World Cultures is the name we give to traditional communities in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The ethnography collection numbers some 12,000 artefacts. These artefacts relate to many of these traditional cultures.
Some of the Museum’s earliest items are associated with the 18th century exploratory voyages of Captains Bligh, Cook and Vancouver. However, significant artefacts were also obtained by crew members who served on the Tagus (1813), Blossom (1825-8), Trincomalee (1852), Curacoa (1865), Topaze (1868-9) , Mildura (1898-1900) and the Southern Cross (1912).
Many of the objects were made over 150 years ago, others were recently manufactured. They were purchased, gifted, exchanged, even found during scientific expeditions. Sadly, a small number of items were the result of Imperial or church missionary activity. This means they were confiscated or forcibly taken through conflict.
Museum donors were born in Exeter, or within Devon county. They often worked abroad during the time of the British Empire. They were soldiers, sailors, traders, explorers and travellers. Some even worked as government administrators. These individuals connected the city and the county to the wider world. They participated in many famous historic events.
The Curator of Ethnography cares for these collections. This role is responsible for making the collection relevant to audiences worldwide.
The subject of ethnography was born in the 19th century. It was a science designed to study human beings. Well intentioned, its techniques were inaccurate. It tried to describe peoples, and their customs and cultures through comparative observations.
Ethnography was a problematic and controversial subject as it contributed to scientific racism. World peoples were ranked into distinct biological groups. Few peoples were believed to be civilised and evolved, many others were not. This led many to wrongly believe that certain peoples were inferior. Today, museum ethnography is a branch of anthropology.