16 March 2019

'Fabric Africa: stories told through textiles.' Exhibition review by Sarah Worden.

We are delighted that Dr Sarah Worden has agreed to write a review of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery's current exhibition.  Sarah is Curator of African Collections at National Museums Scotland.  She has a particular interest in textiles and the role of clothing and dress in the expression of identity so is well place to review this exhibition!

Sarah Writes:

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s Fabric Africa special exhibition is a celebration of fashion and style, ‘a snapshot of the amazing world of African textiles’. The exhibition includes for the first time together highlights of textiles and clothing from the Museum’s World Cultures and British and Empire and Commonwealth collections which date from the late 1800’s to the present day and come from countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Mali and Swaziland.

Fundamentally clothing is all about the people who make and wear them. It is always a challenge in static museum displays to recreate the dynamic contexts in which textiles function. Here the multi-layered and vibrant pattern and texture of just under sixty objects make a powerful, visually exciting statement and one which demands and holds the visitor’s attention. The range of materials and construction techniques found in African textiles is extensive and many feature in the outfits on display, including robes and wrappers of indigo-dyed cotton cloth from the Hausa in northern Nigeria, a heavily embroidered tunic from Cameroon, and a hand-woven silk kente cloth from Ghana, which will be of interest to textile students and practitioners.
View of an area of the Fabric Africa exhibition (c) Bristol Culture

Interpretation of the displays is organised into four interconnected themes covering Fashion; Exchange; Communication and Status which introduces historic and contemporary connections between individuals, communities and countries. Information about the objects is presented through a series of thought provoking questions. Do your clothes tell people where you are from? What makes African fabric African? Information includes an introduction to the commercial connections between Africa and Britain through which the huge variety of factory cotton printed cloths circulated between Britain and Africa, and within a number of African countries for local markets. The displays include Malawian chitenje printed with logos and portraits which show political party affiliation and Kenyan kanga cloths printed with proverbs and symbols representing shared traditions which exemplify the communicative potential of clothing. Other collections highlights include the huge tailored and embroidered robes from northern and southern Nigeria which represent centuries old traditions of high status dress influenced by Islam. 

(c) Bristol Culture

The item of clothing which to my mind sums up the exhibition is the distinctive wedding dress created by Audrey Migot with Bristolian designer Karen Reilly, for her wedding in Bristol in 2016 (pictured, right). A  Kenyan woman, living in Bristol, she wore a tailored dress of West African prints originally produced in Europe. Audrey is one of four African individuals living in Bristol whose personal stories relating to the role of textiles in their cultural heritage have been recorded for the visitor to engage with contemporary perspectives from the African diaspora.
The subject of African textiles and dress is rich and multi-layered, expressing similarities and differences between cultures. This exhibition also introduces the Bristol Museum’s World Cultures African textile collections to researchers of African textiles, which is a very positive outcome, and contributes to the new research on the collections of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) which in 2012 were transferred to the care of Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives. This is a major collection which covers a wide range of material relating to the countries of the British Empire and the Commonwealth and one with huge research potential. 

This exhibition is a lively introduction of African textiles for visitors, not only to the eclectic and the unfamiliar, but also a means to compare connections between cultures, both old and new.  To supplement their gallery visit, schools can borrow one of the special African textiles handling boxes to feel different African textiles, try on garments, discover who made them and how they were created, which makes a great additional resource. African textiles are a subject of particular interest to me, and I was delighted to visit Bristol, talk to curator Lisa Graves about the development of the exhibition and share her enthusiasm for the fascinating textiles in the World Cultures collection held in Bristol. 

Interested in finding out more about the Fabric Africa exhibition?  Last year curator Lisa Graves wrote about the thinking behind the exhibtion for the MEG blog.  

If you would like to write a review for the MEG blog please get in touch!  web@museumethnographersgroup.org.uk

10 March 2019

MEG event: Trip to Intrepid Women

Zena McGreevey discusses Beatrice Blackwood

The most recent MEG event was a visit to Intrepid Women: Fieldwork in Action,1910-1957 an
exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.   The exhibition was curated by Joanna Cole, Zena McGreevy and Julia Nicholson and we were very lucky to be given a tour of the exhibition by Zena and Julia and to have the chance to talk with all three of them over lunch.    



The exhibition focussed on six women who all contributed significant collections to the Pitt Rivers museum.   Each women had her own section which featured a mixture of photography, film footage and archival material alongside objects from the collection.  The exhibition was arranged chronologically but it was possible to approach the exhibition from either end or to pick and choose which individuals to focus on as each profile works as a standalone exhibit.


