and yet, from Mr. Ndoh's frame of reference, it is functionally no different from any storeroom in the palace. Borrowers are not urged to try to protect the objects when using them, and there are no consequences for damaging them, as it is more important that they are used properly when fulfilling ritual functions.
Objects in Grassfields palace museums are presented as heritage items. Beyond this, those pieces that are borrowed move in and out of being considered ritual objects. Parallels can be drawn between the transience of the ritual state of these objects and the changing status of commodities. Both Arjun Appadurai (1986) and anthropologist Igor Kopytoff (1986) have written on the biography of commodities and how the status of a commodity shifts over the course of its life. Appadurai has noted that “things can move in and out of the commodity state, that such movements can be slow or fast, reversible or terminal, normative or deviant” (Appadurai 1986:13). The same idea can be applied to the ritual life of many museum objects. Using the atua akamø and münang as examples, as they move in an out of the museum, they transition back and forth between the status of ritual and non-ritual object.
The atua akamø and münang highlight an important insight into the nature of the museum space. Inside the museum, this costume is primarily a piece of heritage. This is highlighted by the fact that Mr. Ndoh allowed me to see him wearing an incomplete costume, without any ankle clackers, and more importantly, without anything to cover his face. In the museum, where it is no longer imbued with the necessary blessings to elevate it to ritual status, the mask's role as an indicator of heritage and history becomes its primary function. The process of transition from unblessed to blessed and then back again does not have equal levels of complexity or proportionality. In order to be blessed, something must be done to the mask and garment, but for it to no longer be blessed, the act of returning it to the museum is sufficient. As a non-ritual space, the museum is able to have a potent effect on the objects that reside there. When museum pieces are blessed, they are powerful and only certain people may see and touch them. By dint of the public nature of the museum display, the museum space itself, regardless of its location within the palace grounds, is able to remove the spiritual power from the object.
CASE STUDY: THE FON'S ARMOR
The Mankon Museum houses a wide range of objects that have been borrowed over the past ten years. A majority of those objects are ritual items borrowed for use in traditional ceremonies, with the atua akamø and münang being prime examples. The museum also houses historical, prestige objects that do not technically serve a ritual purpose, but are used during the performance of ritual acts. These objects are not blessed, and yet their movement to and from the museum represents another way in which objects may become more multifaceted in the museum space. One such object in the Mankon Museum is a German suit of armor (Fig. 5) worn by the fon during public celebrations.
Fon Angwafo II received the suit of armor displayed in the Mankon Museum in 1902 as a gift from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. The events that led to this gift began in December 1890. The German explorer Eugene Zintgraff sent two messengers to inform the fons of Mankon and Bafut that he would be arriving shortly to discuss ivory trade in the kingdoms, as the two kingdoms were known for having more high-quality ivory than the surrounding kingdoms. To Zintgraff's surprise, messengers from the fon of Bali informed him that Fon Gualem of Mankon had killed his two emissaries (Chilver 1966:25). As for Bafut, Zintgraff's relations with that kingdom were already tense because Zintgraff claimed that he was owed recompense after he gave them lavish gifts. Zintgraff's perspective was that the Bafut fon had never repaid his kindness by leading him in the next stage of his journey, as he claimed he had been promised. As such, whereas prior to the arrival of Zintgraff, Bali and Bafut had been near to allying against the fon of Mankon, Zintgraff's incursion into the region resulted in Bafut and Mankon joining forces against Zintgraff and Bali (Chilver 1966:25). These tensions came to a head during the Battle of Mankon on January 31, 1891. Parts of Mankon were burned, four of Zintgraff's German comrades died, and many men from Mankon and Bafut were killed or captured. According to historian and ethnographer E.M. Chilver, although Zintgraff believed that the battle was a failure due to the loss of German lives, at the time, locals perceived him as the victor (1966:29).
