Exhibitions and events
Collecting histories

The British Museum was founded in 1753 and the collection has grown exponentially over time. The way the Museum collects today is incredibly varied – objects sometimes enter the collection directly, in other instances they have passed through different owners, sometimes over a long period of time, before finally coming to the Museum.

There are many ways in which objects have been collected in the past. For objects acquired in earlier centuries, catalogue records produced at the time do not always explain fully how the item left the place where it was made and used or outline all the stages of its journey to British Museum. Museum curators are currently actively researching different parts of the collection to address gaps in the record, particularly where collecting histories need to be better understood, so that they can be acknowledged and debated.

The current Asahi Shimbun Displays Collecting histories: Solomon Islands in Room 3 is part of this wider initiative. A key part of this display explores how colonial collecting histories can be more effectively acknowledged and interpreted in future exhibitions and projects. The Solomon Islands display focuses on some of the different ways in which objects left the Pacific and came to be in the Museum’s collection. To explore these themes further you can also can follow a related trail through some of the Museum’s permanent galleries. The trail highlights 15 objects from Africa, Asia, North America and Oceania that were largely acquired during the colonial era, with the trail focusing on objects made during the last 300 years. It acknowledges and highlights the varied ways in which objects like these then became part of the British Museum’s collection.

Collecting histories

From around 1500 to the mid-20th century, a number of European countries established competing overseas empires. Britain’s empire expanded overtime to become the largest, bringing great benefits to Britain, often at the expense of the colonies, and leaving a complex and contested global legacy. Many of the objects and artefacts that are now in the Museum’s collection were acquired during the colonial era – the period when Britain had an overseas empire. Objects were acquired through trade, exchange and purchase, but also through the activity of Christian missions and during the imposition of colonial control by armed forces when cultural artefacts were sometimes taken as spoils of war. These types of acquisitions – where objects have been taken by force, and not freely given or fairly purchased – are rightly the focus of increasing debate today.

Here we explore the stories of six objects included in the trail that highlight the intimate relationship between colonialism and the Museum’s collections and collecting history.

Mask, Java
The stylistic features and unused condition of this mask indicate that it was probably a gift or was purchased by Raffles, rather than being taken forcibly or acquired through looting.

This Javanese mask was collected by Sir Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), a British colonial official. Raffles was Lieutenant-Governor of Java and became infamous for authorising an attack on the most powerful Javanese court. During his time there, he amassed collections and compiled reports on aspects of the island that appealed to early 19th-century European ideas about what constituted a civilised culture. He was particularly interested in national history and antiquities. Raffles’ collecting seems to have been motivated by a desire to persuade British politicians that Java should be retained as a colony. Stylistic features and the unused condition of the mask indicate that it was probably a gift or was purchased by Raffles, rather than being taken forcibly or acquired through looting. However, all of Raffles’ papers were lost when the ship returning him to Britain in 1824 sank, so we will never know for certain how his objects were obtained. Raffles’ collection was donated to the British Museum in 1859 upon the death of his widow.

The British in Java

France acquired the island of Java when it defeated the Dutch in 1807 during the Napoleonic wars, gaining access to Southeast Asian resources, a situation intolerable to the British. After a military expedition by East India Company troops in 1811, Raffles was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java. He held the position until the island was returned to the Dutch in 1816. Raffles thought Britain should retain Java as a colony because he felt Southeast Asia was of particular strategic importance since it connected British colonies in India with its trade interests in China. He wished to establish a centre through which goods such as ceramics, textiles, tea, coffee, spices and opium could be freely traded to benefit the British. Unable to develop Java, Raffles established Singapore as a British port in 1819.

Ancestral screen, Nigeria
Carved wooden funerary screen from 19th century, showing a house-head in the masquerade outfit that he performed in life. This one is Bekinarusibi (‘white man’s ship on head’) and celebrates the wealth that came from trade with Europeans.

The background to the acquisition of this screen provides a fascinating insight into the daily business of the colonial government in Nigeria in early 20th-century West Africa.

