Non-field Collecting (2): Ethnography in the British Museum


Franks and 19th century collecting
6 Burlington Gardens

Non-field collecting (1)

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Extracts from J. King's 'Franks and Ethnography'

(pp136 - 137)
... The Department of Ethnography [in the British Museum] derives from the nineteenth century Department of Antiquities, from which other Departments - concerned with Europe and Asia - were struck off, as from a flint core. Today this Department of Ethnography is concerned with the Americas and the Pacific, with Africa (apart from Ancient Egypt), the Classical world and the Palaeolithic and with mostly small-scale societies in Europe and Asia.

Augustus Wollaston Franks came to the museum in 1851, when ethnography collections, totalling perhaps some 3,700 artefacts, were subsumed as a minor part of this all-encompassing Department of Antiquities. When he retired in 1896 the collections totalled more than 38,000 items [that is, only three times the size of that part of Pitt Rivers' collection which came to Oxford] and formed a major sub-section of the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography. ... In 1851 ethnography was displayed in a single gallery. By the 1880s Frank took over a suite of galleries on the upper eastern floor so that this material could be comprehensively exhibited.

In the middle of the nineteenth century ethnography, including oriental material, was displayed in a small upper room to the west ... In 1852, for example, there were in this Ethnographical Room some seventy-four cases which displayed materials from the non-European world. The first nine cases were of Chinese and Indian material, cases 10 - 13 displayed African artefacts and 14 - 42 were American. The remaining displays, cases 43 - 74, showed objects from New Guinea, the Pacific and Australasia, including, in the last two cases, South-East Asian artefacts. The nature of the collection is perhaps best understood by the ratio of Chinese and Indian things to those of the Pacific, there being apparently three times as many cases of Pacific items as of Asian artefacts, Polynesia alone, with cases 51 - 65 filled more space than China and India combined. ... Much of the collection was confined to the basement.

... In Franks' view there were, however, limits to the collection and the British Museum should not contemplate 'an illustration of the costumes and manufactures of all countries'. The Museum's collections: 'should illustrate the manners and customs of such races as have not been subjected directly to European civilisation, so as to furnish the student with the means of examining the affinities and differences between such races and also to reconstruct some of the last pages of the history of the world'. Franks briefly set out a collecting programme: 'New materials can only be obtained from some remote districts of Asia, a portion of Central Africa, Melanesia, and some parts of South America. For aboriginal remains of Polynesia proper, the North Americans, and many others, it is necessary to search European Museums'...International and other exhibitions were an important continuing source of ethnography, and Franks kept in close touch with the promoters of such events, in order to acquire artefacts on the closing of the show...

... the process of acquiring from the collection of evolutionary scholars such as Gustav Klemm in the 1860s, further substantiated evolutionary schemes as a basis for museum development. Although, after about 1868 acquisitions came to be better recorded, it was only very rarely that contexts were given. Then, from the 1880s and 1890s, as Read developed as Franks' amanuensis, there are fuller records, with lists from field collectors who, on their return to Europe, donated or sold their collections to the Museums. [so the Pitt Rivers collection given to Oxford in 1884, shared with other collections its lack of detailed provenancing]. In the 1880s the most significant work associated with the Department related to the work of E.H. Man (1846 - 1929) in the islands of the Indian Ocean [EH Man also donated large numbers of objects to Pitt Rivers]. ...Interestingly, for so great a collector, Franks did not travel outside Europe, and therefore made no ethnographic field collections himself...

(p149 - 150)
...The majority of acquisitions for the British Museum and Christy collection came from administrators and travellers recently returned to Britain. There were also, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of museums and collectors who divested themselves of ethnographic materials. The British Museum retained a close association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This lasted for about a century: the first major acquisition from Kew occurred in 1866 when the Christy Collection received a donation of 294 artefacts from all
over the world. ... Perhaps the most significant secondary collection acquired by Franks was that of the antiquary Samuel Rush Meyrick (1783 - 1848), who is largely responsible for the revival of the study of European armour. His family offered the whole collection to the British Museum, but it was turned down by the Government; after the sale of the European (and thus most saleable) sections, the remainder was given to the Museum in 1878. Franks who had brought about this donation through his friendship with the family, reported of the artefacts that 'not many of them are great desiderata for the rich collections of the British Museum. As however they are nearly all engraved in Skelton it is important that they should be preserved as type specimens'. Meyrick had published his collections in 1830, in a series of illustrations by Joseph Skelton (1783/5 - c 1850) in which 'savage' arms and armour acted as a foil for European materials. Franks was not able to ensure that the Museum acquired all the remaining collection. In the Wallace Collection there is an unpublished Skelton drawing which includes a Tlingit slat cuirass from Alaska and Hawaiian featherwork, not included in the 1878 donation. Meyrick may also have had a Nuu-Chah-Nulth whaling hat from the Northwest Coast of America in his 'South Sea Rooms' at Goodrich Court, which also did not come to the British Museum. On the other hand the material that was acquired includes 'An adze of iron made by the armourer of Captain Cook's ship for a Tahitian in imitation of his own of basalt', a West African ivory cup and other, eighteenth-century ethnography.

