It is a wonderful opportunity for the museum to show off its fine collection of objects from the Pacific Islands.  This museum-based activity is a partnership that involves the British Museum, Sainsbury Research Unit (University of East Anglia), Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology and University College London among others.

This project is split into three parts.  The first part involves anthropologists who specialise in material culture visiting RAMM and sharing their knowledge, believe it or not some of these items remain a mystery.  The resulting information will be included into a brand new display of these objects in the World Cultures gallery with up to date information.  There will also be some research into our lesser known donors.  This will help us to better understand the items they kindly donated to RAMM.

The second part features essential behind the scenes documentation, photography and conservation work.  The final part of the project will result in the transformation of the Pacific displays.  One important thing to say is that the interpretation of this material will not just feature traditional object captions but will also be presented to the public digitally via QR-codes and also translated into European languages.

So what makes Exeter’s ethnography collection so special?  One intriguing item is a length of barkcloth from the Cook Islands that is attributed to a donor named Vaughan.  This has caused much confusion as it was initially attributed to the 1868 donation made by Henry Vaughan, which included items from the voyages of Captain Cook.  This grant has enabled us to make the discovery that Henry Vaughan was none other than a reclusive art collector who lived at Cumberland Terrace in London, a fine neoclassical building on the eastern side of Regent’s Park.  Vaughan had inherited his family’s fortune, which had been built on a successful hat-making business in Southwark.

Recent investigation has shown no known family or business connection to the county of Devon.  Vaughan had been given a group of curiosities by his father who had purchased them from the auction of the Sir Ashton Lever collection in 1806.  After Henry Vaughan had donated this material to RAMM he bequeathed his amazing collection of artworks to the nation.  He was clearly a generous lover of art.

A piece of bark cloth form the collection

Barkcloth, Cook Islands donated by Mrs Vaughan of Torquay. Accession no. E1263 L.5300mm

However, this Cook Island barkcloth does not belong to this donation but another made by a Mrs. Vaughan of “5 Belgrave Terrace, Torquay.”  Polynesian scholar, Adrienne Kaeppler, suggested the possibility that this object might be linked to one of two men named Vaughan who were donors to the Bullock Museum in 1816. Mrs. Vaughan possibly being the wife of Robert Vaughan, a nonconformist minister who moved to Torquay in 1867 and who died the following year (Kaeppler 2011: 93).[i]  Clearly more work is needed to uncover the circumstances regarding this cloth’s acquisition.  Whilst voyage provenance has been rightly disputed its age has not. RAMM’s specimen was likely produced in the late 18th century at the time when many Europeans were exploring the Pacific Ocean.  Because the museum has received a grant it intends to conserve and analyse this piece so that the cloth can be made widely available for public enjoyment again.

As part of this project, Samoan artist Rosanna Raymond visited RAMM to offer a Polynesian insight into aspects of the collection, particularly items made from organic fibres.  Raymond, however, is no stranger to RAMM as she was commissioned in 2007 to respond to a question concerning the relevance of barkcloth to Polynesian identity in the modern world.  Genealogy was the concluding work that now stands juxtaposed with historic Samoan and Maori artefacts.  Using a pair of Levi’s, a company Raymond used to work for, she constructed not only what she felt represented a sense of identity and female creativity but also she “was using the past to make a relevant future” for herself. [ii]

rtist Rosanna Raymond examining a mystery object

Polynesian artist Rosanna Raymond examining a mystery object from the Cook Islands.
Ceremonial club (u’u), Marquesas Islands

Ceremonial club from the Marquesas IslandsFrancis William Locke Ross is another early donor of natural history and ethnography.  It was recently uncovered that Ross had served as midshipman on the HMS Tagus in 1813 and travelled through the Pacific.  He made it as far as the Marquesas Islands before he was taken seriously ill. Amazingly, his voyage journal now resides in the New York Public Library.

Ross never completed his naval career but he later resided in Topsham, a port village a few miles south of Exeter.  Topsham is where he built his own museum, which included many ethnographic curiosities, some of these items can be found on display.  Whilst his life in Topsham and his interests in birds are well documented his naval career isn’t and research is currently being carried out by George Hogg RN who also happens to be married to one of Ross’s descendants.

Ross died on Christmas Day 1860 and his wife donated over 160 ethnographic items from his collection that included a wood staff of authority called an u’a, a paddle and a pair of carved tupava’e or stilt steps.  These items were likely acquired later on in his life when he founded his museum at Broadway House. Topsham was a haven for naval officers and Ross would have been well connected. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing who brought these items into the country but they certainly pre-date James Edward Little’s forgeries; they may have even been responsible for influencing him!

Discovering Worlds is due for completion at the end of March 2016.

i. Kaeppler, A. 2011. Holophusicon: The Leverian Museum. An Eighteenth-Century English Institution of Science, Curiosity and Art. Altenstaldt: ZFK Publishers

ii. Eccles, T. Rosanna Raymond’s Genealogy (2007): Notes on a New Addition to the World Cultures Collection at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Journal of Museum Ethnography, no.20 (March 2008), pp.120-7