African History - The Definitive Guide

Africa’s Art in Foreign Museums

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Ever wondered what ancient Africa was like? Their tools, objects of arts, weapons, man-made artefacts, musical instruments, fabrics, deities, etc.

Although much of it has been lost to time, some part of ancient African history is preserved; to experience it then look no further than American and European museums.

If you want to sneak a peek into the times of pre-colonial Africa, then foreign museums will provide the best experience. Europeans after imposing foreign rule over most of Africa, after 1885 CE, took much of its history and art with them which today are displayed in foreign museums all around the globe. These museums offer the best glimpse into Africa’s times before the arrival of the colonial masters.

Through this art and the subjects of these works of art, you can imagine what African institutions existed, see examples of pre-Colonial currencies, see which industries existed in African and what ideas permeated through some African societies. African art was produced using various materials and addressed many subjects including politics, the abstract, ideas of beauty, meaning, animals, Christianity, Islam and the human figure.

So where can you go to see African Art?


Also known as Bundeskunsthalle and situated in Bonn, Germany, since its inauguration on 17th June 1992 it has hosted important exhibitions that include arts, cultural history, archaeology, science, and technology.

The Bundeskunsthalle refutes the unpopular notion that African traditional arts are devoid of any aesthetics and that Africa had no proper artists. In 2014 it held its first African exhibition that included a selection of approximately 180 masks, figures and everyday objects from Ivory Coast and neighbouring countries which were created by exceptionally talented artists working in a wide range of fields and sheds new light on the role of the artist in African society.

Commemorative Brass Sculpture Head of an Oba King From Ancient Benin, Nigeria (British Museum)

BRITISH MUSEUM, United Kingdom

Founded in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759 the British Museum is the first national public museum in the world and entertains about six million visitors each year. It has in its collection quite a number of African art pieces such as a commemorative head of an oba (king) from Nigeria made of cast brass, which was looted during the Benin punitive expedition. A sculpture of the Otobo masquerade of the Kalabari people of Nigeria. A painting of St. George from Ethiopia, Igbokwu bronze castings dating to 800 AD, Asante Gold regalia, African rock arts and thousands of other African arts.


This is a private collection of African arts, established by an Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi in 1989. Based in Geneva and without a permanent exhibition venue. It has thousands of artworks from all over Africa including paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, installations and videos from contemporary artists in Sub Saharan Africa. It is regularly acquiring new artworks as well as lending works to major art institutions and museums around the world


This museum was established in 1903 and is one of the ten largest museums in the United States. It possesses over 24,000 works from all around the world including classical art and artefacts from Egypt.

In 2015 it opened an Arts of Africa gallery that includes works from the Songye and Luba cultures of central Africa and ancient Benin Kingdom artefacts from West Africa. Some African artworks in its collection include Ere Ibeji from Yoruba culture of Nigeria, Manillas that were used as currency in ancient West Africa, a granite sculpture of the head an upper torso of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I, and thousands of other African arts.

16th-century Yoruba Ring (Dallas Museum Of Art)


This museum was originally founded in 1872 as an Ethnographic department of the Hungarian National Museum. It formally split from the national museum and became independent in 1947. It focuses heavily on Hungarian past but still possesses a little of African arts.

LINDEN-MUSEUM Stuttgart, Germany

The museum was opened in 1889 in Stuttgart, Germany. It was set up to project an ethnographic orientation; its task was to build a collection of various cultures in their present state and document them. Its new structure was inaugurated in 1911 and named after its founder Graf Von Linden. A bulk of its African artefacts are from Cameroon, Nigeria, the Congo basin, Mozambique and Tanzania.


The metropolitan museum of art is the largest art museum in the United States with 7.3 million combined visits of its three locations in 2006. It is the fourth most visited art museum in the world. It was founded in 1870 but officially opened in February 1872 to enlighten and educate the American populace on arts from around the world. It has over 2 million works in its collection including artworks from ancient classical antiquity from Egypt as well as extensive African arts. It houses more than 26,000 pieces of Egyptian arts from the Paleolithic era, including models discovered in a tomb in 1920 as well as the Temple of Dendur.


Also known as the African Museum of Lyon or African Museum of Cultures of West Africa. Inaugurated around 1873, this museum is the oldest museum in France and is dedicated to Africa, with a particular focus on West Africa. Its collections are directed towards showcasing every day, social and religious life of Africans. It boasts of the most important collections of arts from West Africa. It exhibits more than 2,000 African works which are divided into three main categories; everyday life, social life, and religious life. Among its collections are wooden sculptures of the Orisha dieties from the Yoruba culture of Western Nigeria.

