Lab Reports, Maps, Visualization
Left to right: Illuminated gospel from Amhara peoples in Ethiopia; seated couple figure from Dogon peoples in present-day Mali; power figure (Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka) from Kongo peoples, Yombe group on the coast of Congo and Angola. All works are currently housed in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Many African art collections currently in museums in the global North were obtained through direct or indirect institutional participation in colonial plunder. This week, I’m using Carto and a museum databases dataset to map the present-day dispersal of African art in museums in the global North. This vis spotlights how cultural institutions in the global North originated in and developed in tandem with late 19th- and 20th-century imperialism.

In November, I finished the Tableau lab annoyed at the Met’s lack of discrete collection metadata on the Benin bronzes. Therefore, I decided to use this lab to produce a geographical survey of institutional holdings (rather than searching for obfuscated metadata from a massive institution like the Met) in order to make explicit some of the past and present geohistorical patterns that justify artifact repatriation.


For this project, I knew I wanted to map museum data points onto a map of global administrative units. Therefore, I began with a search for a shapefile accurately outlining global administrative units in 2020. I downloaded this data from the GISCO data distribution REST API.

Administrative unit geodata downloadable as SHP and geoJSON files, accessed via European Commission—Eurostat—GISCO.

I then uploaded the polygon layer to Carto to form a basemap. With my basemap laid out, I copied Bruno Claessens’ Museum Databases dataset to Excel and created a .CSV spreadsheet documenting the name, latitude, longitude, collection link, and location of each data point. I used GeoJSON.io to convert the .CSV spreadsheet into a GeoJSON file, which I uploaded to Carto as a point layer.


My data is significantly limited in two ways: first, the dataset I used is limited to institutions that have online repositories; if a museum hypothetically holds a significant African art collection but does not represent it online, it does not appear in my dataset. Second, museums historically strive to possess collections of African art that are considered to have material value. Therefore, my dataset does not include institutions that hold material that has been historically (though decreasingly so) considered non-valuable, such as book arts, written artwork, or oral and physical art forms.

I also wanted to incorporate collection size into this vis but ended up unable to find a comprehensive published dataset and/or qualitatively collect an accurate set of data on my own. I contemplated adding a “contested” label to show which collections have been implicated in repatriation dialogues, but concluded that would be redundant in conveying the morally fraught nature of the collections, as contestation is not an accurate evaluation of provenance.

I’ve provided this brief narrative from a Europeanist perspective. If I decide to move forward with this project past this blogpost, I’ll re-evaluate the narrative text accompanying the vis.

Locating African Art Collections in the Global North

Most museums in the global North with African art collections are located in Europe, the Commonwealth (Canada and Australia), Israel, and the United States.

Museum database point layer over global administrative units polygon layer. Vis created in Carto.

These nations are among those that benefited most from the systemic, centuries-long extraction of African life, labor, and natural resources. The dispersal of African art shown above can be best understood as the final hand of a card deck which has undergone several intense reshuffles.

The first iteration of the card deck is an influx of African art into the European art market beginning in the 18th century. As white imperialists began the systemic extraction of natural and material resources from African communities, wealthy European collectors reassessed the value of looted African art. Correspondingly, European leaders supported the reinvention of the natural science museum as a public institution as a way to show off how their citizens could be enlightened with expanded access to ethnography, obtained behind the scenes via the organized plundering of African nations. In this way, the mission of the European museum institution fused early with that of colonial expansion.

The British Museum. Image courtesy of the British Museum.

The deck is reshuffled in the late 19th century with a series of bilateral agreements between European powers that formalize a pecking order surrounding the invasion, occupation, and extraction of resources from African land. American and European leaders, invested in expanding their countries’ industrial power, strategically equated great public works like museums with a state’s aptitude for colonial violence. With museum institutions well-established as repositories to display the material reach of the imperial state, leaders like King Leopold II propagandized the language of natural science and philanthropy to attract investors to fund the systemic plundering of African communities. New institutions like the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, Royal Museum for Central Africa (Belgium), Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam), Colonial Museum (now Musée du Quai Branly, France), and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City joined the British Museum in generating massive amounts of capital off of looted African art.

The final reshuffle happens with the repossession of African art holdings by Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and then the subsequent seizure of African art by European museums as postwar reparations in 1945. The wide dispersal of German capital in reparations after World War II included both Germany’s significant museum collections of African art as well as African art taken from occupied countries by Nazi Germany during the war. This relocated a significant amount of African art into the postwar repositories of Allied European countries and increased the holdings of Allied nations that had not experienced Nazi occupation, like England and Switzerland. England and Switzerland also came out of World War II experiencing rapid economic growth; their ability to rebuild infrastructure after the war may be a reason why (other than the United States) England and Switzerland have the most museums currently holding African art.

