18 November 2018

Job opportunity: Medicine Galleries Research Fellowship – Culturally Sensitive Objects

Do you have experience of working with culturally sensitive objects, ethnographic collections or museum policies? Do you have experience of delivering significant research projects?

The Science Museum Group has an astonishingly diverse and internationally significant collection of 7.3 million items from science, technology, engineering, medicine, transport and media. The Group also cares for Sir Henry Wellcome's Museum Collection, which contains thousands of objects related to health and medicine on long term loan from the Wellcome Trust. This material covers a broad range of cultures and includes a small number of objects which may be considered sacred, secret or otherwise culturally sensitive.

The Science Museum Group and Wellcome Collection are examining how we store, interpret, document and display these objects. Thanks to funding from the Wellcome Trust - provided to encourage greater academic engagement with the medical collections during the Science Museum's medicine galleries redevelopment project - we are delighted to offer a year-long fellowship to identify and review best practice concerning the care of culturally sensitive objects and collections originating from indigenous cultures, including items from Australasia and North America. 

In this role you will identify objects which may be defined as sacred, secret or otherwise culturally sensitive and identify, review and report on relevant policy statements (both nationally and internationally) regarding the care, storage, documentation and display of such objects, as well as best practice regarding access. You will also be tasked with planning, delivering and documenting workshops at key project milestones to discuss issues relevant to the research project with internal and external stakeholders. 

More details can be found on The Science Museum website.

The deadline is 02/12/2018.

12 November 2018

Supporting the National Museum, Rio de Janeiro


You will all have heard of the fire that gutted the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro.  Following discussions amongst interested parties as to what could be done to help, the RAI convened a roundtable meeting to discuss possible support.

Attendees came from universities, national and university museums, RBG Kew, British Council, National Archives, AHRC and Canning House.  MEG was invited as a representative of the museum sector.

Professor João Pacheco de Oliveira of the National Museum, Rio de Janeiro, addressed the meeting, with simultaneous translation for the non-Portuguese-speaking delegates.  He spoke very movingly of the huge loss that people feel – not just the staff and academics who worked, collected and carried out their research there, but also many ordinary people for whom the 200 year old museum represents the national identity of Brazil.

Staff have not yet been allowed into the building to assess the damage, so actual losses are unknown.  Some material may have survived underneath the collapsing building, or it may be that everything was destroyed.  The building itself is unsafe, and police have closed the remains as a possible crime scene.

The fire has meant a huge cultural loss: the anthropology collections, being in large part organic materials, are assumed lost, especially the material from indigenous Brazilian communities.

The archives are also assumed lost: there was no support for digitisation, so digital copies only exist where researchers had made their own for their own work – therefore it is random selections and perhaps not good quality. 

The fire is creating opportunities.  Indigenous communities have already offered to make new objects for the museum – they see the museum as important for their cultures and histories.  Much of the lost collections had no or little data, so this is an opportunity to collect data as well as objects, working in close and respectful collaboration with indigenous communities.  But, some of the lost material represented a meeting of cultures, indigenous and colonial, 200 years ago, and that cannot be replaced. Indigenous communities are not fossilised, they are changing over time, so the material culture changes.  The professor gave the example of feather cloaks: the 16th century cloaks in the collection were made with red feathers.  That red bird is now extinct, and 21st century cloaks are made with raven feathers.

It was agreed that the lead should come from the Museum: they are not in a position yet to accept help or new accessions.  Once they can access the building, the need will be for forensic archaeologists to excavate the ruins and salvage what can be saved.  Staff will then know better what has been lost, and can start to plan the rebuilding of the museum.

It may be that part of that rebuilding is digital: research from academics who used the collection in the past, photos from visitors of the displays, images of objects in other museums, oral histories from staff, researchers and visitors.  Then there may be a point where the museum asks for loans or transfers from other collections, but that point is a long way off yet.

I suggested that MEG could help with organising digital images from non-national and non-university museums, using data from the various surveys and our professional network to find material in the UK.  MEG members had responded to the request for ideas with suggestions for oral histories and testimonies, crowdsourcing of digital images used to curate online galleries, restore collective memory and create education resources.

As there is more news we will pass it on.

Sue Gies (MEG Chair)

4 November 2018

Folklore and the Nation

The annual conference of The Folklore Society
Friday 29–Sunday 31 March 2019
University of Derby
United Kingdom

Call for papers—first deadline Sunday 9 December, 2018
The nation surges with newfound rhetorical power. The last 25 years have seen parliamentary devolution, the Scottish independence referendum and the proposed withdrawal from the European Union, all within the UK alone. Yet this is a global drive, manifesting also in diaspora (St Patrick’s Day is now a global celebration) and the everyday, local acts that constitute our reality. In England, for example, it is no longer remarkable to see the St George’s Cross flying outside suburban houses. We are living through a popular move towards national ideologies.

