This is the story of a mystery object. It’s also an important lesson in valuing/ preserving historic museum documentation.
The Discovering Worlds project aims to open up RAMM’s Pacific collection by applying new academic research and transforming the new gallery with this information. One item that has come to light is described as a ‘preserved banana‘ and it’s said to originate from Rarotonga, Cook Islands. The accession number given for this item is E1886 and the accession sheet contains a wonderful drawing of this object. The donor goes by the name of ‘Captain Hauston RN‘.
The object is oval-shaped, straight and bound in coconut-fibre rope, there is what appears to be visible plantain leaves at the ends but until recently we’ve been unable to see what is inside. Its dimensions are L.330mm x W.98mm (measured at its widest point).
Fig.1 E1886 ‘preserved banana‘ photographed within its box.
However, according to the original museum accession register – this is the volume that recorded new acquisitions when the museum opened its doors for the first time to the public in 1868 – E1886 is listed as a ‘hat made of bamboo fibre‘ from an island off the coast of Korea and donated by J.S. Lambert, RN. This hat was part of a small group of items from east Asia given by Lambert. The information about the mystery object is inaccurate. To find a reasonable solution the museum curator has to examine all of the early paperwork associated with the object.
A brief guide to museum documentation
When an object is offered and accepted by a museum it is recorded by the curator or collection officer concerned. Today organic objects are quarantined and documented first prior to them coming to light in a display. Quarantining is a modern museum process that ensures that items are bug-free thus removing the possibility of pest infestation affecting the museum collection. This partly explains why some items donated in the 19th century have not survived.
The documentation process ensures that every donated object is identified by a unique number. No two objects should have the same number. The accession number enables the curator to link all relevant information together –purpose and use of object, means of acquisition by donor etc. This information creates the object history and curators use this information in the gallery display to accompany the object. This is great idea when it works but we tend to find the object history lacking such detail or the information is incorrect such as the example given above. This is why the object’s accession number is important.
Museum donor information
This is the starting point for any curatorial investigation especially as a quick check on the collection database reveals that there is only one donation associated with a ‘Hauston’. Let me explain why this is problematic.
The Museum’s accession register for the ethnography collection starts on 18 February 1868 with the accessioning of European items. Pages are grouped according to geographical regions. Therefore the page that includes accession number E1886 relates to a sequence of objects from east Asia (E1861 through to E1888). If this item does indeed hail from the Pacific then the curator needs to examine all pages relating to this part of the world. This has been checked and sadly has drawn a blank.
Donor files and lists do not include the name ‘Hauston‘ but I am aware of a reference to a naval officer called ‘Houstoun‘. Curators are very interested in donors as they tend to be connected to other donors or collectors at the time. Going through various index cards I found one modern undated entry with the following text;
“Rear Admiral Wallace Houstoun (presented by F.W.L. Ross). Bananas preserved in plaited leaves brought home by above…”
Francis William Locke Ross served briefly in the Royal Navy (HMS Tagus 1813) but for some reason didn’t continue his naval career. Ross lived in Topsham, Devon and adjacent to his house built his own museum filling it with wonders from the natural and human worlds. He was known for his great passion in ornithology. He died on Christmas day 1860 and his widow gifted the bulk of his collection to the newly founded Albert Memorial Museum in 1865.
Sadly, the ethnographic content of this donation was not defined item by item in a list (we have this for other donors) but instead is described as “miscellaneous curiosities“. We know from the donor index of the time that his donation included 115 ethnographic items. We know from the accession register that this group includes the following items; a wooden war club called an u’u and a pair of carved stilt steps (Marquesas Islands), fine bowls made from the horns of mountain sheep from Washington State (USA), and a carved wooden flute (New Zealand). However, through Ross’s donation there is a set of 12 gambling sticks from the Haida of the Northwest Coast (Canada) that were acquired by a Rear Admiral Wallace Houstoun in 1853.
Fig. 2 Set of gambling sticks, Haida, North West Coast, Canada.
Wallace Houstoun served in the Royal Navy. One of the ships he captained was the HMS Trincomalee on its second commission. The ship played a key role as part of the Pacific Squadron protecting British interests there. In the years 1852-4, Houston patrolled the west coast USA and the islands of Tahiti and Hawaii. It is likely that he acquired his ‘preserved bananas‘ at this time. He and his wife also lived briefly in Topsham to settle the sale of family-related property. Ross and Houstoun knew one another and it is possible that Houstoun gave him some of his things for his own museum.
Donor and object information should be clearly linked through the collections database. With existing paperwork one should be able to trace an object back to the time it was acquired by the museum; but this doesn’t always happen.
With our mystery item there is a helpful piece of information; a bound card index produced by Moore’s Modern Methods Limited (now Moores of London) from 1931. This card index listed all of the known donors and was assembled by one curator, Richard Churchill Blackie – there’s only one type of hand writing present. This index lists Ross (not ‘Hauston‘ or ‘Houstoun‘) and it’s here that we find a piece of linking information that reads
“ROSS, F.W.L. (beq)
1886 Hervey. Preserved bananas.”
[Hervey is an old name for the Cook Islands. Hervey’s Isle was named after a Lord of the Admiralty by Captain Cook who visited in 1773 and 1777.]
Going through this whole index I noticed that a number of entries for other donors are marked with various dates; none later than 1938. This provides us with an approximate date for when this index was put together. What is really needed is conclusive information relating to the time of the donation. This information is not found in the ethnography records but in papers held in the natural history collection. Here a volume entitled ‘Albert Memorial Museum. Catalogue of Specimens illustrative of Economic Botany and Structure of Plants‘.
Under the section heading Musaceae the relevant entry can be found
‘Musa Paradisiaca. Preserved fruits. Roratonga, Hervey Is. Ex coll. F.W.L. Ross Esq. Screen I Ethnology. Lat.18.S. Long. 160 W. presented to FWL Ross by Rear Admiral Wallace Houstoun.’
Fig. 3 entries from ‘Catalogue of Specimens illustrative of Economic Botany and Structure of Plants‘.
The documentation from the time of acquisition confirms who the donor is and how the object came into Ross’s ownership prior to it being a museum object. There were apparently a number of fruits donated but today there is only one surviving example.
When is a banana not a banana?
Fig. 4 recent x-ray of E1886 taken at Royal Albert Memorial Museum 2015
This isn’t a banana but a plantain, there’s a difference. Plantain is the fruit of the Musa Paradisiaca, a type of banana plant that was introduced to the Pacific from SE Asia hundreds of years ago by migrating peoples. Though the two are related, plantains being less sweet and containing more starch, it is the plantain that has more significance for historic Pacific communities.
The story of this object is that it is a banana preserved by islanders for long sea voyages but if this was the case then we would see more examples of this kind in museum collections and naval officers would have written about them in their journals; but I haven’t yet encountered this.
In the Pacific, the plantain was used in religious first fruit ceremonies which would be prepared and presented to shrines as votive offerings. The tight wrapping of the fruit in coconut-fibre rope tells us that this is something more in keeping with Pacific ceremonial beliefs than the preservation of fruit for transportation; this is an example of cultural knowledge that perhaps has come close to becoming lost forever.