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!

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