The second half of the story that led to Mankon receiving the suit of armor from the German kaiser began ten years after the Battle of Mankon. The Mankon and Bafut people remained resistant to German interference, but in 1901 the German forces launched a punitive expedition under the leadership of von Pavel and Captain Glauning, crushing the Mankon-Bafut forces decisively (Chilver 1967:495, Ngwa 2006:177). The Mankon and Bafut fons called for peace and they were each given gifts at the conclusion of the war, indications of the peaceful, cooperative relationships the Germans anticipated from that point forward. Among the gifts received by Fon Angwafo II of Mankon was the breastplate and Prussian garde cuirassier helmet, which was only worn by two elite Prussian cavalry units at the time (Ngwa 2006:177). Chilver's research argues that at the time the fon of Mankon was viewed as having lost every battle against the Germans, sustaining 218 casualties, 217 taken prisoner, and 200 given to the Germans for forced labor (Warnier 1975, Chilver 1967:495). In the face of such losses for the Mankon people and its palace, it may be surprising to find that instead of representing a reminder of defeat, the armor is a prestige item today, treasured by the fon. A parallel can be drawn here to the court of the Bamum King Njoya who, prior to 1909, was regularly seen wearing German military garb (Geary 1988a:55). In both instances, the peoples of Bamum and Mankon viewed the gift of German military clothing and paraphernalia as an indication of close ties between the Germans and their respective kingdoms; this was something to be lauded.
In both the museum and the palace, the German armor is viewed as an indicator of the fon's innate prestige, power, and ferocity in battle. When touring the museum, the visitor is told a version of the Battle of Mankon that is much more aligned with Zintgraff's impressions of the battle, focusing on the facts that many Germans were killed, the attackers were repelled and, regardless of local perceptions at the time, claiming that Mankon was victorious that day.8 It is this version of the battle that is widely held today, as indicated by the epilogue of Bole Butake's 1994 play Zintgraff and the Battle of Mankon. She writes: “In the battle of Mankon, Bali losses were not more than six times ten men. Bafut and Mankon lost two thousand dead and more than one thousand taken captive. Yet in Bali the atmosphere was of defeat, while there was celebration in Bafut and Mankon because of the victory over Zintgraff's countrymen” (Butake 2002). It is clear from its inclusion in the museum that the Mankon curators thought this piece of armor to be important to the museum's telling of Mankon history. When visiting the museum in Mankon, the German suit of armor is used to rewrite history in two ways: it represents both the military strength of the Mankon people and also the close bond between the Mankon fon and the German colonial administration.
The breastplate and helmet are two of the most regularly loaned objects in the museum, as they have become important pieces of the fon's regalia. He wears them during public festivals such as the annual dance and the nükwi, a celebration commemorating the death of the previous fon that may take place over ten years after his death (Ngwa 2006:177). While the armor is worn in ritual settings, it does not need to be blessed since it is not a ritual object, but rather an indicator of prestige. The Mankon Museum catalogue claims that Fon Angwafo II was given these items as a sign of his “pre-eminence as shown by his bravery and prowess in warfare, as well as his judicious rule, prestige, integrity, honesty, and fair dealings and his fear of God” (Ngwa 2006:177). As the only European object in the museum, it draws a great deal of attention and provides an opportunity to tell a story that highlights the strength of the Mankon people as victors in battle against the Germans. Outside of the museum it sustains this meaning as an indicator of Mankon's valor and strength in warfare. The museum space seemingly has little to no impact on the object, as it was never intended to be hidden from public view.9 The museum does not quell any of its power or meaning, nor does it imbue it with added value. If anything, the museum simply allows this object to more effectively serve its primary function of disseminating a reimagined version of Mankon's colonial history.
THE BABUNGO MUSEUM: OBJECTS AND FESTIVALS
The nikai festival takes place in the Babungo palace courtyard over the course of three consecutive nkusee, the day of rest in the Grassfields' traditional eight-day week, in the late winter/early spring.10 Touted as a peaceful festival with no discharging/firing of muskets, as is common at many Grassfield festivals, the nikai coincides with the beginning of the farming season and is meant to bring fertility to the kingdom in all senses of the word. As one Babungo man related to me, notables “visit the shrine to appease the ancestors of the village and appeal for good harvest, peace, unity, and development.”11 The first day of the nikai is spent with the members of the men's regulatory society, known as the ngoumba, in private ceremonies in the sacred forest adjacent to the palace. Over the course of the first day, the ngoumba, which is open to all non-royal males in the kingdom, presides over the sacrifices and necessary preparations for the next two days of the festival.12 The second nkusee sees men of the ngoumba from each quarter dancing in the courtyard of the palace. The second day's festivities culminate with the fon in a large mask completing a turn dancing around the courtyard. Finally, on the third day of the nikai, men of the ngoumba again dance in the palace courtyard, and this time the afternoon culminates with the fon walking around the dance venue and throwing blessed seeds to the crowd of Babungo people. The seeds will be the beginning of the next year's blessed crops.
