Ethnographic Documentation Project

Sarah Mengler, University College London
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October last year saw the commencement of an eleven month AHRC project, based around the UCL Ethnography Collection. The geographical composition of the collection is diverse and includes objects from Africa (in particular West Africa), Oceania, North and South America, as well as smaller numbers of Asian and European objects. Acquisitions have originated from a range of sources, including academic staff and private collectors, as well as institutions such as The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (WHMM), the latter numbering around 300. Studying the Wellcome objects has offered a valuable method of both navigating through formal museum nomenclature and highlighting the material culture of museum documentation process.
Wellcome archives estimate that on Sir Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936, he had amassed over one million objects. The non-medical collections, mostly comprising ethnographic material, were dispersed to museums both within the UK and overseas through ten ‘installments’ during the years 1949-1954. This coincided with Professor Daryll Forde’s formation of a small teaching collection in the anthropological department of UCL.
The WHMM was operated on the belief that the world could be known, understood and replicated through material objects, with the ultimate goal of historical and material completeness. Social progress could be ‘read’ from the material culture, the collection providing objectifications of authoritative knowledge. Forde also initiated his own classification system for the UCL collection, reflecting his interest in primitive technologies. Focusing on the networks of influential human actors who employed the various classification systems is one method of analysis. The challenge of this project is to focus on the object and on relationships between objects, people, aspirations, futures and distances. For example, staff reports at the WHMM note their need to rearrange entire classes and systems as new objects were acquired, as well as their difficulties in knowing, for example, ‘what is a weapon and what is a tool’.
The museum is often framed as a site of classifying and ordering of knowledge, ideology and disciplining of the public. How do museum classification systems impact on the value and meaning of objects? How can an account be constructed which prioritizes the material character of the museum and its objects? What role can ethnography museums play in anthropology? In this project, the creation of a new database and the research being conducted around on the objects attempts to address these questions. In doing so, it is hoped the teaching collection will further ignite student interests and projects.

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