This conference asks how, why and when folklore has been deployed in the context of national ideologies and ideas of nationhood. For some, the lore of the nation has been an instrument to build consensus; for others, a means of excluding. Signs of cultural identity have served to both unite and divide separate polities, whilst diasporas live within two nations at once, the state of residence and the (sometimes imagined) homeland. The conference accommodates the use of folklore in exclusionary and disciplinary deployments of nationalism, whilst remaining open to flexible definitions of nationalism, in the form of solidarity, ethnicity, diaspora and nations within nations.

Of course, folklore has always been connected with the discourse and development of the nation, as demonstrated by collections such as Timothy Baycroft and David Hopkin’s (2012) Folklore and nationalism in Europe during the long nineteenth century. Whilst the folk were considered cultural survivals, of low status in the ranks of civilization, folklore was symbolically important to many national struggles. Ambiguous feelings about tradition—whether it was the authentic voice of the people or a quaint echo of the primitive—drove the historical development of nationalism just as it contributed to the development of the academic discipline of Folklore. Custom, legend and tradition played their part in progressive, Romantic nationalism, as much as they did in promoting the nationalism of totalitarian states. What, then, is traditional about the place of folklore in nationalism, and nationalism in folklore?

This conference welcomes perspectives from Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Ethnology, Ethnomusicology, History, Literary Studies, Sociology and other disciplines. We welcome contemporary and historical understandings of the many connections between folklore and the nation. Contributions might look at the local and the national, links and similarities between nations and the role of gender and sexualities. We are, of course, interested in traditional forms such storytelling, folk song, dance and costume, amongst others. We hope to explore, but are not limited to:
  • Literary and artistic uses of folklore in relation to national ideologies.
  • Relations between ethnicity, nationalism and folklore.
  • Folk heroes.
  • The use of folklore against the nation.
  • The heritage industry and its relationship to nationalism and folklore.
  • The mobilisation and reception of folkloric motifs, items and folkloristics itself, by extremists, both historical and contemporary.
  • Disciplinary questions of resistance. How can, or should we, as folklorists, respond to its uses in such contexts?
  • Vernacular ideologies of myth and narrative in national popular culture.
  • The relationship between nationalism, folklore and media, including the role of the internet and social media.
  • The relationship between folklore, Gramscian ‘common sense’ and hierarchies of knowledge in relation to nationalism.
  • Folklore and Brexit.
  • Folklore, asylum and immigration.
  • The relationship of folkloristics to nationalism and the nation. 
The conference is kindly hosted by the University of Derby at its One Friar Square campus in the centre of the city. There will be a tour of Derby and opportunity to visit the Peak District.

On the Friday evening, at 11pm, the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union. Whether or not this happens, we invite traditional and creative practitioners to contribute responses to the themes of the conference. In the evening, we will hear them in a public house as last orders approaches. 

The first deadline for papers is Sunday 9 December, 2018. Proposals of 100–150 words, for presentations of 20 minutes, should be emailed to: thefolkloresociety@gmail.com and copied to enquiries@folklore-society.com. Please include a brief biographical note, including contact details.

Both members and non-members of The Folklore Society are warmly encouraged to offer papers at this conference.

19 October 2018

Galloway Trust PhD scholarship, University of Aberdeen

The Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen has just advertised the Galloway Trust PhD scholarship.  Candidates with research interests in any area of Anthropology that fits within the department’s research themes (one of which is Museums and Histories of Science) and who either already have a Masters in Anthropology with research training, or are currently studying for one, are welcome to apply. The scholarship is open to Home/EU students and covers fees and a stipend for three years. The closing date is 31 January 2019. 

29 September 2018

Jobs Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research

The British Museum is looking to recruit two Project Curators  to work as part of the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research in support of the British Museum Research Strategy.

 The more senior role will involve co-ordinating and leading research within the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research . They require an experienced researcher in anthropology and/or archaeology of Latin America to  work with the Centre Director to devise research strategies and establish priorities for the Centre and guide research fellows towards achieving these goals.           

The second  role is to develop, implement and deliver on the project’s plans and outputs. The postholder will help build and manage the programme of Visiting Research Fellows, collection specialists, Centre events and outputs.  They will be responsible for the day-to-day running of the Centre’s programmes and activities.

