Discovering Worlds: Africa

RAMM continues to uncover new and important stories from the Africa collections. This is the result of the Discovering Worlds: Africa project. The project came to an end in 2016. This was funded by the Art Council England’s Designation Development Fund and the RAMM Development Trust.

Researching museum donors

Discovering Worlds: Africa project (2016-18) focused on a selection of donors. We either knew very little about them, or we wanted to share their stories. This selection included
– James Bandinel of the Foreign Office,
– Exeter-born Reverend Henry Townsend,
– adire collector Nancy Stanfield,
– beadwork collector Sheila Unwin
– Frederick Philip Pinkett,
– and Colonel William Hamilton Broun (aka William Hamilton Briggs).

By revealing donor histories, we get to better understand the complex nature of the world. Their lives and donations allow us to debate the world events of their time, and those that continue to make an impact on our modern world. We asked academic researchers to delve into our donor’s past. Their work has opened up their histories and this important role continues.

Many of our donors served in the British Empire. They worked as traders, soldiers, missionaries, political officers and administrators. Their tales highlight the significant Devon and Exeter connection to the African continent.

Reverend Henry Townsend was born in Exeter and became a missionary. He first worked as a teacher in Sierra Leone in the 1840s. He travelled with freed Yoruba to their homeland in Nigeria. There he set up a Christian mission in Abeokuta. Many of the artefacts he acquired there pertain to the Yoruba religion. They represent a time when British foreign policy brought great change and upheaval to the many peoples living in Nigeria.

Richard E. Dennett was an ivory and rubber trader in the Congo. He later went on to publish his experiences in several books. Dennett saw the atrocities committed by a new wave of European colonials. This upset him. Dennett disliked King Leopold of Belgium and his colonial associates. He campaigned against them in the British press. His employers moved him to Nigeria.

James Bandinel served in the Foreign Office. He was the Superintendent of the Slave Trade Department for the abolition of the slave trade. In this role he acquired an interesting assortment of artefacts. Some of them came from Bioko. The island of Bioko lies off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. It was once called Fernando Po. The Royal Navy used the island as a base for anti-slavery patrols. Many years after his death, his son donated his collection of artefacts to the museum. This included rare shell bracelets from Bioko.

Why explore our donors?

Museum donors lived in often challenging times. Their experiences offer us fascinating glimpses into the past, and into the lives of the peoples they encountered. Their children were born in the new colonies. They were a product of Empire. They also acquired items from native peoples using transformed economic systems. Their time in Africa was rich in interaction, commercial opportunity, even conflict. Historic British colonialism still influences today’s world.

Other museum donors resided and worked in the UK but had business interests abroad. They made their wealth on Imperial opportunities. These donors contributed to the unequal power structures of the new colonial economies. This included investing in the transatlantic slave trade to support the plantations. With their wealth they purchased artefacts through the auction houses or from the people they knew.

Objects with complex voices

The objects in RAMM’s collections are not simply things. They are complex materials. They are a product of the relationships between peoples. This is especially so at a time when they were obtained during the colonial period. Such artefacts come to life when we know more about them. Artefacts tell us much about function, identity, status, power, and even their journeys.

The items brought back by donors often held significance for the people who made and used them, or newly worked pieces offered significance for the buyer. They reflect the trading powers, cultures and artistic traditions of the time. The new colonial government brought great change, introducing new economies. Many industries had to adapt, selling goods to new markets. The lives of these objects are revealed with the right expertise.

Project partners

The museum was visited by scholars and members of the community. Over a 2-year period, they examined objects in the collections. They examined artefacts that were brought to the UK from former British colonies. The public rarely get to see many of these items. When the project came to an end, the museum acquired the latest in African scholarship.

Project partners included National Museums Kenya, the British Museum, the Sainsbury Research Unit and National Museums Liverpool.

The renewed displays were open to the public in 2018. They include many artefacts not seen before.

About the Africa collections

RAMM cares for over 3,000 Africa items. Items include weapons, tools, costume, carvings, masks, musical instruments and personal adornment. It includes secular and religious artefacts. They reflect the many rich traditions of art. They also represent the dynamic and historic trade routes found throughout the continent. These connections went beyond Africa into Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

The first donations

The first African items arrived at RAMM in April 1868. This was a pen case and an ink bottle from Egypt. Picked up by traveller John Maddox, the author of Excursions in the Holy Land (published 1834). He likely used them to record his travels.

Objects made in the early Twentieth Century were produced in large numbers for growing markets in the West. New art styles maintained old traditions. They play a key role in presenting new identities in a climate of modern nation building. They also help to connect diasporic African communities with their ancestral homes.

Which display items are contemporary?

Examples include

– a yellow 1970s handbag made for Ethiopian Airlines passengers.

– A barkcloth-fabric purse made by Ugandan artist Sarah Nakisanze. It is decorated with her kakeega design.

– A watercolour painting by the late artist and sculptor Ben Enwonwu.

– A mud-dyed handwoven cotton tunic from Western Mali. Solomon Olatunji bought this in 2013.

Human remains

There is a small group of African remains in RAMM’s care. They are held in store and are never displayed. We do not know who these individuals are, nor how they were acquired. Details are available on the reports, plans and policies page.

Why is project research important?

Scholarship seeks to better understand the complex nature of museum artefacts. African ethnographic artefacts were the result of colonial practices. Many were souvenirs and products of Empire. This is why RAMM’s artefacts come from specific regions in west, central, east and south Africa.

Artefacts reflect an era where indigenous governments and established trading societies were removed or replaced. High status consumers of special wood carvings or cast metals no longer existed. Colonial officers prohibited certain cultural activities. Christian missionaries were successful in putting an end to traditional religious practices. Through conversion, religious artefacts were no longer used or were destroyed. They were often collected to symbolise the success of conversion.

New art forms were created to meet the demands and tastes of new European-based markets. This is often referred to as tourist art. Today, contemporary artists and designers create new art forms. New artefacts honour old traditions, values and identities. This is very important for people whose identity has survived colonialism.

Who helped with the research?

Research was the first phase of the project. It took place 2016-17. RAMM invited museum and university-based scholars to explore the Africa collections. Objects whose stories were once unknown could now be told and revealed through public and digital display.

Researchers include Dr. Zachary Kingdon, National Museums Liverpool; Professor John Mack and Dr. Fiona Savage, Sainsbury Research Unit, Julie Hudson, the British Museum, Professor Tim Insoll, University of Exeter, Catherine Elliot, Sainsbury Research Unit and Nessa Leibhammer, Honorary Researcher at the University of Cape Town.

What happens to the research?

Scholarship enhances and changes the interpretation the museum currently holds. We sometimes find that the knowledge of certain artefacts is incomplete. This knowledge may not have survived colonial activity. Thus, some object ‘voices’ are lost. Also, locating relevant collection specialists in the UK can be difficult but they will be found abroad.

Research data the museum receives is uploaded into the Museum’s collections database. From here it is conveyed to the public through related gallery display and online activities. This is to ensure that new scholarship is made available to the public.

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