At the request of Kalabari chiefs in 1916, a number of ancestral screens were placed under the protection of P Amaury Talbot, a British district officer in southern Nigeria. This unusual appeal came in response to a period of religious persecution that swept the New Calabar towns of Bakana and Abonema in southeastern Nigeria in 1915–1916. This movement, initiated by Garrick Braide, the fundamentalist Christian leader and self-styled ‘prophet’, threatened the widespread destruction of Kalabari ancestral shrines.

Talbot presented nine of these screens to the British Museum and a further two to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Today, ancestral shrines are still commissioned and honoured by Kalabari people.

Trade and politics in the Niger Delta

For several centuries the Kalabari people of the eastern Niger Delta (now Cross River State in southeastern Nigeria) acted as middlemen, importing European goods into the African interior and exporting African produce to the West. They became active intermediaries in the slave trade when the area became a centre for trade between Europeans on the coast and Africans further inland, in return receiving European brassware, alcohol and firearms. The heads of these trading houses accrued great wealth and exerted influence locally. Following the abolition of the slave trade, the Kalabari lost their position as independent traders. Britain implemented a policy of indirect rule in the region from the late 19th century, finally establishing an amalgamated Nigerian protectorate in 1914. 

At the time when this screen was acquired there was increasing local frustration at the restrictive administrative policy of the colonial authorities. Kalabari economic activity had been usurped by British-imposed bureaucracy and traditional beliefs and practices were being destabilised by the activity of Christian mission churches. In this context Garrick Braide’s fundamentalist movement generated enormous local support. The ancestral screens, with their images of conspicuous prosperity and independent Kalabari religious and social interests became vulnerable targets for populist religious movement, and some screens were destroyed as a result of Braide’s ministry.

Pukara, 2013, Australia
Pukara, made by the Spinifex people, acrylic on canvas, 2013. The painting depicts two men from Pukara, father and son, represented as water serpents. Also present in the painting are the snake men, who are on their way to Mulaya.

This painting by senior men of the Spinifex people depicts important Ancestral Beings who created the landscape, people and law which they abide by. Before beginning to paint on canvas, Spinifex people made ephemeral paintings on the body and on the ground. A series of major paintings was created in the late 1990s demonstrating their customary law and helping to achieve recognition of native title.

Men and women of the Spinifex people also paint their stories and country in a form suitable for sale to outsiders. Their art can now be bought at art galleries in Australia and around the world. This painting was created with the support of the community based Spinifex Arts Project, and purchased in 2013 by the British Museum from the Outstation Gallery in Darwin, Australia.

British colonisation of Australia

Australia has been inhabited for at least 60,000 years. Although English explorer William Dampier visited the northwest coast of Australia in the late 1600s, and Captain James Cook sailed up the east coast in 1770, permanent British occupation first began in 1788 with a ‘First Fleet’ of convicts being sent from Britain to form the new colony of New South Wales. In 1901, Australia became a country independent from Great Britain.

Some Aboriginal people in remote central Australia remained out of contact with Europeans until the early 1980s. The Spinifex people were moved off their ancestral lands when Britain used it for the testing of atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. After a long struggle, their claim for recognition of rights to land was recognised by the Australian courts in 2000.

Appliquéd tunic (jibba), Sudan

Dervishes (literally, ‘poor men’), were religious men who wore ragged, patched outfits – muraqqa’a. Their clothing was a clear indication of their rejection of material wealth and an embracing of religious life.  The original tunic was replaced by this smarter outfit, the jibba.

This jibba, worn by a Sudanese soldier, formed part of the spoils of war taken by Anglo-Egyptian forces at the battle of Atbara, Sudan in 1898. Based on the pocket decoration it probably belonged to a senior army officer. After their victory at Atbara, Anglo-Egyptian troops raided the Sudanese enclosure and, following established practice for both sides of the conflict at this period, took clothing and personal items.

Major General Sir William Forbes Gatacre (1843–1906), who commanded the British Brigade at Atbara, appears to have taken this jibba to the UK. His widow, Lady Beatrix Gatacre, presented it to the Museum in 1909.

