Artefacts from the People without History

Our own Justin E. H. Smith in his eponymous blog:

6a00d83453bcda69e2013484b21bd7970c-500wi The glare from the glass case prevents us from seeing it clearly, but the object in the photo above is a lady's hat made out of twigs and spiderwebs. It was made in the early 20th century by a San tribesmember in southern Africa, and is currently on display in the Africa Room of the British Museum. This room appears not to attract very many visitors, for reasons I'll get to soon, but I wanted to dwell on this curious hat for a moment still.

Whether or not it meets the formal criteria for qualification as such, this hat is something very close to a cargo-cult object: a reproduction by members of a technologically simple culture, from naturally available materials, of an artefact associated with a dominant, technologically advanced culture. The first cargo cults were identified by western anthropologists in New Guinea, when, shortly after the end of World War II and the disappearance of the goods that the Japanese and American troops had brought into the region, the tribespeople attempted to summon them back by building non-functioning simulations of airports.

The British Museum's labelling tells us that we are supposed to admire the spiderweb hat, in more or less the same way we are supposed to praise the plaques made by casters in the brass foundries of the highly complex early modern Kingdom of Benin. The general message of the Africa Room –which is in fact the Africa Basement– is that, first of all, there is a cohesive, unitary, and stable thing called 'Africa', and, second of all, that everything that comes out of Africa, whether made of brass or of spiderwebs, is equally and perfectly good.

This lesson is one that is very different from what we are taught in the other halls of the museum, where the labels carefully and conscientiously spell out for us the different stages in the rise and decline of classical Assyrian, Egyptian, and Mesoamerican civilizations. In this respect, the well-meaning 'Africa is good' message in fact perpetuates the myth of stagnation that Eric Wolf sought to dispel in his masterful book, Europe and the People without History of 1982.

More here.