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Research program by UCLA Fowler Museum

Mellon African Art Initiative

The Fowler Museum at UCLA has been awarded a $600,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to conduct collaborative interdisciplinary research on the Museum’s African art collection, among the five largest in the United States. The 40-month project, beginning in February 2019, will focus on the Fowler’s distinguished Sir Henry Wellcome Collection, which was gifted to UCLA in 1964 by the Wellcome Trust in London.

The grant will fund a full-time Mellon Curatorial Fellow and a full-time Mellon Conservation Fellow who will join Fowler staff as well as graduate and undergraduate interns, UCLA and UCSB faculty, community stakeholders, and experts in the field to investigate and then disseminate research findings about the histories, material compositions, meanings, and purposes of objects in the Fowler’s most important historical African art collection. This will be accomplished via a new collaborative research methodology combining curatorial, conservation, and archival lines of inquiry. By reconstructing detailed narratives for hundreds of objects in the Wellcome Collection, the Fowler can engage with questions museums around the world increasingly face about the histories of their collections, the lives of the objects within them, and their responsibilities to communities of origin.

“We are excited to embark on this ambitious initiative of collaborative research that will intensify and deepen knowledge about our collection in ways that exceed what has been possible over the course of the Museum’s history,” said Marla C. Berns, Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum. “We are honored by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s commitment to enhancing the Fowler’s capacity to further scholarship on its African Art collections and to do so transparently and with the participation of a range of stakeholders, on- and off-campus, and around the world.”

Archival records indicate that Wellcome staff member Harry Stow purchased the object from a Mess. Foster auction in November 1931. The catalog description reads “A Somali brass group with figures of chieftain in hammock and attendants.” While the object was in Wellcome’s collection, his staff recognized and re-identified it as a work from Dahomey in West Africa. While we do not know exactly the nature of the staff’s experience nor their training, their identification seems to align with other stylistically similar works.
Object: Artist unknown (Fon peoples, Republic of Benin), Figure Group, before 1931 (Purchased for Sir Henry Wellcome from Messrs. Foster November 26, 1931); Brass and wood. Fowler Museum, X65.5793; Gift of the Wellcome Trust

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