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Theory Seminar


Admission requirements

Participation in the Honours College Track Archaeology.


During and after the heyday of European nation and empire building, civil servants, missionaries, art dealers, etc. have forwarded substantial amounts of indigenous ritual items from various colonies to European museums and markets.

These goings-on have boosted ethnographic museums and early 20th century western art, but have also resulted in at least a 100,000 such items presently circulating on the western market, reframed as “(tribal) art” and/or “indigenous cultural heritage.”

In this seminar you will acquire basic knowledge of: (1) the sort of items under consideration (Oceanic and African art); (2) the how and why of their movements from missionary fields and colonial frontiers to auction houses, galleries and private collections in western metropoles, in particular Paris and Brussels as major trade hubs.

The seminar thus presents its instructor’s ongoing research comprising the history and urban ethnography of the international tribal art scene - an opaque, gossipy, status-driven and conflict-ridden world of dealers, auctioneers, curators and collectors.

Key words for this course are:
Oceanic art; African art; social life of things; cultural heritage; imperialism; art trade; museum studies; conversion.

Course set-up

Meeting 1: The ritual arts of Oceania and Central Africa

  • Your first assignment comprises visiting and reporting on on various websites (museums, auction houses, blogs; to be specified on Brightspace).

Meeting 2: Collecting while converting - the role of missionaries

  • Corbey 2000, Tribal Art Traffic (see below), pp. 55-70;

  • Corbey R.H.A. (2003), "Destroying the graven image: Religious iconoclasm on the Christian frontier", in: Anthropology Today 19(4): 10-14;

  • Corbey R.H.A. & Weener K. (2015), "Collecting while converting: Missionaries and ethnographics", in:* Journal of Art Historiography 12*(June).

Meeting 3: Objects-in-motion: flows and fashions

  • Corbey 2000, Tribal Art Traffic, pp. 11-54, 71-98;

  • Corbey R.H.A. (2007), "Cultural Heritage: Trade", in: Middleton J., Miller J.C. (Eds.) New Encyclopedia of Africa. Farmington Hills, MI. pp. 458-461.

Meeting 4: A tale of two cities (Paris and Brussels)

  • Corbey R.H.A. (2000), "'Arts Premiers' in the Louvre", in: Anthropology Today 16(4): 3-6;

  • Corbey R.H.A. (1999), "African Art in Brussels", in: Anthropology Today 15(6): 11-16;

  • Corbey R.H.A. (2001), "ExitCongoMuseum: The travels of Congolese art", in: Anthropology Today 17(3): 26-28;

  • Corbey R.H.A. (1996), "Asmat in Berlin (exhibition review)", in: Anthropology Today 12(3): 21-23.

Meeting 5: Tribal art at auction

  • Corbey 2000, Tribal Art Traffic, pp. 99-106;

  • Haidy Geismar 2001. "What's in a price? An ethnography of tribal art at auction", in: Journal of Material Culture 6: 25-47;

  • Tamara Schild. "Marketing African and Oceanic Art at the High-end of the Global Art Market: The Case of Christie's and Sotheby's", in: Anthrovision 7.1: 1-17

Meeting 6: Wrap-up

  • This assignment comprises visiting and reporting on various websites; to be specified on Brightspace).

Meeting 7: Visit to Museum Volkenkunde (and its Reference Library) with an obligatory assignment

Course objectives

  • You will acquire basic skills and knowledge germane to handling tribal art items both in museum settings and in the context of cultural property issues;

  • You will better understand how such items reflect traditional Oceanic and African cosmologies and rituals;

  • You will try out a cultural studies-cum-ethnography approach to dealings with 'tribal art' in western settings against the background of imperialism and post-coloniality.


Course schedule details can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button.

Mode of instruction

  • Interactive lectures, including handling a number of authentic examples of indigenous ritual art;

  • Weekly assignments, comprising posting your comments on each week’s readings to Brightspace;

  • The museum assignment (Meeting 7): choosing an object in Museum Volkenkunde and describing it according to a preset format.

Course load

  • 6 three-hour meetings (1,5 ec);

  • 1 three-hour museum visit with assignment;

  • 500 pages of literature (3,5 ec).

Assessment method

  • Exam with open questions (60%);

  • Weekly postings on Brightspace and museum assignment (40%).

Reading list

  • See the readings under 'Course set-up';

  • Corbey R.H.A. (2000), Tribal Art Traffic: A Chronicle of Taste, Trade and Desire in Colonial and Post-Colonial Times. Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute.




For more information about this course, please contact prof. dr. R.H.A. Corbey.


Compulsory attendance. You are allowed to miss one meeting, but will have to compensate with a paper (approximately 500-600 words) on the subject matter you missed.