A Face Mask From The Guro People of Côte D’ Ivoire (Musee Barbier Mueller)

MUSÉE BARBIER-MUELLER, Geneva, Switzerland

Can also be called The Barbier-Mueller Museum. Aficionados of tribal arts believe this museum is among those with the greatest collection in the world. Inspired by Josef Müller’s interest in African masterpieces, it was founded in 1907 in Geneva Switzerland and officially opened to the public in 1977. Today it features over 7,000 important works from Africa, Oceania, Indonesia as well as tribal works from Asia and Mediterranean cultures. It also includes sculptures, fabrics, and ornaments from primitive civilization as well as tribal and classical antiquity. Some notable artworks in its collections include; a face mask from the Teke, Tsaayi subgroup in the Republic of Congo, a large Urn or Flask from early Christian BC times, a cylindrical vase dating around 900-1300 AD, amongst others. It has over 7,000 works of art in its collections. Its sister museum the Museu Barbier-Mueller d’Art Precolombí was inaugurated in Barcelona, Spain in 1997.

MUSÉE D’ ETHNOGRAPHIE, Geneva, Switzerland

Also known as MEG or Geneva Museum of Ethnography, was founded on 25 September 1901 as a brainchild of professor Eugene Pittard and officially opened on 4th July 1941 in Geneva, Switzerland. Works on renovation and extension of the building began in 2007 and on October 31, 2014, it was opened to the public and included a new pagoda-shaped building.

As its name implies, it features ethnographic artworks from all the continents including ethnomusicology exhibits that showcases ancient musical instruments from all of the continents, alongside a sample of their recordings. It is best described as an archive of human diversity with its collections arranged in an order corresponding to the five continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

Housing over 80,000 objects and more than 300,000 documents, the MEG holds the largest ethnographic collection in Switzerland.

MUSÉE DAPPER, Paris, France

The Musee Dapper although a French museum, specializes in African sculpted works. It opened in 1986 in honour of a 17th-century Dutch humanist Olfert Dapper whom it was named after in Paris, France. He published an encyclopedic description of Africa in the 17th century. The museum first began as a project of the Foundation Dapper which was dedicated to preserving sub-Saharan African art. It organizes two African-themed exhibitions each year.

It features sculptures like “The Black Venus” a 19th-century carving from the Betsi tribe of Cameroon, a 19th-century pectoral disk Akrafokonmu from the Ashanti tribe of Cote d Ivoire, an 18th-century Nkisi statuette from the Bakongo tribe of the DRC, amongst others.


This museum features indigenous artworks from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Opened to the public in 2006 in Paris, France, it is based on the concept of a museum dedicated to the arts and cultures of non-European works. It has over 450,000 art objects, 700,000 photographs, 320,000 documents, 10,0000 musical instruments and 25,000 pieces of textiles. The museum never displays all of its collections at once; it displays only about 3,500 objects at one time. Notable in its collections are objects gathered during the French colonization of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of its African collections include a 19th-century reliquary from the Sango people of Gabon, 20th-century masks from the Pende people of Congo and Eket people of Nigeria, and also paintings from 17th century Ethiopia.


The Royal Museum of Central Africa known today as the African Museum after its reopening in December 2018 is located in Tervueren, Belgium. This Museum brings together the largest collection of arts in the world with respect to Central Africa. It was originally founded in 1897, and built between 1905 and 1908. It was known then as the Museum of the Congo. It was later renamed Museum of the Belgian Congo then later in 1960 renamed the Royal Museum for Central Africa. It recently reopened on December 9, 2018, after being closed for five years during which it underwent renovations..

The museum was originally intended to showcase to Belgians the art potential of their newly acquired territory “The Congo” and arouse the interest of the Belgian people. Today it has in its collections thousands of objects from all across Africa including 10 million animal specimens, 250,000 mineral samples, 180,000 ethnographic objects, 57,165 xilotheque samples, 20,000 cards, 56,000 wood samples, 8,000 musical instruments, and 350 archival fonds.

The museum is a haven for researchers and scientists from around the world. It has in its payroll about 75 scientists working in the areas of Geology, agricultural and forest economy, cultural anthropology, history, and zoology.

MUSEUM DER KULTUREN Basel, Switzerland

The Museum of Cultures, Basel, with its 320,000 objects and about 50,000 photographs is among the most important ethnographic museums in Europe. Originally an ethnological collections part of a multipurpose museum built in 1849, Basel, Switzerland by Melchior Beri. It grew to overshadow the museum prompting its separation from the museum in 1892 and officially founded in the following year 1893. In 1996 it changed its name from Museum of Ethnology and Swiss Museum für Volkskunde to Museum der Kulturen Basel or The Museum of Cultures, Basel.

The museum’s collections include objects from Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, Central, and South America. These collections took the comprehensive effort of generations of art enthusiasts to be collected.

18th-century Nkisi Statuette from DR Congo (Musée Dapper, Paris)


Willian Rockhill Nelson and Mary McAfee Atkins were the people that started it all. This is an art museum in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. It opened officially in 1933 and was known locally as Nelson Art Gallery or Nelson Gallery until 1983 when it was formally named the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. The museum currently has over 40,000 works of art in its collections.

Its state of the art block underground building addition in 1999 houses the museum’s African exhibitions as well as contemporary photography and special exhibitions.

Its African collection is mainly sculptures, paintings textiles and decorative works.


