28 April 2015

Uniques Project

Uncovering Ethnography In Kent & Sussex (Uniques) was funded by Arts Council England involving partner museums; Powell Cotton Museum at Quex Park, Maidstone, Bexhill, Hastings, Horsham Museums, with support from Brighton and Hove Museums World Art Department and University of Kent Department of Anthropology. The project aimed to highlight strengths in the collections, research pieces that partner museum staff want to know more about, arrange professional conservation and photography, put on displays, produce a website and undertake activities involving local communities. The project has been managed by Rachel Heminway-Hurst, with community activities developed by museum learning officer Sam Smith.

Female doll from Southern Angola made from wooden sticks and plant fibre, Powell-Cotton Museum 

An initial collections review was conducted by Len Pole, the ethnographic specialist, who spent three days at each museum examining 100-200 objects, picking out star items (chosen using the significance criteria developed by the Australian Heritage Collections Council) and producing reports for each museum. Star items include; a beaded blanket from an Mfengu group, eastern Cape, South Africa, in Bexhill; an 18th century sword (talwar) with gold inlay from North India, in Horsham; a helmet mask, decorated with abrus seeds, from northern Nigeria, in Maidstone; an Ifa divination bowl, from a Yoruba group in south-west Nigeria, in Hastings; and a range of wood and fibre doll-figures from Kwanyama and other groups in southern Angola. Further detail on specified objects was provided through input from relevant specialists, operating through contact with MEG.

Collectors highlighted included Cecil Blackburne, author of ‘From Oriental to Occidental Africa’ (1913), Major Newnham, Walter Pitt, and Olive MacLeod, all at Maidstone; the Powell-Cotton sisters, Diana and Antoinette, at Quex Park; the Henderson family in Horsham; the Brassey family in Hastings and Bexhill, also Brandford-Griffith in Hastings and the geologist Hans Heetveld in Bexhill.

Case Studies were undertaken on several of these collectors and items. Some items still require further work, such as a barkcloth skirt in Bexhill, said to have been collected from Vanuatu, but so far no other similar examples of this form have come to light.

Displays have been or are about to be mounted at each museum, focusing on a selection of the pieces and collectors investigated, or in the case of the Powell-Cotton Museum, as part of a developing permanent gallery.

Community activities included, at Bexhill, using African beaded jewellery to encourage local parents with young families to talk about their family heirlooms; at Hastings, using jewellery from southern Africa in practical activities making and using beadwork; at Horsham, using the Henderson photo albums as starting points for work by photography students with th collection; at Maidstone, sessions with local people with visual impairments; at Powell Cotton, developing activity sheets from information supplied by a group of grandparents and their grandchildren, that would help them in looking at kinds of personal adornment used in Angola in the new displays.

Screenshot of the 'Uniques' website.
Another major outcome is the specially designed website. More general benefits from this project include providing non-specialist museum staff with greater confidence in using ethnographic material on a regular basis in their museums’ activities, establishment of contacts between museums in the south-east and nationally, through the agency of Museum Development Officers, Sussex and Kent Museums Groups, as well as MEG.

Longer-term legacies will hopefully include development of contacts between these partner museums and relevant source communities, for instance the Powell Cotton Museum and Kwanyama groups in Angola and Namibia.

Len Pole
28 April 2015

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