Building the Collection - La Bouche du Roi

Collecting contemporary objects is crucial to the British Museum. It means the Museum will be able to continue telling the story of the world’s cultures for future generations. But acquiring objects from the present can also give staff and visitors the opportunity to look at objects from the past in a different way.

In 2007, the British Museum acquired La Bouche du Roi, a work of art created between 1997 and 2005 by Romuald Hazoumé, an artist from the Republic of Bénin, West Africa. The title of the piece translates as ‘The Mouth of the King’, and refers to a place in Bénin from where many thousands of slaves were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean.

With help from the Art Fund, the UK’s leading independent art charity, and the British Museum Friends, La Bouche du Roi was bought as part of the Museum’s commemoration of the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. It is a powerful work of art in its own right and makes a striking and thought-provoking exhibit.

The work’s main components are 304 ‘masks’ made from plastic petrol cans, each with an open mouth, eyes and a nose. The petrol cans mirror the images of the enslaved people in the famous Brookes print of a late-eighteenth century Liverpool slave ship. This print was made at the time to illustrate the horrors of the slave trade. In this modern version, the petrol cans also help tell the story of the motorcyclists who run black market petrol between Benin and Nigeria. As well as representing the spirits lost to the Atlantic Slave Trade, the piece also tells the story of modern forms of economic oppression.

Although La Bouche du Roi isn’t a historical artefact from the time of the slave trade, it helps the Museum tell the story of what happened then and what is happening now. But by putting it on display in the context of the anniversary, Museum staff could also offer visitors a different way to think about objects in other galleries, such as the Enlightenment gallery, which displays artefacts from the eighteenth century. In this way a work of contemporary art can have a different kind of value in the collection of a museum than in an art gallery.

La Bouche du Roi was on display at the British Museum from 22 March until 13 May 2007, when it was packed up to go on a Partnership UK tour to Hull, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle and the Horniman Museum in London. Collaborative tours, organised with partner museums throughout the country, give the Museum the opportunity to show objects from its collection to as many people as possible.