Anglo-Egyptian involvement in Sudan

In 1819–1820 Mohamed Ali, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt, dispatched his army up the Nile to occupy northern and central Sudan. This period of occupation was brought to an end by a Sudanese nationalist movement led by Muhammed Ahmad (1844–1885), an Islamic religious leader and self-proclaimed Mahdi (‘rightly guided one’). The movement’s capture of Khartoum in January 1885 and the creation of the Mahdist state (1881–1898), led to Anglo-Egyptian involvement in Sudan and the birth of the present Republic of Sudan.

Many followers of the Mahdi wore tunics (jibba), with appliquéd patches of coloured cloth as a uniform. This form of tunic was probably inspired by the everyday garments worn by religious men in the region that were patched as they became ragged. The Mahdi introduced these tunics to unify and control the disparate ethnicities and regional allegiances of his followers to create cohesive military units.

Totem pole, Haida, British Columbia, Canada
The photograph shows this Haida totem pole in front of the frame of a timber house, what was either the Goose or Bear House. From top to bottom the pole features crests of a chief holding a talking stick, a sea-grizzly (sea monster), a shaman holding two rattles made of puffin beaks, a large whale and a sea-grizzly between tail fins of a killer whale.

This pole was originally at the front of a clan house in the village of Kayang on Graham Island in British Columbia, Canda. It features crests – ancestral beings that mark identity and assign families with rights to stories and property. When Haida chief Wiah sold the House pole around 1900, the village of Kayang had been abandoned for nearly 15 years. The settlement had once been a productive community but was devastated by epidemics in the late 1800s and survivors relocated to the nearby village of Masset. When Wiah sold the pole to the British medical doctor and naturalist C F Newcombe, he recounted the stories associated with the depicted crests for him. The first story is associated with a raven disguised as a chief attempting to retrieve his beak, which he lost while stealing halibut from people’s hooks. The second story refers to a son who atones for bad behaviour and evades criticisms from his shaman mother-in-law by calling a whale ashore and hiding inside its body. In 1903, Newcombe sold the pole to the British Museum.

First Nations of British Columbia

By the 1780s, European explorers and settlers introduced diseases like smallpox and influenza to Pacific Northwest Coast peoples who had little immunity to them. Many of these illnesses attacked older people who were knowledgeable leaders. Their loss threatened the political stability of communities and the transmission of knowledge and languages. By the time British Columbia became Canada’s sixth province in 1871, sickness, armed hostilities and starvation had reduced indigenous population numbers in British Columbia by more than half.

Betel-nut cutter, Sri Lanka
This female-shaped cutter made of brass and iron was for preparing the narcotic betel-nut. Acquired by Hugh Nevill, it was likely made by the Kandyan Society of Arts he co-founded.

This betel-nut cutter was acquired by Hugh Nevill (1847–1897), a British colonial official in the Ceylon Civil Service. During the 30 years he spent living and working in Ceylon, Nevill amassed a large and wide-ranging collection. While he wrote extensively about natural history specimens and prepared a catalogue of his manuscripts, he left little information about the historic and contemporary objects he acquired. Nevill was one of the founding members of the Kandyan Society of Arts, which was set up to support the manufacture of traditional crafts by local artisans in Kandy. It is likely that most of the wood and metal-work in his collection, including this betel-nut cutter, was made by this Society. The Society still exists and is now called the Kandyan Art Association. The Museum purchased part of Nevill’s collection following his death.

The British in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Sri Lanka has long been an integral part of Indian Ocean trade. An important trading hub and a rich source of natural resources, the island was invaded by both Indian and European powers. During the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815), the British first occupied the coastal areas of Sri Lanka and, in 1815, took control of the rest of the island, including the Kingdom of Kandy. The Ceylon Civil Service , was established to administer this British Crown Colony. However, after decades of agitation, the island was granted independence from British colonial rule as the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948. In 1972, Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka.

To find out more about the ways in which some objects from Africa, Asia, North America and Oceania became part of the Museum’s collection, pick up a free Collecting histories trail leaflet from the Information Desk at the Museum.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays Collecting histories: Solomon Islands is open in Room 3 until 1 September 2019.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.