New exhibit explores what animal symbols mean to African cultures

In Africa, animals commonly appear in proverbs and as characters in stories and songs that celebrate different aspects of life, and the artistic instruments in MIM’s new Animals exhibit in the Africa Gallery highlight that symbolism.

Animals Exhibit

The visually powerful Animals exhibit invites guests to discover meaningful and fun motifs.

Many African proverbs use common animal behaviors as metaphors for human behavior. For instance, there is an African proverb that says that you, like the turtle, must stick your neck out if you want to move forward. The saying is about encouragement and confidence—that any movement toward progress requires an act of courage, like a turtle literally risking its neck in the natural world. Animal behaviors—such as how animals move through air, land, and water—can also serve as metaphors for spirituality and power, and animal symbols stress principles of balance with the natural world. These concepts are especially important during times of transition, such as coming-of-age ceremonies, and pivotal moments on the agricultural calendar, such as planting and harvesting seasons.

Because symbolic concepts often play out during ritual and ceremonial performances, some musical instruments carry animal symbols. For example, the large footed drum in the Animals exhibit depicts a Kongo ruler on a throne atop an elephant. The elephant symbolizes longevity, wisdom, and power; the drum represents these attributes, and the concepts of power associated with the ruler were brought to life when the instrument was played in a Kongo community.

This 19th-century footed drum features a Kongo ruler on a throne atop an elephant.
Loan courtesy of the Africa Museum, Tervuren, Belgium

Smaller animals, too, are often considered extraordinary and are featured in some African proverbs. Another attribute associated with turtles is that they are said to carry their homes on their backs—a reference represented visually on a single-headed drum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Animals exhibit. A turtle is also featured on the sides of a double bell from the Ivory Coast, alongside birds, a snail, and a grasshopper.

The turtle on this single-headed drum might reference an African proverb, and the diamond patterns on the turtle’s shell relate to ritual calendars and ideas of social organization.

Children and adults in Africa enjoy proverbs, songs, and stories that feature animal symbols, and the Animals exhibit likewise appeals to MIM guests of all ages.

“The new Animals exhibit not only encourages engagement for young guests but also highlights some of the most important instruments in MIM’s collection,” says deputy director and chief curator Manuel Jordán, PhD.

This royal double bell depicts small animals with great significance, including a turtle, a snail, a grasshopper, fish, and birds.


More Animals at MIM!

As you travel the world at MIM, you will encounter more animals that play roles in global folklore. MIM’s Musical Menagerie field trip, for example, highlights the importance of lions to Singapore, horses to Mongolia, and peacocks to India. On your next visit, find these instruments in the Asia Gallery, and explore our Geographic Galleries to see more examples.