4 March 2015

MEG members help requested with Kent and Sussex Identifications

The Kent and Sussex Ethnography project entitled 'Uniques' is nearing completion. Len Pole is the specialist researcher, and he has been able to identify or agree identification of several hundred items within the agreed project areas for each of the five partners. Bexhill Museum has been exploring their African and Pacific Collections; Hastings Museum and Art Gallery has investigated their Baltic Costume Collection and African Collections; Horsham Museum has concentrated on their Asian Collection; Maidstone has explored their diverse ‘Blackburn’ Collection and the Powell Cotton Museum has taken an in-depth look at their Angolan Collection. The project aims to promote better access to these collections through community engagement and display as well as these collection reviews.

MEG agreed to help with comments on identification where requested and the project co-ordinator, Rachel Heminway Hurst, has just sent through an excel spreadsheet with details of 36 items they would like help with.  Photographs of these items have also been sent through by Mail Express file transfer and we are considering how to share these on the MEG website or Facebook pages. Meanwhile we thought it would be good to begin by showcasing some items in this blog.  Antonia has added her comments (AL), after those by Len Pole (LP). Any examples of comparative pieces or suggestions of published references are very welcome and will be credited in the items’ museum records. Do send your comments to Rachel at, copying in the MEG chair. 

The uniques project is holding a celebration and end of project event on Friday 20 March at Maidstone and MEG members are warmly invited.

A pair of West African figure carvings, Bexhill Museum

Standing figures of pale light wood, female and male, the female with a horned headdress. Both have pokerwork cross marks on their cheeks, and neckrolls. The female also has vertical triple dash marks three times on her body.  

LP: The exhibition catalogue: Hair in AfricanArt & Culture, Cat.1, and fig 4, shows a figure with plaiting similar to this, from the Fanti, Southern Ghana.    

AL: Older Fanti figures are usually more abstract than this, for example the one at the Art Institute, Chicago. I wondered about a Nigerian provenance, thinking of the PRM Ibo mask with the cross keloid design on its cheeks, as shown in the introductory guide. But the eye shapes of this pair are more Akan.  A 1930s Akan female figure here is very similar to the female figure here, but has a warmer patina and surviving beadwork ornaments.

A Melanesian woman’s skirt, Bexhill Museum

Described as “Full dress of a woman of New Hebrides” made of barkcloth, a waistband with attached folded strips of dark barkcloth, wrapped in thin strips of lighter barkcloth, with an additional three strands of red patterned printed cotton cloth. 

LP:  From Vanuatu. This is not familiar to me, I can’t find anything similar in Bonnemaison et al “Arts of Vanuatu”,  we should contact Lissant Bolton , at the British Museum says "I have never seen anything like this. Or at least, not from Vanuatu. The only place it can be from is Erromango, and frankly, I doubt that. But there is always something to learn. If you hadn't told me the label I would have suggested that it was possibly from somewhere like Kiribati? But as you know barkcloth isn't a common material for artefacts made in Kiribati. So it remains a mystery. I've looked through quite a lot of books, I'll let you know if I do find anything. 

AL: The designs on the barkcloth do ring a bell with designs on narrow men’s belts from Vanuatu, as illustrated in Fig. 144 of an article on Vanuatu barkcloth by Huffman, in Bonnemain et al. None of those illustrated is similar to the above, and none are overwrapped, but stylistically they look right. I had a quick look on the British Museum Collections web-pages where there are now over 2000 Vanuatu items, including many of the 35mm slides taken by Dorota Starzecka in 1976, but no similar skirts are shown. Perhaps this is something to share with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre that the BM has been working in partnership with for many years.

 A carved hornbill’s casque and bill from Horsham Museum

The casque and bill (or beak) is mounted on an elaborately carved wooden stand, from China. The  design of the openwork stand includes flowers and leaves whilst the casque or horny part of the hornbill is carved with a detailed miniature town scene. 

LP: Possibly a temple decoration?  Investigate significance of hornbill in China. This is a good quality piece which needs extensive conservation and specialist input. How rare is it?

AL: The best Chinese ivory collection in Yorkshire, the Grice collection at Sheffield has no hornbill ivory. I checked this by looking through their 2008 exhibition catalogue. Also online is a good summary by Robert E. Kane, ‘Hornbill Ivory’, in Gems and Gemology, (1981), p96-97, which says that hornbill ‘ivory’ has been prized by the Chinese for many centuries. Also see this Specimen of the Month article at Natural History Museum:  Amy Freeborn, ‘Behind the Scenes: Specimen of the month #9 - a carvedHornbill skull’, at Natural History Museum.

Antonia Lovelace
MEG Chair and Curator of World Cultures, Leeds Museum

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