What are World Cultures Collections and how do we look after them? Vicki and Sue went to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery recently to find out.
The one day course was part of the Arts Council funded South West Skills Training Programme coordinated by the South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries. It was led by World Cultures Collections Officers from the Bristol museum.
A World Cultures collection contains items originally purloined by British and European military and naval officers, missionaries, colonial explorers and administrators in the 19th century. Private individuals inspired by the concept of the Cabinet of Curiosities were also keen collectors. In the 20th century tourists added to these collections. They can generally be described as anything that is non-archeological material culture from the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific from the 18th century onwards.
Many of these collections, referred to then as ethnographic, a term still used as a general description, found their way into the care of British museums and universities, but by the 1970s they saw a decline in their fortunes as society became wary of the colonial and racist implications. As a result they were stored away in less than ideal conditions. The World Cultures label came about in the latter part of the 20th century and has more emphasis on current situations and how they relate to the past. Importance is placed on the equal participation and consultation of indigenous groups in setting up museum displays.
We discovered early on that identifying objects and their country of origin would test the most determined detective. Materials can be a good place to start. Birch bark, for example, is typically found in North America, where it might be combined with porcupine quills and hair. However, birch bark is also common in Russia and Finland, so when faced with a box of mixed items with no labels or provenance, you really need to be an expert with a trained eye!
Shape and decoration are also key. We were shown two head carvings which at first glance were quite alike, but one was from the Yoruba people, with almond-shaped eyes whereas the other was Cameroon, with circular, protruding eyes. In the Snowshill collection, we have examples of Gelede dance masks, worn by male dancers of the Yoruba people.
Beadwork items can be South African, but equally North American, from the Great Lakes, where beaded fancies were sold to tourists. These took the form of European objects, such as card cases and watch fobs, but decorated in local style, for example with flowers on velvet.
Basket work can be quite misunderstood. What might be construed as a woven basket with a label inside is in fact a hat from the Congo, illustrating that an object quite literally needs to be considered from all angles.
In identifying spear heads, it was reassuring to discover, in an age when it seems that the answer to every question is to be found on the internet, that one of the most reliable resources is the British Museum Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections, dating from 1910. This reference work contains many examples of the kind of artefacts in Charles Wade’s collection.
There is an illustration of a shadow puppet which looks very much like the one in Seraphim. Vicki has wasted no time in tracking down a later but very similar edition of the book for Snowshill Manor.
Looking after a World Cultures Collection can raise tricky ethical questions, which will be explored in part two of this article, coming soon!