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What’s that glow? Material Analysis of Beadwork from Southern Africa

As part of a multi-year collaborative research project, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are exploring exciting avenues of research within the museum’s Sir Henry Wellcome Collection. The Fowler received the donation from the Wellcome Trust in 1965, just two years after the museum had been established: a gift numbering over 30,000 objects from around the world. The African material exceeded 6,800 objects, including masks, weapons, sculptures, domestic wares, and body adornment. The current project—a collaboration between curators and conservators—aims to understand the objects’ materiality, original ethnographic context, exhibition history, and provenance.

The Wellcome Trust gift contained a wide range of beaded objects, from beaded love letters, to gourds, to elegantly patterned garments. Currently, several scholars and research projects in the field of African art history are examining the techniques and materials used in beadwork, and questioning the role of historical style classifications. Wellcome’s purchase records provide historical specificity and date the objects to the 19th and early 20th centuries, making the beadwork in our collection an ideal case study for contributing to these conversations.

We began our study with an analysis of a bead catalogue likely made in the early 20th century for the Randles Bros. and Hudson company in Durban. It was not part of the gift from the Wellcome Trust, but it lists some of the various colors and sizes of beads offered for sale and thus serves as a valuable resource for understanding their availability on the market. Material analysis of the beads included in the catalogue provides insight into what we should be looking for in the Wellcome beadwork. When placed under ultraviolet (UV) light, some of the pale-yellow beads show a bright green fluorescence, which indicates the presence of uranium in the composition of the glass. Further testing using portable X-ray Fluorescence (pXRF) spectroscopy (a small handheld instrument that measures the elemental composition of inorganic objects) confirms uranium in these pale-yellow glass beads.

UV images of X91.4988, March 2020

While this is just the start of our research on beadwork from Southern Africa, such data can help us to further specify storage and handling protocols for the objects, and will play a role in our research into their histories. As we move forward, we will examine scholarly literature, archival sources, and objects themselves to see what we may learn from connections between trade, stylistic patterns, and use of materials in the creation of beaded works.

Follow the Fowler’s Instagram (@FowlerMuseum) and the hashtag #WellcomeWednesdays for more updates about our project.

Image at top
pXRF and Bead Catalog. March 2020.

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