The first woman featured was Barbara Freire-Marreco one of three people to enrol on the Oxford Anthropology Diploma when it was founded in 1906 and the only one to be awarded a Distinction.  It was particularly good to hear about Makereti a woman from New Zealand with a Maori mother and an English father.  She worked as a tour guide and ambassador for Maori culture around Rotorua before marrying an English man and moving to Oxford.  Her collection is mainly made up of her own possessions which she bought with her to the UK. The third women is perhaps the best known of all of them, Beatrice Blackwood.  During the 1920s she undertook fieldwork in Canada, USA (including spending time in the same Pueblo communities as Freire-Marreco) and New Guinea before beginning work at the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1935.  


Julia Nicholson and MEG members

Highlights from Elsie McDougall’s collection of textiles from Mexico and Guatemala were beautifully displayed alongside drawings and diagrams of the techniques used and photographs of the weavers.  These textiles contrasted nicely with those collected by Ursula Graham in the Naga Hills.  Graham’s collection included a wide variety of object types with photography and some early colour films.  Neither of these women considered themselves anthropologists but nonetheless there collections and diligent records have made important contributions to the field.  The exhibition ends with film footage made by Audrey Butt Colson while she was doing fieldwork in the Upper Mazaruni District of Guyana in the 1950s.  The film was intended as a teaching tool but her work continues to be used by Akawaio people to support their claim for legal ownership of their ancestral lands.


It was particularly good to attend the exhibition as part of a MEG event as it gave us a chance to talk in detail with the curators and understand some of the issues they faced putting on the exhibition.  These included practical considerations like the accessibility of some of the collections and how they worked as a team as well as intellectual and ethical issues.  For example, Zena emphasised the importance of the manuscripts and archives in the collection that relate to the women and the meticulousness of their record keeping.  We debated over lunch whether these women had been overlooked because they did not come up with any grand overarching theories and whether this should now be regarded as a strength of their work as their extensive notes on a wide range of subjects, and not in support of a particular view, make them more useful to contemporary researchers.  Julia discussed the ethics of choosing objects for use in marketing and the decision not to use spiritual objects in this way.   I was particularly keen to hear about all the women who didn’t quite make the cut as it seemed like the curators were spoilt for choice!

Collections in Circulation: Conference, 9-10 May 2019

The Mobile Museum Project Conference will take place at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on Thursday 9th and Friday 10th May 2019.

The conference brings together scholars from the UK and overseas with a shared interest in the mobility of museum collections, past and present. Their papers will address various aspects of the history of the circulation of objects and their re-mobilisation in the context of object exchange, educational projects and community engagement.

Confirmed speakers include Claudia Augustat, Paul Basu, Joshua Bell, Martha Fleming, Tony Kanellos, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Luciana Martins, Wayne Modest, Catherine Nichols, Jude Philp, Daniel Simpson, Alice Stevenson and members of the Mobile Museum project team.

The full conference programme is now availlable and is designed to allow opportunity for extended discussion of the papers and their implications. A reception will be held in Kew’s Shirley Sherwood Gallery, and there will be optional tours of the Economic Botany Collection, the Herbarium and Kew’s library & archives.

JOB: Assistant Curator, East Asia Collections Review Project, National Museum of Scotland

Based at the National Museum of Scotland, this temporary, full-time post will support the work of an East Asia Collections Review across various cultural institutions in Scotland. The aim of the project is to increase understanding of and public access to Chinese, Japanese and Korean collections in Scotland. Working within the East & Central Asia section of the World Cultures department (the Senior Curator for Japan collections, the Curator for Chinese collections and the Japan Foundation Assistant Curator), liaising with the National Programme Co-ordinator in the National and International Partnerships department, and working closely with staff from the partner museums, your duties will include visiting collections throughout Scotland to identify and document collections, gathering and collating information (both image and text), consulting museum documentation, writing reports, and presenting results.

You must have a degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject area (e.g. art history; history, with a demonstrable interest in the arts and culture) while a postgraduate qualification in a museum-related subject or art history (or equivalent) is desirable. The duties of this post require the post holder to have relevant experience of working in a museum or similar environment and be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about cultural collections and/or subject areas.

It is expected that you will have experience of undertaking research and of preparing and delivering presentations. Equally essential are ICT skills in Microsoft Office, including Word, Excel and Outlook together with knowledge of collections management databases. You must also be able to demonstrate your ability to plan and organise your workload, manage projects and build relationships within and outside of National Museums Scotland.

For more information visit the National Museum of Scotland Website.