Infiltrating a gathering of archaeologists

2 Nov

Yesterday I gave my second paper at the African Archaeology Research day held at the Sainsbury Institute for the Arts at the University of East Anglia. I was much more composed this time and feeling confident. Unfortunately, as I was the penultimate speaker, I spent the whole day growing more and more unsure because I realised that my paper was totally different to the others and I was worried that I would stand out like a sore thumb! It seemed to go OK and I had lots of friendly comments afterwards, but I couldn’t help feeling like I had infiltrated a gathering of archaeologists! I think it did me good to explain my research to a new audience; after all, my supervisor is an archaeologist and she has always really ‘got’ my way of interpreting objects and collections. I listened to some interesting papers on various projects in Africa, and it was great to chat to other research students about their experiences.

My paper talked about Maurice’s collecting methods in Africa. I wanted to cover a bit of his background to show that the collecting traditions of his family made it quite likely that he would become a collector, but also that his collection was so unique and reflective of his individual interests. 

I then talked about different forms of collecting and their implications- such as appropriation or taking by force, the prestige of trophy collections, and cross-cultural trading where Maurice exploited his position of authority to bring ‘sacred’ or ‘culturally unavailable’ objects into the commodity market to enable him to collect them. One example of this that I quite enjoyed was when he collected a series of bows and arrows from a head herdsman in February 1933: 

“I was fortunate to buy for 20/- all the bow, quiver etc. from the old head Herdman. That was his own price. He hated to sell the blood-arrow. He also had a pair of firesticks and I insisted that these should be included in the sale, as well as all the ordinary arrows. After he had agreed, and handed over everything to me, I said “Santa”, or “thank you” in Swahili: and he got very agitated and said to Collinson “good heavens, does he want Santu also?” Santu being his very pretty daughter of just-marriageable age. However, I felt that I had made a very good bargain, even without “Santu”!”

This story shows Maurice’s cheeky humour, but it’s also an example of him taking charge of a situation to make sure he got what he wanted.

I also talked about how the way he collected was influenced by his upbringing and background. His diary accounts are very matter-of-fact and usually quite descriptive, almost scientific, and sedate- even when I can tell that he would have been very excited at the time. This is very much in style with others collecting at the time, and influenced by the Shikar Club that presented hunters as skilled and educated men who followed the rules of fair play. I gave the example of Maurice killing his first lions in 1924:

“after much kelele (noise), a 9 month old cub broke near us, and I shot him with a shot through both shoulders and as he lay finished him off at about 100 yards with a shot through the back. Then after much beating a fine lioness broke out opposite to us about 40 yards off. She started to come for us but immediately changed her mind and galloped off left handed. I missed her clean when near, but got her through the shoulders at about 150 yards. She got into a thorn patch 500 yards away, so we followed in the car, and eventually were able to see her lying down about 10 yards inside the thorn patch. So I sat up on the top of the car and plugged her with the .410, killing her apparently, but gave her another to make sure. Then left her and went back to the original thorn patch to find the male lion. Couldn’t drive him out- if he ever was in there, but eventually drove out more cubs and Sid Monk and Pat Connor eventually each got one of them. Then back to the lioness, which the boys pulled out of the thorns and got our photos taken with her and the 3 cubs. Then skinned them all, put the skins in the car”.

I finished my paper by explaining how important it was for Maurice to fit in and be accepted by other influential settlers and collectors in Africa. Even though collecting was very competitive and every man wanted the best specimens for himself, Maurice needed to assimilate with others to get access to the best places to hunt and permits to shoot more animals. One of the most striking things I’ve noticed in my research so far is just how well connected Maurice was. I always imagined his safaris to be solitary affairs because we think of him as a shy man, but he was usually hunting with others, and was always dropping in on his friends. 

Now that my conference prep has finished I can get back down to some serious research and enjoy the rest of my year doing what I do best!

I’ve also managed to get out and about a bit more recently to visit some exhibitions. Even though people said that being a museum studies student would kill off my love of visiting museums in my spare time, it’s still my favourite thing to do on a day off! I finally managed to find Ordsall Hall sitting rather uncomfortably in the middle of the built-up metropolis of Salford. A beautiful place, with a great refurbishment that allows you to see into some interesting spaces like the attics. I wish we could open our amazing attics at Tatton- they are such unusual atmospheric spaces! I knew that Ordsall was Egerton owned, but was interested to see that it remained theirs right up until Maurice’s death, as I thought he may have sold it off earlier.

I was also surprised to see an interesting taxidermy exhibition by Polly Morgan in my local Warrington Museum. I’m really interested in new ways of using taxidermy to make people think about the blurred lines in concepts of life/death and nature/culture. My favourite piece was a massive ball of pigeon wings. It was great to see a local museum showcasing such thought-provoking pieces. I’m always amazed by Warrington museum; it has so much to offer and such a great core collection and history of interesting (Or controversial!) ways of displaying it. Every time I go I seem to be the only visitor, and whilst I love having it to myself, I can’t help thinking if the museum was transported somewhere like London it would be swamped and would get the attention it deserves. Support your local museum, readers!

Finally I had a good poke around the Sainsbury Centre during the lunch break of my conference. The collection was acquired by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury and was formed and displayed as an ‘art’ collection. It was interesting for me to look at objects collected from Africa, North America, Canada and India at similar times to Maurice’s collection, but they are intended to be viewed in completely different ways. The modern, minimalist display cases and brief labels are certainly a contrast with Maurice’s crowded cases and descriptive notes.


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