Close-up of western Europe, showing the amount of museums in England (upper left) and Switzerland (center) circled in white. Vis created in Carto.

Today, the United States has emerged as the country with the most museums (23!) that hold significant collections of historic African art in the global North. The reasons are numerous: certainly, the United States didn’t lose any of its art holdings to Nazi Germany under occupation during World War II; additionally, the United States’ postwar emergence as a late colonial superpower rumbled the art market in the global North, motivating European collectors to sell their African art to museums in the United States.

However, this analysis doesn’t appropriately address the complex diasporic history of African art makers, consumers, collectors, and curators in the United States, nor does it incorporate the ways in which museum collections are sites of power for African and African-descended communities around the world. There are academics, museum professionals, and community stakeholders who have written and are writing brilliantly about these rich narratives: I’ll link some of their work in my “Sources” endnote.

Why Canada, Israel, and Australia aren’t Outliers

Canada’s two museums and Israel and Australia’s one each aren’t outliers; rather, they fit my predictions for this dataset perfectly. This is because the common factor behind which countries hold African art is which countries have historically hoarded colonial wealth, and Canada, Israel, and Australia are all settler-colonial states. The fact that these nations are not located in Europe does not make them less part of the global North; rather, it highlights how the global North is not defined by binary location but rather by a set of structural requirements that advance imperialism.*

*This is a gigantic claim and if I add more to this blog I will back it up. For now, see Hollington, Tappe, Salverda, and Schwarz,  Concepts of the Global South (2015).

When Visualizing this Story, Color Matters

Without accurate collection metadata (as I struggled with in my Tableau lab), this vis is really limited in the narratives it can tell. I had to depend a lot on color for meaning, so I was playing around with two color palettes when I noticed that my vis was telling a very different story based on which I was using. When I colored the data points by country, I visualized a narrative of international hierarchy— which country had the most museums with African art holdings, which I’d set out to find. On the other hand, when I colored the museum location data points by institution name, I saw a narrative on the dispersal of cultural resources within an individual country, able to pick out clear regional distinctions and notice trends.

Close-up of continental United States and southern Canada. Vis created in Carto.
Left: data points by country. Right: data points by institution name.


Originally, I really struggled with the story I wanted to tell. First, I strove to find a shapefile of pre-1914 political entities in Africa and Europe, as well as a shapefile representing current global GDPs by political entities, so that I could visually link a European country’s number of museums holding African art with its history as a colonizer. Though I located feature layers of both of these in ArcGIS, I wasn’t able to export these shapefiles for use in Carto. Therefore, the scope of this vis was limited to a shallower historical analysis.

I then searched for collection size information in a comprehensive dataset and turned up nothing again. Though I could have approximated some sort of comparison using qualitative terms, my Tableau lab taught me to not overestimate what metadata I can find about museum collections, even when I know something is there. I think this would add a really important dimension to this vis in the future. For now, I think my vis might be putting in some sort of size comparison (St. Petersburg??) but there is no data about collection size in my dataset or size settings I changed in Carto, so that’s another bug to troubleshoot later.

As a closing note, I should also note that my tracing the dispersal of African cultural wealth in the global North by no means declares all named museums as hands-on participants in extractive violence. However, I do want to be explicit that many of the founders, collectors, donors, and curators of these museums originally were, and they designed their institutions to play an active role in European imperialism. All museums holding African art in Europe and the United States will need to reckon with this legacy and how their institutions do or do not reject it.


Akyeampong, E. 2000. Africans in the Diaspora: the Diaspora and Africa.

Bay, M. 2000. The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Attitudes towards White People, 1823-1925. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

European Commission, Eurostat (ESTAT), GISCO. Countries, 2020—Administrative Units—Dataset 

Hollington, Tappe, Salverda, and Schwarz,  Concepts of the Global South (2015).

Kinsella, E. 2021. Belgium Will Seek a Partnership With the Democratic Republic of Congo to Begin Returning Plundered Artworks. Artnet.

Lemelle, S, Robin D. G. Kelley. 1994. Imagining Home: Class, Culture and Nationalism in the African Diaspora.

Museum Databases. BrunoClaessens. WordPress.

Provenance Research Project. MoMA.

Segal, R. 1995. The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Assorted images courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, British Museum.