In the market for repairs: Early 20th century African objects at the Fowler Museum

Marci Burton, Carlee Forbes, Erica Jones, and Christian de Brer


In 2019, The Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) began a three-year research project on a subsection of the Museum’s African arts collection, a gift received in 1965 from the Sir Henry Wellcome Trust. The collection consists of a wide range of over 6,000 African objects collected in the early 20th century. Accompanying this gift was a set of cards related to the objects that contain varying degrees of information on their context of use, technology, and provenance. After conducting a collections survey, the conservation and curatorial team selected 800 objects for further study.  

Investigation into the material composition of the objects led to discoveries of modifications made locally by African source communities and through the life cycle of these works as they traveled to and through the European art market. Original repairs, or repairs made in Africa, are found on a variety of objects, including carved masks and wooden sculptures. The repairs incorporate a mixture of organic, naturally sourced materials, and metal alloy fixtures. Different campaigns of European repairs and alterations are also observed and include proprietary adhesives, small and uniform metal alloy nails, and numerous instances of inpainting. Many repairs, overall, are structural and in place for preservation purposes. However, a number of original and European modifications were made to alter the object aesthetics and ready them for the commercial art market.  

To better distinguish the materials and timeline of repairs and potential transformations of individual objects through material intervention, this project emphasizes a simultaneous, collaborative study between curatorial and conservation practices. Archival research, non- and minimally-invasive material analysis, and conservation treatment assessments are employed to identify African and European repair methods, including those made by auction houses and the Wellcome collection staff. Results from the study help to establish the context and provenance of the objects and offer an assessment of trends and changing attitudes of the aesthetics, repair practices and care of African objects as they moved from local to European markets. 

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28