World Cultures gallery description

Ganesh display

World Cultures gallery


A partial re-fit to the World Cultures galleries took place at the end of 2011. This permitted some of the displays to include fresh content and highlight some recent acquisitions.


The Discovering Worlds project began in 2014. Much needed funding was provided by the Arts Council’s Designation Development Fund to help make significant improvements to the displays. This funding enabled the museum to transform the Pacific displays, and again in 2016, the Africa displays.


These redisplays reorganised the ethnography collections according to themes that are considered more relevant, rather than being placed within the sole context of geography – it was also an opportunity to begin the process of decolonising the collection. These themes place an emphasis on the issues shared by human beings around the world, rather than difference. They also draw out, where possible, the creative and the imaginative of the artist and the artisan, and how they responded to the development of new markets.


We are now planning to bring change to the Americas gallery, however, we will require major external funding for this. Recent DCMS Wolfson funding has enabled the museum to acquire 3 additional display cases, new track lighting and a roof-based ventilation system.


So what’s new in the World Cultures galleries?


The museum now offers visitors a foreign language translation of the primary display panels for Africa and the Pacific. This work includes translation into Chinese (Mandarin), German, Italian and Russian. This work was done in conjunction with the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Exeter. By 2019, there will also be the addition of Spanish language translation.




This collection of just over 3,000 items originate from former British colonies, and which includes items that offer glimpses into daily and ceremonial life. Instead of displaying items according to the places of origin, it was thought best to display items from various regions together. To highlight what is common to all people, the Africa displays focus on commerce, and addresses questions concerning the means of acquisition. Which items were plundered? Which items were gifted? And which were purchased? And can we demonstrate that a purchase was conducted fairly during the era of colonialism? Our answers can only be based on fact, not assumptions.

Magbo festival mask from Ikorodu. Carving attributed to a master carver called Onabanjo of the Itumeko quarter of the town. (Accession number 88/1928/67, H.435mm)


Much of what RAMM has from this continent was collected from markets, or from specific sellers or makers. Many of the maker’s names are unknown. While a small group of objects were acquired during times of conflict, many were obtained through commerce. RAMM wants to open up discussions about the British relationship with Africa, and how different people reacted and responded to it. What does become obvious in the gallery narrative is how Africa was historically, as it continues to remain, connected to Asia, the Arab world, Europe, and the Americas.



(Left) Iron shackles of a type widely used in northern Nigeria by Muslim slave owners. Accession number 94/1993/7. Length = 283mm. Stephens collection via Woodspirng Museum, Weston-super-Mare.


The Africa display is split into 7 key sections; African Encounters; Metalwork; Indigo-dyeing; Weaving Worlds; Faces of Africa?; Body Beautiful and A Trader in the Congo. These include significant artefacts acquired as a result of the 1897 punitive expedition to Benin, the missionary work of the Reverend Henry Townsend in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and the collecting conducted by Hatton & Cookson rubber and ivory trader Richard E. Dennett who was working in the Congo in the 1870s. This work also uncovered the hidden history of James Bandinel Snr. who served as a clerk at the anti-slavery department in the Foreign Office. A number of items obtained by him can be located within African Encounters.


The Africa displays also includes the words of award-winning poet Kayo Chingonyi, the artwork of Ben Enwonwu




The Americas gallery needs changing – its content has been largely untouched since 1998. A brand new island case will act as a welcoming case to visitors entering the space.


Current content includes artefacts associated with the Arctic, the Northwest Coast, Northeast Woodlands, the Plains and Southwest USA, Mexico and Central America, Peru and the Amazon rainforest. It includes artefacts acquired from the 1791-5 voyage of Captain Vancouver, and Arctic objects picked up by midshipman George Peard on the HMS Blossom in 1825.


Visitors should expect to see Aztec clay body stamps, traditional clothing from Mexico and Guatemala, and a wonderful arch lute which was carved in the Mende tradition of Sierra Leone. This instrument was acquired from Cartagena, Colombia and donated by James Aunger in 1870! The display also includes ceramics from the north coast of Peru, and feathered adornment from the Amazon rainforests of Guyana, Brazil and Peru.


The collection numbers some 1300 items, with just over 200 on display.


Asia and Western Asia


Reflecting strengths in the collection, there are two display cases that are concerned with religion; Buddhism and Hinduism. There are of course many other religions on the Asian continent but they are not reflected in the collection. What is important to note here is that both the displays of the Buddha and the Ganesha figures are used by local communities for reflection and prayer.


silver pendieng

(Left) A 19th century silver pendieng (buckle), Malay Peninsula. Accession number 16/2014/8. Width = 168mm. Willoughby Smith collection.


A long case is dedicated to the arts and crafts of the Asian continent. The long case contains 19th century export-ware ceramics from China and Japan, a contemporary example of Japanese lacquer made by the late Suzuki Mutsumi, silver vessels from the Malay Peninsula, early textiles from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and a protective bone amulet from Sumatra written in Batak script.


An island case near the entrance to the main hall includes a suit of Japanese armour, intended for a samurai to wear. This is a composite from different suits of armour to illustrate just what a warrior would have worn.


Adjacent to the Buddhism display, is a brand new case that shows off examples of clothing. This currently holds an Indian green choga, or tunic, that was taken as a consequence of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.




In a swathe of blue, the Oceania displays are themed according to the ideas expressed by Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa. Hau’ofa argued that the ocean connected Pacific Islanders rather than the commonly held view that the ocean divided them. Through voyaging people were able to migrate, settle and trade.



(Left) Coconut fibre armour, Kiribati. Accession number 164/1907. Height = 885mm. Commander Henry Harris collection.


This display is split into five key sections – The Sea Defines Us; Competition & Conflict; The Stuff of Life, Speaking with the Gods; Rites of Passage. These displays include a very rare mourner’s costume that was acquired by Francis Godolphin Bond in 1792 on Bligh’s successful 2nd Breadfruit Voyage.


The interpretation includes the work of New Zealand-born artist of Samoan descent Rosanna Raymond and the words of Fijian poet Daren Kamali.