RAMM’s World Cultures collection shows Exeter’s connections to the wider world. We care for approximately 12,000 artefacts and ancestors, with 7% on public display.
World Cultures gallery
The World Cultures gallery is a space dedicated to the museum’s ethnography collection. It first opened to the public in 1998. Then a recent refit at the end of 2011 enabled more items to be displayed with fresh content applied to half the display cases.
The gallery space is split into two areas of approximately 300 square metres each. This allows RAMM to display more than 1000 ethnographic items at any one time, just 7% of the total of this particular collection.
The museum reopening was an opportunity to include the results of recent research and items and new acquisitions not seen before such as items of beadwork from East Africa, Amazonian headdresses and contemporary Polynesian art.
Material from the Pacific includes many stone and organic artefacts from Australia, New Zealand (Aotearoa) and many of the Pacific Island groups such as Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti and Easter Island (Rapa Nui). We care for items that are sacred or ‘taonga’, and ancestors.
Items of note include a generous gift of war clubs and tools by the renowned art collector Henry Vaughan. This gift consisted of items from Captain Cook’s second and third voyages. Vaughan’s father and uncle purchased these items in the 1806 Leverian sale.
Francis Godolphin Bond collected a very rare mourner’s costume and several other items from Tahiti (Society Islands) in 1792. Bond served as First Lieutenant on the HMS Providence on the Second Breadfruit Voyage. When Bond returned to Exeter, he presented his collection to the Devon and Exeter Institution, of which he was a patron. Long after his death, the Devon and Exeter Institution donated Bond’s collection to the Albert Memorial Museum in 1872.
Other valuable holdings includes a large sheet of decorated bark cloth from the Cook Islands, which is late 18th century in date.
Contemporary material reflect traditions, even changes, of modern day island culture. Examples include several dance crests from Uvol, New Britain, which were made in 1987 for a community festival that commemorates generational change every 25 years. Genealogy, on the other hand, was made by artist Rosanna Raymond in 2007 and highlights how barkcloth is relevant to Polynesian identity today. These trousers relate to the artist’s ideas about her own mixed heritage. Rosanna refers to Genealogy as taonga, a Maori term given to items that are considered treasure.
The African collection has its roots in 19th century colonial activities. Examples include a copper-alloy commemorative head from the 1897 punitive expedition into Benin City. There are also a number of healing nkisi figures which had been purchased by Richard E. Dennett. Liverpool firm Hatton and Cookson employed Dennett as a trader dealing in ivory and rubber.
The Oba of Abeokuta gave Reverend Henry Townsend a carving of the Yoruba orisha Eshu. In fact, he had been presented with other high-status items as a sign of their relationship, and his presence as a colonial Christian in a changing Nigeria. The Museum acquired this material in 1868. However, some of these items had already been publicly displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The Americas collection is divided into the following regions: North America (Arctic, Subarctic, Northwest Coast and the Plains), Central America, the Caribbean, South America and the Amazon rainforest.
RAMM has its very own crest pole (totem), called Ilchinik in honour of a very powerful and successful whaler. This commissioned red cedar pole celebrates the historic connections between Exeter and the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island. It was carved by renowned Nuu-chah-nulth artist and master carver Tim Paul. The pole was completed in June 1998 in the museum.
Significant elements of the collection which have now been returned to the originating community is Chief Crowfoot’s regalia. Crowfoot (Isapo-muxika), was a Siksika leader of the Blackfoot nation at the time of the signing of Treaty 7 (The Blackfoot Treaty). In April 2020, Exeter City Council voted to repatriate the regalia. The official handing over of the regalia took place in May 2022.
A late 18th century buckskin coat from Mexico is of particular interest as this item does not commonly feature in other UK-based collections. This colonial-styled coat is embroidered with silk thread and decorated with a variety of picture motifs. Recent surface analysis has shown that it is not made from cow hide but deerskin. Suggestions of Spanish colonial connections to Asia are being explored in new research funded by the ACE’s Designation Development Fund. Details of this work is forthcoming.
There are also traditional traje (indigenous garments) from Guatemala and Oaxaca, Mexico, such as huipils. The production of these garments have shifted from the traditional role of women in the home. Here, women employ back strap looms to make clothing for the family in the evening hours. Young girls would learn how to weave from a very young age. They were made using traditional materials such as locally grown cotton and organic dyes. Factories in the city have largely taken over this mode of production.
This old tradition continues today as a means of generating income and to promote cultural identity. One notable item is a Mixtec wrap-around skirt that incorporates hiladillo, or cochineal-dyed silk, a dark blue cotton dyed with indigo and a lilac cotton that was dyed using the secretion of a shellfish (purpura). This is harder to obtain than the conventional modern dyes that are so easily found in the markets.
There are approximately 500 items from the peoples of the Amazonian rainforest. It includes an early bird’s wing bone apron (tayukunchi), and an Achuar feather initiation apron from Ecuador obtained by an energy worker in the 1950’s.
From 1868, RAMM began acquiring donations of artefacts from China, Japan, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Tibet, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. This small collection features textiles and clothing, carvings, ceramics, lacquerware, weapons, prints and publications.
The World Cultures display includes rare 19th century Ainu artefacts and garments from the Ishicari district on the northwest coast of Hokkaido Island, Japan.
Export-ware ceramics from China date to the 18th century. Made at the renowned Jingdezhen kiln site, RAMM cares for a wide assortment of porcelain including blue and white ware and famille rose. Ceramics from the Kyoto kilns in Japan include decorative vases produced by Taizan Yohei IX and Miyagawa (Makuzu) Kozan.
From Myanmar, 15th century Konbaung dynasty glazed ceramic tiles were acquired from the Shwegugyi and Ajapalacetiya pagodas of the Bago region in lower Myanmar. They depict scenes from the temptation of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) by the demon Mara. Of course, another significant artefact from this country is a dry lacquer Buddha, one of three examples known in the UK.
This small collection of material comes from Oman, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Kurdistan.
The strength of this collection lies in John Carter’s donation of material from Oman. However, there are also interesting individual pieces such as a finely made Palestinian woollen bisht that was donated to the museum by Sir John Bowring in the late 19th century.
In 2009, RAMM was fortunate to acquire a large hand woven tapestry from the renowned Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre near Cairo in Egypt. This spectacular piece is called Field and Village on the Nile. Artist Mahrous Abdou completed it in 2009, it measures 2.90m x 1.80m. It took him approximately 6 months to complete. Members of the public will be able to view this splendid work in the Islam and Arab World case of the World Cultures gallery when the museum reopens again. This new acquisition was made possible with the help of the Ramses Wissa Wassef Trust, Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Friends of RAMM and Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul.
Museum donors usually came from Exeter or other parts of Devon, or they spent their retirement years in the 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.
What is ethnography?
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.