Headley Fellowships with Art Fund

A programme designed to provide experienced curators with the time and resources to carry out research projects deepening specialist knowledge and expertise around their collections.  It  aims to give curators the time and resource to work with focused areas of their collections, deepening collections expertise within regional museums and sharing specialist knowledge across the sector. Deadline for applications is 15 October 2018.
More details on the ArtFund website. 

Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy at The Box, Plymouth


Today we have an exciting guest blog  from Jo Loosemore
Contemporary cooking pot, traditional design by 
Mashpee Aquinnah artist Nosapocket/Ramona Peters 
(photo courtesy of Smoke Sygnals)


2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. The history connects five nations over four centuries. It’s also a story with personal connections, cultural sensitivities and political ramifications.

Today more than 30 million people claim a connection to the ship and its passengers of 400 years ago. Our work at The Box, Plymouth[1] is an ambitious response to the anniversary and to the cultural opportunities it offers. It is also a recognition of the need to genuinely reflect on the English colonisation of America and its consequences.

Having made links with Plymouth400 (the organisation leading the commemoration in the US) and descendant family history societies across the Atlantic, we began to understand how crucial and complicated the Native American story is. It has been ignored, or marginalised, by traditional tellings over 400 years. There are exceptions to that - at Plimoth Plantation for instance, and academically of course, but the Anglo Separatist colonial narrative still dominates.

‘Pilgrims’ are powerful. They have shaped images and ideas of American national identity for centuries. But doesn’t the 21st century demand different voices as well? Anniversaries can applaud and acclaim, but they also offer the opportunity to acknowledge - appropriately. With an international partnership in place (US, UK, and The Netherlands), this commemoration allows a real re-appraisal of the past. As an English regional museum in the city the Mayflower left 400 years ago, we could have chosen to look at our own 1620 world. Instead, The Box in Plymouth (UK) committed to co-curate its exhibition (Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy) with Native Americans living in and around Plymouth (US) today.

With little experience of, or opportunity to work with, ‘source communities’ or the descendants of those people affected by our ancestors’ colonial ambitions[2], this was bold. Perhaps it was also naïve, yet it felt right. Researching earlier commemorations on both sides of the Atlantic suggested the challenges and the choices we had to make. We didn’t want to make the mistake of 1970, when the Wampanoag elder Wamsutta/Frank James’ commemorative speech was censored by the Anglo American organisers of the 350th anniversary in America. The action resulted in dismay, anger and protests from Native Americans and led to the first National Day of Mourning. 2020 will mark its 50th anniversary.

Understandably, the Wampanoag people have a difficult relationship with Mayflower history and its legacy. They are the People of the First Light, who have lived in the American eastern woodlands for 12,000 years. They were also subject to attack from European disease and capture by English adventurers. Yet they enabled the survival of the Mayflower’s colonists, before being subjected to decimation during King Philip’s War of 1676 and generations of repression. Today there are two Wampanoag Nations in Massachusetts - Mashpee and Aquinnah. Would they, could they, help us?

The National Maritime Museum made the first museological approaches. The Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth400 (US) made a film for the new Tudor/Jacobean seafaring exhibition. We needed and hoped for more - objects, images, and insights, which would enable us to tell a different story of 1620 and its impact. For us, this would be new, hard, but appropriate. We wanted to bring Wampanoag history, culture and life today to an English audience. We just weren’t quite sure how.

The first phone call didn’t go well. I outlined our ambitions for an exhibition which told an accurate and integrated story, but owing to more commemorative Mayflower collecting over the years, lacked a range of earlier relevant objects. They told me theirs were here - in English collections - the loot of wars and oppression. They tasked me with finding King Philip/Metacom’s wampum belt - for them, the most symbolic of all.

As a 20th century social/oral historian rather than an ethnographer, 400 years of conflict felt a heavy burden. History and collections are collisions. They damage and hurt, but they also prove connections over time and oceans.

Following months of questions and requests, the exchanges became answers and support. The Wampanoag Advisory Group recommended we commission Smoke Sygnals (Wampanoag history and communication specialists) to guide us. Steadily we agreed a scope of work ‘to develop a foundation of a shared history between our people’. They offered to give ‘attention to period correct artifacts’ in order to ‘bring a fresh, authentic perspective to your work’. After a few months, the mother and son team of Paula and Steven Peters were working with us on object selection, text, and imagery.

