3 June 2020

Len Pole's farewell to Sue Giles on behalf of MEG

The recent AGM was Sue's last as Chair and while we fully expect her to remain an active member of the MEG community we thought we would take this oppurtunity to reflect on Sue's career.  We were grateful to Len Pole for giving a moving speech during the recent AGM and wanted to share it with those of you who were unable to attend.

Zoom AGM
I would like to say a few words about Sue and her career.

Sue studied history at Bristol University, graduating in 1976. As she has said, she ‘loved museums’ even as a child. So it was not surprising that during her studies she visited Bristol City Museum, which is right next door to the main University building. Her active association with working in a museum began in 1975, when she started volunteering there.

Her unpaid association with the Museum continued after Sue graduated in 1976 and blossomed when she started to work there as an archaeological illustrator. The museum authorities must have realised they were onto a good thing as she quite quickly got the job of Museum Assistant in 1977. This was within the Department of Archaeology, but it then included responsibility for the ethnography collections, and it was these which increasingly became the focus of her interest. Sue became in turn Assistant Curator of Archaeology, Curator of Archaeology, then Collection Officer, Ethnography {2001}, Curator of Ethnography & Foreign Archaeology {2008},  Senior Curator (Ethnography), Senior Curator (World Cultures) {2014}, ending up as Senior Curator of the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection.

As she has also said, Sue worked on countless exhibitions and projects during her more-than 40-year career, so I can only touch on a few of these. One of the most significant projects she worked on was “A respectable Trade? Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery”. This exhibition was initially put on in the City Museum in 1999, later transferred as a permanent gallery to M-shed on the quay. As was said in the foreword to the catalogue, ‘it represented for the first time open civic acknowledgement that this terrible trade in human cargoes has existed’. Much of the impetus which resulted in this acknowledgement can be put down to the efforts of Sue and her colleague Madge Dresser. It is difficult now to remember the extent to which the prevailing attitude in the 1990s was one of keeping the issue of the slave trade and its legacies under the carpet. Their preparatory work over three years included the innovative involvement of a community association, the Bristol Slave Trade Action Group, which resulted in significant contributions by them in planning and interpretation, in the exhibition and its associated activities.

Sue also worked over a long period researching the Egyptian collections, particularly the remains of the companion (husband?) of Perenbast, a temple singer from the 22nd dynasty, (ninth century BCE). This involved linking these remains with those of Perenbast herself, in the Manchester Museum. This formed part of Sue’s continued concern to link the Bristol collections with other provincial collections, such as the Royal Cornwall Museum, and at Swansea, through ACCES (the Association of Curators for Collections from Egypt and Sudan) which she chaired in 2012. In the 1990s she oversaw the detailed investigation into the coffin and mummy of Horemkenesi, a priest from the 11th century BCE – including undertaking DNA analysis of the skeletal content of the remains. 

Another continuing project of hers concerned the Adela Breton collection. Adela (1849–1923) was a Victorian traveller of independent means who spent much of her time in Mexico, where, in the 1890s she studied the wall paintings in Mayan temples. Breton was a talented artist, making many hundreds of copies of the paintings which she bequeathed to the Bristol Museum. Over the past three decades, Sue has sought to give the collection the national significance that it deserves, and restore the importance given to Breton’s work in this country, to match that which it has always had in Mexico. Many of the Breton drawings are now the only means by which most of the Chichen Itza murals can be studied. Sue put together an exhibition in 1989, “The Art of Ruins: Adela Breton & the Temples of Mexico” and published a catalogue with Jennifer Stewart. The exhibition subsequently toured the UK.  More recently, she determined to improve the conditions in which the fragile Breton artworks were housed, as well as undertaking further research into their significance. She oversaw the conservation, photography and digitisation of the Breton collection, which eventually resulted in the exhibition in 2016 of most important drawings and paintings.

Sue has been striving for a greater presence of the ethnographic collection in the Bristol City Museum displays for many years. As well as the Respectable Trade? and Adela Breton exhibitions, with her team she put together the Curiosity exhibition in 2010, which included a range of ethnography and archaeology material from the collections. She has also highlighted the work of third world artists, such as Mathias Kauage from Papua New Guinea, with the SingSing exhibition in 2003, which controversially also included Papuan items from the collections. More recently she has been developing the representation of North American First Nations in the collections.

Sue has been heavily involved with running MEG almost since its inception. Apart from taking the chair for three years in the 1980s and again until today, she has put together the Newsletter over many years. I hope she has not thought of this task as thankless, but it has certainly been essential; both in keeping the membership up-to-date with ethnographic news and notice of MEG events, and making sure that the Group continues to be a necessary part of our museological equipment.

These are just a few of the more significant projects which Sue has been involved with, but I can’t end without a personal memory of her. One of MEG’s many international museum visits was to Denmark. In Copenhagen, Ken Teague, Sue and I spent a very convivial evening discussing the visit (& enjoying a good old chin-wag), assisted by copious amounts of schnapps, which eventually resulted in an admonishment from another member of the group (who had long since retired for the night) for our loud singing and chortling!

Len Pole: 26 May 2020

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