On the second and third days of the festival, the palace courtyard is well appointed. Figurative statues of former fons and royal retainers ring the dance space, while carved drums are placed in the center. Elaborate thrones are set out for the visiting fons who come to watch the festivities. Locals regularly describe the nikai as the festival that epitomizes Babungo culture. On the two public days of the festival organizers draw broadly from the museum inventory, utilizing its contents in many components of the festival; every year museum objects are displayed, worn, carried, and played in during the nikai.
During the 2012 nikai, of the eleven statues lining the courtyard, seven were pieces that are normally found in the museum. The seven statues consisted of one commemorative statue depicting Fon Sangge II (Fig. 6), two statues depicting Fon Sake II (Figs. 7–8), a statue throne of a retainer (wenyui ntoh) (Fig. 9), and three statues of royal guardians13 (ndifuan tambu) (Figs. 10–12). These figures are lavish. They stand out as pieces of the finest quality and many of them are entirely covered in beads or cowry shells, an indication of palace wealth since the nineteenth century (Notué and Triaca 2006a:44, Argenti 2007:132). Acting as markers of affluence is only one function of such statues. Art historian Alissa LaGamma has noted that such depictions allow ancestors to both witness and continue to take part in the traditions of their kingdoms (2012:60). Regionally, effigies of fons, who are carved as seated figures, and their wives or mothers are held to embody and represent the specific depicted individual. Consequently, they are frequently displayed at death celebrations and festivals where they represent the ancestors and also serve as indicators of the royal genealogy. Depictions of royal retainers and guardians—identifiable by their standing posture, the inclusion of a small stool in front of the legs, and a flute (toole) gripped in their hands—sometimes served ritual functions related to protecting the kingdom, its sacred locations and objects, and its people, but this is not necessarily always the case (Notué and Triaca 2006a:55). While these may be the stated function of effigy statues, there is some doubt that the statues of fons and retainers used in the nikai ever served this purpose.
Notué commented in the Babungo Museum catalogue that it is likely that the tradition of carving ancestor statues is not an old Babungo practice. Curators of the Babungo Museum support this claim, noting that the earliest known examples of this practice come from the reign of Fon Sake II (r. 1927–1955), and Tamara Northern has hypothesized that this tradition in Babungo is even more modern than the curators claim, beginning as recently as the reign of Fon Zofoa II (r. 1955–1999) (Northern 1984:35). The assertion of this practice's relative youth was borne out by conversations that I had with local notables, and yet they clearly act as more than simple portraits. The practice's recent introduction explains the local understanding of the tradition as something that may be either secular or religious, and only vaguely historical. In speaking with many notables from the kingdom, it became clear that these objects have historically served multiple purposes in the nikai. In asking the notable Tita Fuangwe Ndofekeh if they had always brought the statues of the fons and guardians out into the courtyard, he replied, “yes, they carry some out of the museum, out of the palace. That way we exhibit the tradition of the village, the cultural background of the village; because it is a selling dance.”14 Clarifying “selling,” he claimed that one of the most important reasons for putting the statues in the courtyard is to increase the pomp of the ceremony so that tourists will see the lavish nature of the festival, share this with others, and thereby attract visitors to the kingdom. The relatively recent adoption of this practice may have been motivated by a desire to appeal to foreign audiences by taking up a widely known regional artistic practice. At the same time, Tita Ndofekeh asserted that the locals attending the festival are pleased to see that ancestor statues are watching the proceedings and taking the blessings offered to them throughout the festival performance (Northern 1984:35).
Babungo Museum curator Cyvil Nangwa Nsanyui's research reveals different historical uses for these objects. For example, Mr. Nsanyui concluded that of the two seated statues depicting Fon Sake II, one of the statues (Fig. 7) was made to be exhibited during Sake II's death celebrations as well as annual festivals, while the second statue (Fig. 8) was stored in the palace and only displayed in public during the enthronement of a new fon (Nsanyui 2006:146, 157). He found that the statues of royal guardians were displayed only at death celebrations, enthronements, and annual festivals. Prior to their inclusion in the museum they were housed in the tambu, a restricted storage room in the palace (Mbowoh 2006:150, Nsanyui 2006:157). As such, it appears that prior to their installation in the museum these statues served a range of functions from the regional, traditionally accepted role as witnesses to death and enthronement celebrations to decorative reminders of history and impressive examples of local artistic production during annual festivals attended by locals and tourists alike. The museum catalogue concludes that in addition to other uses, a majority of the statues were always intended for display during the nikai, with the exception of one of the statues of Sake II.