Paula Peters (Wampanoag Advisory Group), with historic wampum collections at the British Museum
 (photo c/o The Box, Plymouth)

There are cultural differences of course. Our Native American advisors are open to recreations and replicas, while we seek original items imbued, from our perspective perhaps, with time and truth.   

Smoke Sygnals have guided us through online collection catalogues, away from objects mis-labelled or misunderstood over time, and led us towards items which they value, appreciate and want to see us display.

This has meant showing the evidence of Wampanoag longevity – fishing weights and arrow-heads of an unwritten past, pre-contact, and powerful in their efficacy and durability. Together we have also chosen pieces of the early contact period (a wooden ladle with a bird design, an eel trap and a bow) which have sustained through time.

This took us to the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian and the objects held in Washington, but representing Native Americans across the country. There are 174 Wampanoag pieces listed in the catalogue. We have secured three, thanks to our working relationship with the Wampanoag Advisory Group. Generously, they supported our case and ambition for the exhibition.

‘We greatly appreciate the sincerity and dedication to developing authentic displays that reflect the story of colonization and beyond from the Wampanoag perspective.
We appreciate that our tribal knowledge and scholarly work has been consulted every step of the way, in a sense treating us as co-curators, and giving our recommendations the highest priority’.
Paula Peters, Smoke Sygnals and Plymouth400 Wampanoag Advisory Committee Member

New archaeological research in Plymouth, MA by the University of Massachusetts suggests a much closer connection between the Wampanoag people and early colonists. It seems there was a sharing of material culture, and 400 years on, our exhibition will reflect that co-existence. But what of the conflict? Colonisation was undeniably brutal and bloody. The 1676 war may have been the bloodiest on American soil, but it was preceded and followed by cruel cultural clashes.  
John Eliot Bible, 1661, the first Bible to 
be printed in America, from the collections of 
Exeter Cathedral Library 
(image courtesy of Exeter Cathedral Library)

Finding the material culture and the imagery of conflict has been challenging. It is also central to the story. For us, objects four centuries apart will help to illustrate oppression and persecution. The Eliot Bible of the 17th century and the full text of Wamsutta/Frank James’ speech of 1970 are evidence of a dark past overly due for illumination.

Our Wampanoag advisors have also asserted the story of their survivance[3]. The Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag Nations in Massachusetts have a population of 5000. Both tribal governments are enabling us to use their historic photographic collections, while supporting new photography projects as well. We are also pleased to be establishing new relationships with artists and craftspeople preserving and perpetuating their living legacy. One, Nosapocket/Ramona Peters, is already beginning Plymouth’s
first ever commission of Wampanoag contemporary art (see above).
Her piece will become part of the city’s permanent collections on
its arrival here in 2020. We are also aiming to commission a new
wampum belt as well.     


Paula Peters (Wampanoag Advisory Group) 
reading the Algonquian Eliot Bible, 1680-85, 
at the Foyle Special Collections Library,
 Kings College, London 
(photo courtesy of The Box, Plymouth)
Presenting the cultural history of a people, pre-contact, during colonial contact and with a living legacy, is difficult. It requires openness and understanding, tenacity and trust. American archaeologists and advisors (Plimoth Plantation, Pilgrim Hall Museum and the University of Massachusetts), and British curators and ethnographers (British Museum, Pitt Rivers and Bristol) have offered context. Sometimes they have also countered the content suggested by our Native American advisors. Together we have imagined an exhibition[4] informed by Wampanoag interests and supported by Anglo-American museums. We are committed to the partnership and to the co-curation it has enabled. We may get some things wrong, but hopefully we will get more things right. That is an important course to chart 400 years after the arrival of the Mayflower in Native America.



 If you wish to have a project you're working on profiled on the blog please email web@museumethnographersgroup.org.uk




[1] The Box, Plymouth is a multi-million pound redevelopment of the former Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Central Library building and St Luke’s Church. It will incorporate the collections of the Museum and Art Gallery with those of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, the South West Film and Television Archive, the South West Image Bank, the Local Studies Library and significant loans from the National Museum of the Royal Navy.  
[2] When The Box, Plymouth reopens in 2020, our world cultures collections will be shown in a permanent gallery called 100 Journeys, which acknowledges the city’s involvement in English colonisation across the world.
[3] A term used to describe Native American survival and succession. Gerald Vizenor’s (2008) Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence has a series of essays on the theme.
[4] Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy will open in 2020 and run for 18 months. Objects, images and ideas will explore early English attempts to colonise America, recognise conflict and coexistence with Native America, address the political and religious context for the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620, detail the lives of its passengers, and consider the cultural, demographic and personal legacies of the story.