Museum pieces obtained by 'trickery, coercion, and theft'
From “The Horticulturalist of the Self”, a review of books by the anthropologist Michel Leiris:
Leiris was a member of the French ethnographic expedition, led by Marcel Griaule, that traveled across central Africa from Dakar, Senegal, to Djibouti between 1931 and 1933, bringing back thousands of objects to form the core of the anthropological collections of the Trocadéro Museum and later the Musée de l’homme. Leiris shows that these masks, musical instruments, and clothes were collected not only through purchase and barter but also by trickery, coercion, and theft.
In Kemeni, Mali, near the beginning of the expedition, for example, Griaule threatened the villagers with arrest (he lied that there were police hiding in the expedition truck) unless they handed over a sacred object for a paltry sum. When the initiates of the local Kono secret society (one of several male ritual organizations of the Bamana people) refused to retrieve it, Leiris reported, “We go ourselves, wrapping the holy object in [a] tarp and creeping out like thieves.”
This is the first of many descriptions of the expedition’s looting of African communities in the name of scientific knowledge. A number of the objects “collected” remain on public display to this day in Paris at the Musée du quai Branly, including at least one of the Kono masks stolen by Griaule and Leiris. This raises a further question: could Phantom Africa be used as testimony in a case for the repatriation of these sacred items to their proper homes?