While the lavish statues contribute to the affluent aura of the nikai ceremony, nothing is more impressive than the regalia of the fon. On the third day of the nikai, the fon is outfitted in a manner that displays the full weight of his power (Fig. 13). Men of the ngoumba society surround him. One man holds a large umbrella over his head, while many others hold up two large indigo-dyed prestige cloths, known as ndop,15 on either side of the fon. The fon is followed by a trail of younger members of the ngoumba society holding various markers of the fon's power, all made to be used or displayed in festival settings. Nearly all of these objects are regularly housed in the museum. The selection of objects that are chosen to follow behind the fon varies slightly from year to year. In the 2012 nikai the young men carried a woven basket, a stool decorated with cowry shells, a stool decorated in intricate beadwork, a beaded calabash, and a carved ivory tusk (Fig. 14). Four children carried beaded flywhisks, while the last child in the procession carried a second tusk (Fig. 15). Both of the stools (Figs. 16–17), the calabash (Fig. 18), and both tusks (Figs. 19–20) are objects normally kept in the museum. In the 2013 nikai the men following the fon carried the same woven basket, the cowry shell decorated stool and the beaded stool, followed by two beaded calabashes, both tusks, a fly whisk, and a beaded statue (Fig. 21). Of the nine objects that were carried behind the fon in 2013, two-thirds were from the museum, versus only half in 2012. This shift can be understood in a couple of ways. The fon wanted to show items that indicate prestige and heritage, and the museum is increasingly perceived as the place where such items are housed. The museum has augmented the value of its items as indicators of heritage and prestige, making them better options each year for inclusion in the nikai. Another possibility is that the palace was attempting to make the nikai more appealing to tourists, and the inclusion of the museum objects adds a level of interest given the unique opportunity to see museum objects in a ritual setting.
The nikai ceremony highlights the power and prestige of the fon, and the array of objects carried behind him must evolve to represent his power in the most impressive way currently possible. The beaded calabashes have long been associated with the fon on traditional festival days. One of them has been carried behind the fon in this manner for many years, while the other was traditionally placed next to the fon on ceremony days. The two stools, which were present in both the 2012 and 2013 nikai, were made by Fon Sake II, the twenty-third fon (r. 1927–1955), and they have been present in the nikai since his reign. The lavish use of beads and cowries on these two pieces are longstanding visual indicators of wealth. The most recent additions to this procession are the two carved ivory tusks. Both of the ivory trumpets are carved with human and animal figures. Ndifua Ngow carved these trumpets in 2000 and they were made specifically for the current fon, Ndofoa Zofua III. Both are inscribed with his name (Bofua 2006:144). The imagery on the trumpets, specifically the depictions of spiders, underlines the power of the fon. The material itself is a royal indicator in that elephants are one of a handful of animals (including pythons, leopards, and lions) associated exclusively with the fon.
The fon wishes to convey his power to locals and foreigners alike. To visitors these items are museum quality pieces—finely beaded and expertly carved—marking the importance of the ceremony and its leader. These objects convey much more to locals. For example, the beaded calabashes represent the longstanding tradition of the fon keeping a private, highly decorated drinking calabash close to him at traditional public ceremonies. At many such public ceremonies, the fon's drinking horn will be continually refilled with palm wine from this beaded calabash so as that he may spit the mixture of raffia wine and saliva over his people in blessing16 (Warnier 1993:308). The decorated stools were made by a former fon and function as a reminder of the current leader's royal heritage as well as being a source of local pride in their fon's creative abilities, a highly desired trait in Grassfields fons (Geary 1988b:22). Finally, the tusks are associated exclusively with Fon Ndofua Zofoa III in the eyes of the kingdom; they are a sign of his power not only because they were designed for him, but also because it is believed that fons have the ability to transform into powerful animals such as elephants and because of the scarcity and high value of ivory, as elephants have not been seen in the region for decades.
The museum objects used in the festival are brought out and returned on the same day. Prior to their installation in the museum, they were kept away from public view when not being used. They were housed in storerooms in the palace and shrines, where only a select few would be able to see them. In those spaces, these objects maintained their roles as prestige items of traditional heritage year round. While in the museum, the objects tend to represent the historical figures who made them, the individuals they are made to represent, historical events, or the traditional practices when they are used. In the museum they are not highlighted as objects from the nikai as much as serving as tools for telling a larger narrative, while during the nikai they are not seen as museum objects, but traditional Babungo works of art, markers of kingship, and representations of ancestors in the space of contemporary ritual practice. Inclusion in the museum has made these objects increasingly multifaceted. The museum draws new and different elements out of these works, emphasizing the importance of the identity of the artist in many works and locating them within a larger narrative of heritage that, with the exception of works made by a royal hand, would not have been considered as strongly prior to becoming an art object on display in the museum.