(p151 - 152)
Franks' collecting activities brought in, and dispersed as duplicates, materials from diverse sources. One effect was to reassemble artefacts from early voyages although, because of incomplete documentation, it is seldom easy to determine the exact extent of these. The complexities of unravelling this process can be illustrated by the careers of two eminent naval officers, [Sir Frederick] Beechey (1796 - 1856) and [Sir Edward] Belcher (1799 - 1877), and their collections from Alaska and the Pacific. Beechey commanded the Blossom to Bering Strait in 1825 - 1828 with Belcher as an assistant surveyor. Beechey presented an official collection to the British Museum on his return; Belcher similarly presented a significant group of material from his command on the Sulphur, 1836 - 1842, a Pacific surveying voyage which incidentally saw action in the Opium War with China (1839 - 1842). Both Beechey and Belcher retained further collections, Beechey for instance presenting a private collection from the Blossom to the Ashmolean Museum, now in the Pitt-Rivers [sic] Museum, Oxford. Belcher, a Canadian, was one of the most controversial naval officers of the period. Apart from being accused by his wife of twice infecting her with venereal disease, he made the mistake of abandoning an expedition searching for Sir John Franklin in the Arctic in 1854. One of the ships broke free, was salvaged by an American whaler and refitted by Congress as what must have seemed to be a rather humiliating gift to Queen Victoria in 1856. Nevertheless, Belcher was something of a scientist and made significant natural history and ethnographic collections, even publishing what could be construed as the first paper about Eskimo art, 'On the manufacture of works of art by the Esquimaux', in 1861. Belcher's collection was sold on 10 June 1872, with Franks buying extensively and presenting 150 items to the Christy collection. While some artefacts are recorded to collection on the Blossom or the Sulphur, not all are so documented. Furthermore while Franks recorded some Belcher comments on specific lots ('Sir Edward says ...'), he did not do so consistently, and not all the comments are entirely reliable. No copy of the sale catalogue is known to have survived, although Franks carefully included lot numbers on the registration slips. Little else is known of Franks' relationship with Belcher, but they must have been aware of each

6, Burlington Gardens

Extract from M. O'Hanlon's Paradise

[pp82 - 84]

Number 6, Burlington Gardens, the building [until recently] occupied by the British Museum's Ethnography Department, was not purpose-built as a museum. [Note: at the end of 1997 the Museum of Mankind was closed and the process of moving the Department back into the main British Museum site in Bloomsbury began]. Designed in the 1860s by James Pennethorne (adopted son of the architect John Nash), its first tenants were London University, hence the statues along the façade of luminaries ranging from Plato to Adam Smith. Subsequently, the building housed the Civil Service Commission, before hosting the Ethnography Department when it migrated from the British Museum's overcrowded Bloomsbury site in 1970.

A number of the building's grand rooms are occupied by relatively permanent displays: others are devoted to equally long term functions such as a Film Theatre, a Library and Schools' and Students' Rooms. Broadly, this leaves three double galleries, each some 550 square metres in area, in which to stage 'temporary' exhibitions. The comparatively short life span of these exhibitions (recently averaging some two years) recognises that much ethnographic material is insufficiently robust to be exposed for longer periods; over time, it also allows more of the stored collections to be redisplayed than would 'permanent' exhibitions in the same space. Most temporary exhibitions erected in these three galleries have also differed from the more permanent exhibitions in terms of display technique. Rather than simply grouping artefacts by type or culture, or with a view to highlighting their aesthetic qualities, many of these temporary exhibitions have sought to recreate something of the artefacts' original physical surroundings. External contractors, supervised by the museum's Design Office and assisted by museum technical staff, have simulated tropical forests, Arctic landscapes ...

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