6 October 2015

Arms and Armour at the Horniman Museum

In March 2015 the Horniman’s Collection People Stories project came to an end. The project had seen three years of intense work on the collection. Focused curatorial research, documentation review and object photography had transformed our understanding of the Museum’s 80,000 odd anthropology objects. The project had also brought our collections to new audiences and pioneered specially devised engagement techniques.
To conclude Collection People Stories my colleague Sarah Byrne and I wanted to host an event which would build on the project’s achievements and hopefully also break new ground. Our teams in the stores had just gone through the Museum’s extensive collection of arms and armour and it struck Sarah and I that these under represented objects, so typical of the collections of ethnography museums, but so unwieldy in the context of contemporary curatorial practice, would make a very good topic for a conference.

We tentatively issued a call for papers, raising the problems inherent in the representation of violence in other cultures, highlighting the necessity of unpacking the multiple meanings often imbedded in weapons and ultimately asking how to display objects that are all too often absent from the galleries of today’s  ethnography museums. Perhaps, we thought, our subjects is too niche, a micro-specialism in the tiny world of museum ethnography? The positive response we received, therefore came as a delightful surprise. Submissions arrived from scholars, curators and conservators based at institutions across the world. It turns out that many felt strongly about our questions and were keen to contribute to the discussion.

The morning of the first day of the conference gave Sarah and I the satisfaction of seeing people who share an enthusiasm meet for the first time. We ordered the papers so that those speakers who planned to raise more universal rather than specific questions and arguments came first. The appropriately named Bob Savage, Curator of Edged Weapons at the Royal Armouries opened with a discussion of the bodily trauma which most weapons are designed to deliver, illustrating his presentation with shocking images of machete wounds. Many a half-eaten croissant was returned to its plate, but Bob had made an important point: that although we may display weapons – we are very unwilling to confront what they designed to do.
Andy Mills of Norfolk Museum Services was next with an ambitious and convincing synthesis concerning the pan-cultural agency expressed by weaponry. Papers on particular weapon types, museum case studies and indigenous perspectives followed, which sadly I cannot elaborate on here as my 500 word limit is fast approaching, so I will take the opportunity instead to put in a plug for Weapons, Violence and the Anthropology Museum, a forthcoming book, published by Cambridge Scholars and edited by Andy Mills and myself which features thirteen chapters worked up from papers given at the conference as well as a few new contributions. A must read for anyone who has got to the end of this blog post!

The Horniman has produced the video above which covers some of the conference and is certainly worth watching if this blog has piqued your interest.  Especially compelling is an interview with Naga artist Temsuyanger Longkumer and footage of the intervention he made in the Museum’s conservation lab on the second day of the conference. I am very grateful to him for his contribution.

Tom Crowley
Curator in the Anthropology
Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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