Objects in the Grassfields museums have shifting functions, but when they are situated in the museum space their primary role is to act as a public version of culture where each object is understood less as an individual work of art and more as part of a larger narrative. The culture, as put forth in these museums, is in many ways itself an object. Appadurai and Breckenridge noted that objects have always constituted “a negotiated settlement between longstanding cultural significations and more volatile group interests and objectives” (Appadurai and Breckenridge 1992:35). These objects represent the heritage narrative of the most powerful people in the kingdom, from the fon to notables and donors.
When these objects are loaned out from the museum, their meanings become much more multifaceted. In Mankon, ritual objects that leave the museum in order to fulfill their traditional use engage in a compelling transition, from unblessed museum object to blessed ceremonial object. This transition speaks volumes about the nature of the museum space. In this case, not only is the museum a non-ritual space, a public space, but in most cases it also has the ability to drain any ritual power from the objects that are housed there. The relationship between the Babungo Museum and the performance of the nikai festival indicates the transformative impact of the museum on objects and traditional festivals in the region.
Given the natural affinity between the cultural festival and the display of cultural heritage in the museum, the two are becoming more and more intertwined. As the museum is increasingly associated with prestige and heritage, museum objects are becoming an increasingly integral part of cultural heritage performances. In both of these museums the movement of objects to and from the museum has a profound impact on how people view these objects differently based upon context and use. It speaks to the power of the museum as a space of transformation of the secular and the sacred, as a space of prestige and modernity, and as a public platform for local histories.
Field research for this article was made possible by a Fulbright IIE fellowship and an Arnold Rubin Award from the UCLA Fowler Museum.
As Polly Roberts has noted, the display of art is a common occurrence in Africa and “exhibitions” can be found in sacred and secular spaces throughout the continent (1994:58). Following this observation, an argument can be made that museums existed in the Grassfields long before German explorers first made contact with Grassfields cultures in the form of palace displays. As such, while the display of art objects was nothing new, the contribution made by the Foumban Museum and other colonial museum endeavors came in the form of access to palace objects for non-royals, a distancing of objects from the people who use them, and a new language of value surrounding art, culture, and heritage.
The Bandjoun Museum has subsequently been re-renovated since the COE project with support from various European sources.
The kingdom of Bamendjinda was also selected to receive support in order to build a museum and train local men and women as curators, but they did not complete the museum building in sufficient time. They completed a museum project in 2009 with funding and support from the Anneaux de la Mémoire in Nantes, France. Michael Rowlands (2009) gives an excellent description of the process COE went through in creating these museums in the Grassfields.
The kingdom of Mankon has a population between 50,000 to 70,000, while the kingdom of Babungo is home to 20,000 to 30,000 people.
Personal communication, Valentine Ndoh Ndefru, November 24, 2011. Mr. Angwafor Simon Chi was also present during this interview and he corroborated this statement, noting that he would not have enough energy at his age to dance the necessary steps for this costume.
Personal communication, Vincent Nshey, October 22, 2011.
Rowlands makes the point that all of the objects in the museum, as “things of the palace” are meant to be viewed at one time or another and therefore viewing the objects is not inherently transgressive (Rowlands 2011:S32).
Nkusee is colloquially known as “country Sunday.”
Personal communication, Tita Fuangwe Ndofekeh, January 23, 2012.
Boys are frequently initiated as soon as they are able to perform the traditional dance step of the ngoumba and children as young as two and three years old will participate in the annual festival.
Mark DeLancey has commented in a personal communication that the Afoakom may have inspired these figures. Though the curators at the Babungo Museum date these works to the first half of the twentieth century, it appears more likely that they were carved late during the reign of the previous fon, likely after the Afoakom was returned to Cameroon, as they all bear the distinctive high cap (isuh kom) of the Kom region.
Personal communication, Tita Fuangwe Ndofekeh, January 23, 2012.
Ndop cloth is a resist indigo-dyed cloth that is used for ceremonial purposes, frequently as clothing, and also as a demarcation of royal space.
Warnier has noted (1993, 2007) that Grassfields fons are themselves containers of sacred substances: breath, saliva, semen, and blood. These substances are what Warnier calls “transmissible life essence” (1993:305), and they are considered powerful substances imbued in all lineage heads as well as the fon.