Celebrating African Metallurgy: An Introduction to the Collections


The African collections of the Museum of Making testify to Ian MacGregor’s passionate interest in the multitude of forms produced by African iron and brass smiths for a variety of functions that range from the economic and utilitarian (hoes, spears, ingots, etc.), to the social (chiefly regalia, ornaments), to the ideational (“fetishes”, amulets and sculptures representing spirits). The collections also include musical instruments (double bells, rattle anklets) and craft items (smith’s bellows, anvils and hammers) and a number of Ghanaian brass “gold weights”, so called because they were used for weighing gold dust; some of these are representations of proverbs.


Space constraints have up to the present limited our exhibits of African materials to two rooms, the smaller showing off the gold weights and the many products of the blacksmith’s forge and brass-caster’s art that can serve as more-or-less standardized currency, often used in special purpose transactions such as the transference of “bride-wealth”, a payment made by a groom’s relatives to the bride’s family as a form of compensation for their loss of her labor and fertility. The second room highlights some of the more remarkable examples of the museum’s African holdings. They include a nail-studied figure from the Congo, parade swords and ceremonial axes, diviners’ staffs and funeral effigies, masks, and also leg irons used to shackle slaves. These and many of our other holdings can be viewed in the online catalog.


New space is becoming available and in future years we intend to align the African exhibits more closely with the museum’s dominant theme of Making. We will show how Africans living in the sub-Saharan Sahel and Sudan zones learned to smelt iron (earlier than Western Europeans), and to adapt their furnaces and techniques to a wide variety of geological and social conditions, some producing iron from materials that Western metallurgists would not dignify as ore.


A century ago African blacksmiths forged the iron tools, weapons and ornaments required by their customers from “blooms” smelted by members of their or neighboring societies. The work of the forge began with the fining of these blooms by the removal of slag and charcoal to produce tool iron varying from low carbon wrought iron to high carbon steel. Our exhibit will explain the techniques of the forge and of the brass-caster, also exploring the great variety of attitudes to the smith, revered as a chief in the Congo basin but in many places regarded with ambivalence as a person both polluted and powerful yet integral to the workings of society.


Since smelting ended in the mid-20th century when cheaper iron stock and scrap imported from beyond the continent replaced locally smelted iron, the work of the African blacksmith has changed. No longer are artifacts built up by the welding together of iron pieces, since the different compositions of the varied imported alloys render welding impossible. Nowadays the forging process is initially subtractive as smiths cut off a piece of vehicle axle or other product and forge it into a hoe or knife. Nevertheless, despite this fundamental change in materials and process, over much of Africa south of the Sahara smiths still supply their peoples with almost all the metal artifacts that they use in their daily lives. We honour their resilience and industry.