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World History MPhil visit to the V&A

Ellen Parker and fellow students of the MPhil in World History visited the V&A in February, for a tour of ‘African heritage in the European galleries’.

The tour guide was pleased to discover we were a group of historians, although she queried what exactly world history was

With seemingly the rest of London having the same bright idea as the students of the MPhil in World History, the queues to get in to the V&A on a rainy London day were considerable – however we succeeded in our challenge to meet at 3pm for the tour of ‘African heritage in the European galleries’. The 1600–1815 European Gallery, predating the nineteenth-century ‘scramble for Africa’ which marks the most obvious starting point for the study of the interactions between Africans and Europeans, may not have seemed the most obvious place to look for objects with African provenance. Yet, several items in the collection revealed the importance of African actors in events seen as highly European in nature, and the positions of status to which many Africans rose in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe. Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, considered by many to be founder of modern Russian literature, we learned, descended from a Cameroonian slave, Abraham Hannibal. Kidnapped as a child and taken to Russia as a gift for Peter the Great, Hannibal eventually became a major-general in the Russian military under the rule of Elizabeth of Russia. 

Toussaint L'Ouverture Haitian independence leader Toussaint L’Ouverture is also depicted in the Gallery, along with many other less famous people of African origin. The historians of the V&A have been unable to identify many of these people, such as the man depicted in a marble bust of Venetian origin, believed to have been the operator of a gondola, a job of good status for a person of African origin in seventeenth-century Venice. Another marble bust of a young African boy has been linked to a similar sculpture in the Rijksmuseum, but again very little is known of him. The tour guide was pleased to discover we were a group of historians, although she queried what exactly world history was, to little surprise from the MPhil students. The group stayed another hour looking at the South Asia and Islamic Middle East galleries. The large number of objects dating as far back as 900AD were of particular surprise to those of us who had not visited the museum before, and the size of the place means a return visit is most certainly in order.

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