Ancestral Voices: Americas

In 2019 Arts Council England (ACE) Designation Development Fund awarded RAMM a grant for the Ancestral Voices project. Based on the museum’s historic Americas collections, the proposed work was ambitiously focused on engagement work with indigenous communities. This culminated in the commission of a new artwork, and a temporary exhibition. Sadly, that same year brought Covid-19, and significant priorities put an end to these activities, but engagement work will be viewed again in the future.

However, ACE agreed to support a second proposal, which began late 2021. This new proposal adopted a familiar back-to-basics approach, aligning it with the successful work done previously on Discovering Worlds with the Pacific and African collections.

The new Ancestral Voices involved multiple partner scholarship, conservation, documentation, the reinterpretation of artefacts, the acquisition of related contemporary art, and a public programme. The project’s conclusion in March 2023 resulted in the redisplay of three permanent display cases in the Americas gallery. Its research work will continue where possible.

Museum objects

Generally, artefacts are crafted by artisans for people to use. Museum collections are filled with them. Some objects have agency, are ceremonial and holy in nature, and are considered special, even unique. Objects are essentially about people, and it is through the object that RAMM wants to tell people’s stories with the help and expertise of others.

Ancestral Voices re-examines the current interpretation of artefacts and has updated this information. Where funding and connections exist, fresh interpretation incorporates indigenous knowledge and voices, along with high quality scholarship. This important museum process leads to pertinent questions being asked, such as the means of artefact acquisition. It’s essential that museums do all they can to establish how their donors obtained the very treasures they later presented to preserve these items, and their legacy.

Steeped in mystery, investigation into some unusual artefacts lead to very interesting questions. The deerskin coat and gaiters from Mexico, the African-made arch lute from Colombia, and the items Richard Sainthill acquired in Chile soon after a major tsunami occurred, are such examples. The search for answers is integral to Ancestral Voices.


Few donor biographies associated with the Americas collections were presented in RAMM’s historic displays. One such person was Edgar Dewdney.

Donor research has resulted in a revision of their biographies, an exploration of their wealth in the 19th century, and the opportunities they had for travelling to, and working and living in the Americas. This activity has produced a wealth of knowledge. This knowledge is being made accessible to visitors.

Examples include the following people:

Public programme

Given how Covid-19 changed how museum visitors accessed heritage. RAMM organised two events which enabled visitors to choose between physically attending or watching the speakers remotely.

Special guest lecture 28 September 2022

Dr. Jago Cooper, former curator of the Americas at the British Museum, and now the Director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, presented his talk entitled “Rethinking World Museums in Times of Global Change”.

Ancestral Voices: Past and Present seminar 20 October 2022

An evening of global and cultural exploration and discovery as three experts discuss their unique perspectives on Indigenous people’s experiences. Organised jointly with the Royal Geographical Society.

Vinicius Dino, anthropologist and PhD candidate in art history, University of East Anglia.

Climate emergency from an Amazonian perspective” ‘Earth’s climate is changing. What does this mean for the world’s largest rainforest?

Dr Stephanie Pratt, art historian and first cultural ambassador for the Crow Creek Dakota Tribal Council at Fort Thompson, South Dakota. A former Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Plymouth.

Reciprocal Visions: Native North Americans and the arts of Cultural and Colonial Encounter – a new analysis

Dr. Alicia Colson is an archaeologist and ethnohistorian working with computing scientists, and collaborates with indigenous peoples, NGOs and governments in Canada, UK, US, and Antigua to understand our pasts. She is a member of The Explorers Club Class of 2022.

The day the world changed”. The Jevan Berrangé Memorial Lecture.

The Oji-Cree lived and practiced Ahnishinahbayeshshikaywin, which outsiders call animism. The signing of Treaty 3 in 1874 completely disrupted their traditional lifeways. New farming practices, industries, railways, international treaties, and a dam ravaged the natural landscape for wood. Minerals and water destroyed traditional hunting grounds, burial sites and land held sacred by the Lac Seul First Nation people, the Oji-Cree. But did their practice of animism survive?

Americas gallery

The concluding part of Ancestral Voices involved the bringing together of collection and donor research to transform three permanent display cases in the Americas gallery. This involved a lot of design, technical and conservation work. Each case relates to a specific theme:

Connections – revealing the opportunities museum donors with Devon and Exeter connections had who found themselves travelling to, then living and working in the Americas. The display reveals their means of acquisition.

Encounters with others – looks at the impact on culture when different peoples meet, particularly the effects of European colonialism affected indigenous peoples who have survived it.

Reclaiming identities – the cultural recovery of Indigenous American identities.

These displays include contemporary Indigenous American voices and contentious contemporary art.