The earliest African collection was registered at the museum in 1836. In the following years, only separate specimens were acquired, so the actual formation of the department’s depositories began in 1879, when a rich collection (1,950 items) assembled by a Russian traveler V.V. Junker in Central Africa was donated by him to the museum. In 1894 MAE received a portion of the South African collection acquired by the Czech traveler E. Golub. In late 1800s and early 1900s, the accretion of the department’s materials occurred in different ways, viz. through purchase, donation, and exchange with European ethnographic museums. The most important donations were made by Museum’s Trustee Board Members Hans and Hermann Meyers, who enriched the department with bronze artifacts and carved ivory from the ancient city-state of Benin, with artifacts from the Kilimanjaro region, and with a large collection from Cameroon, comprising over 500 items (by A. Mansfeld). The exchange with the ethnographic museums in Berlin and Leipzig resulted in the acquisition of things from the Lower Congo and from Guinea; also, two collections (archaeological and ethnographic) were received from Hamburg, where they had been brought by Leo Frobenius from his expedition to West Africa.
In 1913 a collection was acquired from Stockholm museum (it was assembled by J. Lindblom among the Akamba and Wapare of East Africa). In the same year, materials were received from persons dispatched to Africa by the Museum (S.B. Smogorzevsky, who purchased a Tuareg and Kabil collection in Algeria, and N.S. Gumilev, who acquired artifacts in Ethiopia and Somalia). After 1917, apart from occasional purchases and donations, the Department received separate specimens and collections from other museums of Russia. In 1946, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs handed to the museum a set of masks and household items of the Mpongwe, collected in Congo by a doctor N.V. Charbot d’Artois. From the 1950s the acquisition of African materials intensified. The Department staff, too, contributed to the accretion of the collections. In 1964 D.A. Olderogge brought a collections of agricultural tools, masks, and household items from his expedition to Mali. Five sets of Malian utensils and works of art were received from V.R. Arsen’ev, a collection of Guinean artifacts from E.N. Kal’shchikov, and that of Malian and Ivory Coast artifacts from V.F. Vydrine.
The department depositories contain nearly 12 000 items reflecting material culture, art, and religious beliefs of the major peoples of Africa. Most are utensils and weapons, whereas ritual articles are much fewer. Nearly all regions of Africa are represented. In terms of the number of specimens, Ethiopia ranks first (nearly one third of the material) thanks to the efforts taken by Russian doctors of the Red Cross in 1896–1913 (A.I. Kokhanovskii, N.V. Brovtsyn, etc.), whereas the next largest collections come from West Africa, Congo, and East Africa.
Gems of the department are specimens brought by V.V. Junker, Benin bronzes, and ritual clay figurines from Ethiopia.
The MAE African collections are described in the following publications:
- Arsen’ev V.R. Afrikanskie kollektsii MAE i kontseptual’nye problemy razvitiya Muzeya [African Collections of MAE and Issues in Museum Development] // Kurier Petrovskoi Kunstkamery. SPb., 1995. Vol. 1. P. 16–26.
- Chekanovsky J.V. Putevoditel’ po Muzeyu antropologii i etnografii. Afrika [A Guidebook to the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography: Africa]. SPb., 1912. 34 p.
- Chernetsov S.B. Ethiopian Traditional Paintings in the Collections of Peter the Great Kunstkammer // St.-Petersburg Journal of African Studies. 1998. No. 6. P. 128–155.
- Golovanova I.N. Figurki varega v kollektsiyakh MAE [Vareg Figurines in MAE Collections] // Africana Vol. VII. Moscow: Nauka, 1969. P. 221–227. (Trudy Instituta etnografii, nov. ser. Vol. 93).
- Gotsko G.N. Istoriya efiopskikh kollektsii otdela Afriki [History of the Ethiopian Collections of the Department of Africa] // Kratkoe soderzhanie dokladov sessii Instituta etnografii AN SSSR, posvyaschennykh stoletiyu sozdaniya pervogo akademicheskogo etnografo-antropologicheskogo tsentra. Leningrad, 1980. P. 59–60.
- Misyugin V.M., Pugach Z.L. Traditsionnoe proizvodstvo zheleznykh izdelii v Tropicheskoi Afrike (po materialam kollektsii MAE) [Traditional Smithery of Tropical Africa (Based on MAE collections)] // Africana. Leningrad, 1978. Vol. XI. P. 54–97. (Trudy Instituta etnografii, nov.ser. Vol. 105).
- Olderogge D.A. Vystavka abissinskikh kollektsii: Kratkii putevoditel’ [Abyssinian Exhibition: A Short Guidebook]. Moscow–Leningrad: Izd-vo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1935. 35 p.
- Olderogge D.A. Afrikanische Kunst. Aus den Afrika-Sammlungen des Museums f50108r Anthropologie und Ethnographie, Leningrad–Prague, 1969. 131 p.
- Sobchenko A.I. (Ed.) Afrika. Kratkii putevoditel’ po expositsii [Africa: A Brief Guidebook to the Exposition]. Moscow–Leningrad, 1964. 24 p.