III. The British Museum collection continued

The British Museum’s collection also includes 12 items of regalia that date to the conflict of 1896 or immediately prior to it. The most notable pieces include two intricately wrought gold link chains (nos 5.2 and 5.3) and bracelets that are threaded with assorted cast gold amulets, some in the shape of European-style keys (nos 6.6 and 15.3). There are a further 58 items of Asante regalia in the British Museum’s collection that date to the final Anglo-Asante conflict of 1900. Among these objects is a magnificent ceremonial helmet (denkyemkye) which, legend has it, was modelled on one that Osei Tutu wore during his victory over the Denkyira at the defining battle of Feyiase in 1700–1 (no. 9.4). This helmet is lavishly adorned with cast gold ornaments in the shape of animal horns, shells, trophy heads, human jawbones and other representational forms. Also in the collection are an assemblage of gold-hilted state swords (afena), one of which, Mpomponsuo, is widely recognized as being the sword upon which the Asantehene swore a binding public oath to serve his people during his enstoolment ceremony (no. 13.6).

22 other items of regalia that date to the colonial period were added to the British Museum’s collection between 1901 and 1957 and include objects that originally formed part of the Wellcome Historical Medical Collection. In 1936, the Wellcome Trust was established according to the terms of Sir Henry Wellcome’s will with an endowment of a large number of shares in his pharmaceutical company and his entire collection of archaeological and ethnographic items from around the world. Objects that had little or no relevance to the history of medicine were eventually distributed in the 1950s to museums in Britain and abroad. A very large group of artefacts was given to the British Museum in 1954, including a knife (no. 14.5) and a magnificent elephant tail fly-whisk (no. 17.1).

Donations were also received from colonial administrators who oversaw mining and plantation activities in the Gold Coast during this period. Interestingly, four of the five examples of cast gold hair-pins in the collection (nos 11.2, 11.3, 11.4  and 11.5) have come to the Museum via this route. Some of these hair-pins were collected and donated by Captain Robert P. Wild, who worked for the Gold Coast Colony Mines Department at Obuasi. In the 1930s he published one article in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and two in the journal Man, in which he gives detailed technical information on the casting and construction of gold beads (Wild 1936, 1937 and 1939).

Asante continued to form part of the Gold Coast Colony until Ghana attained independence in 1957. Between 1957 and 1982, seven further items of Asante royal regalia were added to the British Museum’s collection. In 1981 an important exhibition entitled ‘Asante: Kingdom of Gold’ was held at the Museum of Mankind (part of the British Museum but then in a separate building), which focused on Asante art and culture. Perhaps this exhibition prompted the final donation by the Trustees of the Wellcome Historical Medical Collection of a soul disc pendant (no. 2.23), which had originally been obtained by the Society for the Propagation of Gospel Missionary Society (also known as the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) at an unknown date.

The current Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II and his immediate predecessors have continued to commission new pieces of regalia from the goldsmiths in Kumase and some of these were publicly displayed during the jubilee that was held in 2009 to celebrate the first 10 years of his reign. In recent years the British Museum has forged a strong relationship with the staff of the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumase. This has resulted in positive and mutually beneficial collaborations facilitated by the British Museum’s Africa Programme, which supports and promotes the work of museum professionals in Ghana. The Museum will continue to collect contemporary examples of Asante gold-work in order to ensure that ongoing developments in this important cultural art form are represented in the collection.

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