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Horniman presents: Anthropology Revisited

A presentation about the contents and importance of the Anthropology historical files at the Horniman museum. The talk discusses the composition and arrangement of the historical files and some of the exciting finds that have been uncovered.

Chris Olver

on 8 November 2016

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Transcript of Horniman presents: Anthropology Revisited

Anthropology Revisited: Stories from the Horniman Archives
By Chris Olver, Project Archivist, Anthropology Reconsidered
What are the historical files?
The historical files can be defined as the documentation relating to the accession of objects into the ethnographic collection.

However, they can also hold biographical information, reports and publications and exhibition material
They can contain...
Where are the historical files stored?
The historical files are housed in three filing cabinets in the Anthropology Department.
They are arranged according to location of the accessioned objects
There are six sub-series of records: Africa; Americas; Asia; Europe; Oceania and Institutions.
What is the extent of the records?
There are are over 1,800 files in the series.

They date between 1895 to the present day

The files contain both the anthropology and archaeology accession records

An individual file can vary in size from one document to hundreds.
How do the historical files differ from other records?
The historical file records are chiefly correspondence and related material that documents various stages of the accession process. They differ from other files in that they capture unique contextual information about both the provenance of the objects but also the biographical background of the donor.
Why are the historical records important for the purposes of the review?
The historical files provide a vital role in providing information regarding objects in the collection. This in the information can support various strands of the project, including:

searching for unnumbered objects

providing contextual background for collections and their donors

being a rich source for the history of the museum

providing relevant personal data for the construction of people/institutional authorities
searching for the origins of "n.n." numbers?
Why are the historical records important for the purposes of the review?
The files can provide information about object accessions that are not recorded in the museum registers . This is especially the case with certain times during the museum's history such as during the Second World War and also during the curatorship of Dr Samson (1947-1965) who did not always update keep meticulous records...
The historical files can provide a significant amount of additional information about a collection and their collector.

This can be as small as providing dates and locations of the objects collected to reports and photographic documentation relating to the collection.

Information about donors and institutions can be variable but some degree of biographical information can be present
Why are the historical records important for the purposes of the review?
providing contextual background for collections and their donors
Why are the historical records important for the purposes of the review?
Being a rich source of the history of the museum and the development of it's collections
Why are the historical records important for the purposes of the review?
Providing relevant personal data for the construction of people/institutional authorities
What can the historical files tell us about the museum's history and collections?
The files date back to the museum's earliest days as a public museum
Missionaries and Missionary Societies
Dr Otto Samson (1900-1976)
Curator of the museum from 1947 to 1965
Brief Biography of Dr Otto Samson
Born in Hamburg in 1900
He studied law before moving onto ethnography
He became a respected assistant curator at the Hamburg Museum of Ethnography, visiting China, India and Korea.
Forced to leave Germany in 1933 due to being forced out of his job due to his Jewish ethnicity
He found work at UCL and then the British Museum from 1933-1947, including a two year funded trip to India, Burma and Tibet
He became curator of the Horniman in 1946 and greatly increased the span and distribution of the museum collections
Personal Papers of Otto & Elizabeth Samson
What they tell us?
Objects from the War Office
In 1919, the Horniman received it's designated consignment of German war trophies from the War Office Trophy committee.

The consignment contained a working mortar, mounted machine guns, grenade thrower, body armour and a trench club.

Sadly, most of the weapons seem to have passed onto the Imperial War Museum making a re-enactment of the closing scenes of the film, If, unlikely...
Provide previously unknown material on his early life

provide photographic documentation and specimen lists of his collecting trip to Asia in 1935-1937

provides a glimpse of the hidden 'Otto' through holiday snaps, correspondence, limericks...
Collected stories from the archives
Curiosities and interesting tales from the archives
Bizarre Objects
Dr Harrison's 'Body Stones'
Sara Lip Plugs
A Cornish witch bottle...
and the poor L.C.C. chemists...
The phallic bread of St Goncalo
Historically accurate Native American Action-Men...from Kew
The historical files not only provide an important resource for contextual information about the museums' collections but they are also are a fantastic resource for stories about the museum and it's collections; hidden histories and dynamic individuals; peculiar objects and compelling narratives.
Any questions?
Dying tradition from French Equatorial Africa
The files date back to 1895 and capture every curatorial epoch in the museum's history.

Correspondence include letters from Frederick and Emslie Horniman along with many distinguished anthropologists such as Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard and Charles Seligman.

The files also contain information regarding exhibitions and fieldwork undertaken on behalf of the museum
The historical files tend to provide more personal information than the museum registers and allow the creation for authority records. This additional information is important in showing the relationship between the object and the collector and also allows a possible link to other archive and museum material in other institutions
They record not only the activities of the museum curators and staff but also capture some of the most prominent collectors of the time.
The missionary material in the collection is one such example. Material spans the Americas, Asia and Oceania from the 19th century to the post-colonial period.

The archive material reflects the diversity of the characters involved from the notorious Wilfred Abbott in Papua New Guinea to the tireless humanitarians of the Davidson's in China. Although my personal favourite is a pamphlet, published by the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, that spins a gripping narrative incorporating cannibalism, black magic and a young 'Paul Newman'.
A scene from the film, 'If'...sadly, not to be re-enacted on the rooftop of the S.C.C. ...
typescript letters...
Accession report cards...
Historical file envelopes...
and the occasional telegram...
newspaper cuttings and publications...
Object labels...
Photographic prints...
An example of a historical file filing cabinet...
An example of a typical draw of historical files...
An example of a typical contents of a historical file
Job reference for Samson (1937)
Photo album of collecting trip to China, Tibet and Korea (c.1925-1927)
A letter to Elizabeth while conducting fieldwork in Burma, India and Tibet (1935-1937)
An advert featuring a Tibetan ghost trap collected by Samson
An Irish rhyme about said stones...
A 'furious' revelation on the use of said stones...
Traditional Gold Coast Children's Games
Find in the historical file of Mr J Scragg is a remarkable manuscript book by I Y Esiedu, entitled 'Aowin Games and Exercises'
Full transcript