15 December 2015
Over the past six months ACE SSN funding has enabled MEG to undertake a major scanning initiative on its archive, and I feel very fortunate to have been the person engaging with the historic and personal documents held within this resource. The archive was transferred from Liverpool Museum to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery by Adam Jaffer and Jen Walklate earlier in 2015 and consists of ten boxes. I was tasked with scanning as much of the archive as possible over an allotted 100 hours. Over this time, I have been able to work through approximately 60% of the correspondence and documents contained within the archive, creating over 1,000 PDFs that span the almost 40 years of MEGs existence, from its founding documents to more recent additions. It soon became clear that I would not be able to scan everything, so I have focused on digitizing the older material, predominantly from the 1980s. The support of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has been key to this work as they provided desk space off their main archive room to install the scanner, and set up a laptop. Curator Adam Jaffer has also negotiated for the loan of an empty filing cabinet for MEG to use, and in 2016 the MEG committee will decide on how to improve the current physical sorting by transferring some of the box contents to this cabinet.
The archive contains evidence of the personal and business side of running MEG, and bears witness to the commitment of its members to ensure the group provides support for those working with and interested in anthropology and ethnography collections. It provides examples of the kind of issues faced working with collections, from repatriation requests to necessary specialist advice, highlighting the important role of the group within wider academic and museum circles within the sector, and the important connections MEG has made and the opportunities it has responded to.
The MEG committee is now debating how to improve the archive and would love there to be more photographs. Of the handful currently included several relate to the celebration of MEG’s 21st birthday in Manchester. See the photograph of the cake here (which sets the bar high for the 40th birthday cake in Manchester in 2016). If you are a MEG member, past or current, please do have a look in your work or personal photograph collections to see if any survive of MEG events or meetings. The current Chair of MEG, Antonia Lovelace, would love to hear from you. There are also only a few conference packs and contemporary brochures for museums that meetings took place at, and if you have been a lifelong member and have any of these old brochures these would also give context and colour to the typescripts of the meetings. MEG has agreed to support Claire Wintle at Brighton University, in her research project on ‘World Cultures Collections, UK Museums and Changing Britain, 1945-1980’. A bid has gone in to AHRC and the project is due to begin in October 2016. It will involve a close look at the MEG archive as well as interviews with key MEG member’s active in that period. Watch this space for news!
More details on the MEG archive and its development will be presented at the Manchester conference and AGM, on 18-19 April 2016. Below is an example of a piece from the archive from 1974-5.
By Olivia Maguire
On Thursday 15th October, museum professionals and academics journeyed from far and wide (London and Derby!) to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter for a workshop in identifying the natural materials museum objects are made from. The event, which was jointly run by the Natural Sciences Collection Association (NatSCA) and the Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG), was led by Paolo Viscardi, from the Slade Museum, UCL.
The workshop was made accessible to all museum professionals and students who work with ethnographic and natural history collections but who don’t necessarily have a background in biological science. This free session was well attended and provided important breadth and depth information pertaining to the workshop’s theme of identifying claws, teeth, horn, ivory and bones.
Paolo began the day explaining the relevant facts relating to existing CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and HTA legislation, (Human Tissue Act) it helped to clarify the what-to-do scenario for museum professionals if they cared for items that needed to be registered, even licensed. This led to a discussion in how to correctly identify chemicals museum items may have been treated with, both for health and safety and for ethical reasons.
With the help of comparative images and a vast array of practical examples from RAMM’s stores, Paolo illustrated the subtle but recognizable differences between the different types of materials. This even included a successful identification of one item that had been described in the original documentation as a ‘leopard tooth amulet’ that had been given to a military officer in northern Nigeria by a local chief who asked him to wear it because it would protect him from harm. This item did not have the expected curvature of a feline tooth but its straight shape, which was partly covered in leather, appeared to resemble the tooth of a crocodile!
Another highlight of the day was solving the mysteriously labeled “rhino horn?” clubs in RAMM’s Ugandan collection. These two objects were unassuming plain batons topped with a heavy round head and appeared to resemble a dark wood. How does one discern wood from rhino horn? Producing a flashlight app on his phone, Paolo demonstrated that the best way to do this was to shine the light against the item. It was clear that the light could be seen glowing through the fibrous material, which confirmed both clubs as being made of this material. As a consequence the database has not only been updated but the artifacts are now in a more secure location; the theft of rhino and elephant horn from museum collections is unfortunately a sad reality.
The workshop was a success and served as a practical introduction to material identification. Hopefully many attendees were inspired to return to their own collections with a refreshed and enriched perspective. What the session had highlighted was that training sessions such as this one was highly valued and that there was a need, especially for those who weren’t able to attend that day, for further sessions to be run. This MEG will do in 2016.