Welcome to the World Cultures collections and gallery at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.
World Cultures is an imperfect term to describe a collection of objects that were acquired during the time of the British Empire, but were produced by indigenous peoples around the world for domestic use and for trade.
These collections offer us a rich flavour of the cultures the British encountered abroad. However, they equally reflect the interests of the donors of the time.
The aim of the gallery
The overall aim is to increase the awareness and understanding of peoples in the world, whose material culture has been brought to Exeter. These artefacts present us with glimpses into people’s lives, and very often can help us to understand not just the past but also the present through interpretation.
Museum objects reflect human creativity and ingenuity, expressions of identity, also technology, and the means to comprehend and survive in the natural world. These artefacts are representations of encounters as well, and through them, by exploring these shared histories, we obtain a better understanding of the human world.
In a world laden with ignorance, it has become easy for the few to define the world simply through division and difference. The World Cultures gallery seeks to celebrate the variety that exists in being human, but more importantly the commonality we all share.
Content of the World Cultures gallery
This first floor gallery displays a wide range of fascinating objects that were made to reflect tradition, everyday use, status, periods of transition, even social and ceremonial occasions.
Cultural values and identity are sometimes expressed through a particular object, or group of artefacts. Objects are sometimes lost in time and space, which is why it is important to find and relocate their voices – the voices of the people who made and used them, and the voices of those who acquired them. Lest not forget the voices of their descendants in the modern world.
The gallery helps the visitor explore how ideas are exchanged around the world through themes like migration and trade.
The World Cultures collection
Awarded designation status in 1998, the World Cultures collection is considered an important museum collection, both nationally and internationally. There are approximately 12,000 identified items from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Western Asia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 1,000 items are on display at any one time. Where possible we will work with indigenous communities so that the artefacts can be appropriately displayed and cared for, with the appropriate level of respect and interpretation that is supported by multiple voices.
Associations with maritime voyages and the British Empire
There are objects which reflect early encounters through voyages, and especially Empire, and the peoples whose lives were dramatically changed by them. This collection often highlights the link between Exeter/ Devon and the outside world.
Because the Museum was founded in the Victorian era, artefacts were largely obtained by missionaries, traders, military officers, colonial administrators and explorers who then donated or bequeathed them to the museum many years later. Very few involved financial payments. The objects themselves were originally acquired as gifts, purchases, souvenirs, even exchanges. However, a few items are known to have been unethically acquired, this unfortunate activity occurred during times of conflict or land acquisition. The RAMM wants to present these stories fairly.
World Cultures and acts of repatriation
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum has been involved in a number of negotiations that have led to acts of repatriation since 1994. In 1997, shell jewellery believed to have belonged to Aboriginal heroine Trucanini, was returned to Tasmania. In 2007, human remains were returned to New Zealand, and in 2008 to Australia. There is currently a discussion with the Blackfoot (Siksika) concerning Crowfoot’s regalia.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum is a member of two Subject Specialist Networks – the Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG) and the Human Remains SSN. RAMM also acts in accordance with the law, the codes of practice set by the Human Tissue Authority and the guidelines developed by MEG and the DCMS. RAMM also has a collections policy which includes human remains and repatriation as an appendix. See section below for details about the human remains in the care of RAMM’s ethnography department.
This Museum cares for examples of carved ivory. These were manufactured in the 19th century, and typical examples come from Africa and Asia. Whilst not proactively seeking new additions, RAMM will consider donations of old carved ivory to enhance collection strengths or plug existing gaps, in accordance with national legislation and the Museum’s collecting policy. RAMM will not purchase elephant ivory, despite the exemption in the new UK legislation.
There are approximately 3000 items from Africa in the collection. In the World Cultures gallery Africa is represented by the arts of West Africa, East and South Africa, beadwork and a collector's case concerning Richard E. Dennett, an ivory and rubber trader in Central Africa in 1879.
Almost 1300 items make up this collection of material from the American continent. These pieces are divided geographically into the following zones; The Pacific Rim, Northwest Coast, the Subarctic, the Plains, Southwest USA, Mexico, Central and South America and the Amazon.
In 2019, plans are being made to transform the Americas displays to talk about the environmental challenges faced by indigenous peoples.
Whilst items from China, India, Japan and Myanmar (formerly Burma) form the larger part of the Asia collection there is also material from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet and Southeast Asia. There are approximately 3,000 items from this part of the world.
This collection consists of approximately 2000 items from Australia and Tasmania, New Zealand and many of the Pacific island groups such as Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and Easter Island.
The strength of this collection lies in a donation of material from Oman. However, there are individual pieces such as a finely made Palestinian woollen bisht that had been acquired by Exeter MP Sir John Bowring during his visit there in 1838.