The Fowler Museum’s single most renowned object is this spectacular Bamileke mask, c. 1900, from the Cameroon grasslands. Only about ten comparable masks are known. It’s a royal mask, perhaps once worn by a king (fon). The grin—if it is that—is as mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s. Some viewers perceive a Mickey Mouse beatitude. (“Mickey Mouse” has become an impious nickname for the mask.) Others see something more like Mr.Dob, a study in the ambiguity of a toothy smile.
How did the mask end up at the Fowler? Its history is sketched in the Fowler’s “From X to Why: A Museum Takes Shape,” one of the eight exhibitions marking the museum’s 50th birthday.
As royal Bamileke masks go, this one is well-documented. In 1925 a French missionary, Frank Christol, collected it and photographed it in situ (right). It’s believed that only one such mask was made for a Cameroon kingdom, accounting for their rarity. It was probably used in commemorative celebrations of kings, something like a crown.
Seven years after Christol collected it, the mask was sold to Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). Despite the title, Wellcome was American, born and bred in a Wisconsin log cabin. His father was, like Christol, a missionary, in his case to the Dakota tribe. Henry sought his fortune in England, founding the Burroughs-Wellcome drug company. Among the firm’s innovations was the medicinal pill. Prior to that, medicine had been packaged as liquids or powders. (At left, the firm’s generic version of Bayer’s Aspirin.)
Wellcome’s burgeoning wealth allowed him to travel the globe and assemble an important collection of art and artifacts, much of it ostensibly related to medicine. He understood divination objects to be the medical technology of their cultures. Below right is a photo of Wellcome in Khartoum. He’s the seated man at middle center holding a pith helmet.
By the 1920s, Wellcome was reportedly spending more on acquisitions than the British Museum was. He came to own a million objects, five times as many as the Louvre. It filled Citizen Kane warehouses. One was an armory of spears stacked like cordwood.
Wellcome’s dream was for the British government to establish a “Museum of Man” to house his collection. He abhored the ethnographic museums of his time, “designed for popular entertainment, to gratify those who wish to view strange and curious objects.” Wellcome intended a museum that would engage in scholarly fieldwork and exhibit its collections attractively, to engage a serious public.
The depression quashed his plans. Wellcome died in 1936, four years after buying the Bamileke mask. He left behind not only the immense collection but great wealth and a will as vague as J. Paul Getty’s. Unlike Getty, he had no museum to take on the bequest. Over the following decades the executors of Wellcome’s estate offered the collection to the British Museum and other European institutions and distributed many works.
Why did nobody grab the Bamileke mask? This was well before one-click photography and widespread interest in the oeuvres of African artists. Wellcome’s collection was recorded in a card catalog. In virtually every case, the maker was anonymous. Were a curator looking at a catalog of a Duke’s paintings, attributions to Botticelli and Rubens and Goya would focus due diligence on the objects most worthy of it. Nothing of the kind was possible with the rudimentary state of African art history. The British Museum passed. Its curators presumably never saw the object or a photograph of it. The Fowler thus owns a landmark of global sculpture that might have stood its ground against the Elgin marbles.
In 1963, on the other side of the globe, Franklin Murphy’s UCLA founded a “Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology.” The following year Dr. F.N.L. Poynter, director of the Wellcome Medical Museum and Library, came to UCLA on a lecture tour. Poynter remarked that UCLA’s new museum embodied the ideals of Wellcome. He offered a large part of the Wellcome collection to UCLA, and the university quickly accepted.
Much like the Panza collection at MOCA, the Wellcome gift established UCLA’s small museum as an institution of international importance. MOCA’s original Panza collection was 80 American and European artworks; the Wellcome gift numbered 30,000 objects spanning the globe.
Incidentally, Sir Henry Wellcome did get a London showplace after all. It has also gone through name changes, now being called simply the Wellcome Collection. It’s a deluxe science museum focusing on the history of medicine and biology (below).
Ever since the Bamileke mask came to Los Angeles, it has been a global art rock star, frequently requested for loans. “From X to Why” displays it with its custom box. Before 9-11, the mask rode first-class, next to a courier.
The mask’s innovative carver is no longer quite so anonymous. The artist now has a scholarly handle, the Master of Bamendjo.