The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum is a museum of ethnography in Cologne, Germany. It has more than 65,000 objects and 100,000 historical photographs from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America that includes cult objects too. It was founded in 1901 and opened in 1906 in South Cologne; the museum started as a result of the over 3,500 private collections of a world traveller Wilhelm Joest. His sister built the museum in honour of him and her husband Eugen Rautenstrauch. The building after enduring the bombings of the world war and the flooding between 1993 and 1995 was rebuilt and reopened in 2010.

It possesses about 13,000 African objects: mostly sculptures, African arts masterpieces, weapons and masks from West and Central Africa. More recently it has included ceramics and the nomadic cultures of the Sahara and Sudan. A notable piece is a 19th century the sculpture of a reliquary guardian figure from Kota, Gabon.

16-meter High Kulthaus, Abelam Tribe Papua New Guinea(Museum Der Kulturen, Basel)


The Rietberg Museum prides itself as the only art museum for non-European cultures in Switzerland. It opened its doors to the public in 1952 and exhibits collections from Africa, Asia, and ancient America.

The museum boasts of having the most important African artworks in Europe, with a concentration of West and Central African masterpieces. Some of its important artworks include sculptures from the Dogon region in Mali, masks and figures from the Ivory Coast, particularly from the Senufo, Guro, Dan, and Baule regions, 17th century bronzes of the royal capital Benin in Nigeria, world-famous masks from the grasslands of Cameroon, sculptures from the Fang region of Gabon, and important figures and masks from the Luba, Songye, and Vili regions of the Congo.


This is one of the prominent university art galleries in Britain. It originated when Sir Robert Sainsbury and his wife lady Lisa Sainsbury gave their art collection that spanned over forty years of procurement to the University of East Anglia in 1973. The building today located in the campus of the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England houses a collection of world arts whose history span over 5,000 years of human creativity, including African artworks like a fang reliquary head, from Gabon and the head of an Oba, from Nigeria. It exhibits major artworks from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, including ceramics, furniture, paintings, sculptures, glassware, metal wares, and jewellery.


This is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the US. Its root dates back to 1823, but it began exhibitions in 1843, mostly of paintings and sculptures and was known as the Brooklyn Institute which was a combination of Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library and a Brooklyn Lyceum. In 1890 it changed its name to The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, with many divisions. The museum split from the institute in the 1970s and came to be known as the Brooklyn Museum.

The Brooklyn Museum houses the largest collection of African art in an American art museum. It has in its collection over 5,000 African works that span over 2,500 years. Most of its African works are focused on West and Central Africa but also possess North African arts, notably works from ancient Egypt.

Its African collections include figurative sculptures, Berber jewellery, West African masks, East African Beadworks, and ceramics. Among the most noteworthy of its African objects is a 16th-century brass figure of a horn blower for a Benin king and an Ivory gong also made for royalty in Benin in the same period.


It has many names Louvre Museum, French Musée du Louvre, Great Louvre, French Grand Louvre, The National Museum of Art and Gallery. The Louvre museum wears the crown as the world’s largest art museum. It is the most visited museum in the world; as of 2018. This museum is a historic monument in France.

The Louvre museum was originally a Louvre castle. During the French revolution, the national assembly decreed that it should be used as a museum and it opened on 10th August 1793 with an exhibition of 537 paintings. Today it has more than 460,000 objects. It exhibits sculptures, paintings, drawings, art objects, and archaeological finds. Egyptian antiquities comprises of over 50,000 pieces, and it includes artefacts from the ancient Nile civilizations dating back 4,000 BC to 4th century AD and spanning across ancient Egypt, the Middle Kingdom, Roman Ptolemaic and the Byzantine periods. The objects are housed in more than 20 rooms and include arts, papyrus scrolls, mummies, tools, clothing, jewellery, games, musical instruments and weapons. Some notable works are the Gebel el-Arak Knife dating back 3,400 BC, The Seated Scribe and the Head of King Djedefre. The museum also features numerous artworks from all around Africa and the world.


Translated as The Ethnographic Museum of Zurich University, it is located in Zurich, Switzerland. This Museum is the third oldest ethnological museum in Switzerland. Its origins date back to 1889 when its ethnographic collections were opened for the first time to a private audience. In 1916 it was moved into the main building of the University of Zurich, it was renamed the Ethnographic Museum of Zurich in 1979.

Its collection comprises over 40,000 items including religious texts, visual anthropologies, historical photographs, ritual devices, textiles, ceramics, wood carvings, forged and cast metal objects. In Africa, its collections are focused on the geographical locations of West Africa, Central Africa, and Ethiopia.

Head of a Sphinx of King Djedefre (The Louvre)


Originally founded in 1832 when artist John Trumbull gave over a hundred of his paintings to Yale College. It has grown steadily till date and now boasts of over 250,000 objects spanning across Eastern and Western cultures and ranges from ancient times to present day.

Its African art collection is about 2,000 items and showcases 3,000 years of African history. It includes masks, figures, utilitarian objects, jewellery, ceramics, and textiles. Its highlights include figures and masks from West and Central Africa and also terracotta antiquities from the Sahel region.

Some notable African items in its collection are a Nok sculpted human head, a Yoruba equestrian shrine figure amongst others.

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Africa’s Art in Foreign Museums

by Editorial Team time to read: 12 min