There is a trend/movement in the museum sector to question the heritage of the museums themselves (their buildings and purpose) and the collections that live in them. This has been played out in academic papers, articles, Twitter discussions and in the actions of some museums. At the Museum of Cornish Life, we believe that it is as relevant for us as for the large nationals.
For me, the researcher in the project here at the museum, my enquiry is rooted in three influences:
* The Citizen Curator programme, and its invitation to look for the hidden stories.
* Decolonising Museum collections debates and actions in other museums.
* The rise in 2020 of Black Lives Matter, and a new relevance to looking at objects relating to institutional racism.
In this quest, I’m not seeking to give another authoritarian view, but to look, ask and wonder. And in that wondering, hopefully, arrive at a place that uncovers stories and shows items in the collection in a different light. We all come with our own biases in how we see the world. My endeavour is to try to put those biases aside and educate myself, and share those findings with you.
The process of starting this initiative is a story in itself. It came about because of a conversation with Annette MacTavish (Museum Director), Tehmina Goskar (Curatorial Research Centre and lead on the Citizen Curator programme) and me to think about the collection in the contexts listed above. The beginning objects were several ‘spears’ (in quotes as there is more detail to describe, but that will be another article in this series) that Annette had come across tucked away somewhere in the loft store – under the eaves. Annette felt that they were at odds with the collection in the museum. There began the quest, firstly to find them and then to interrogate them.
The items were linked in the collection records (MODES) with ten other entries in the database. Some had no location listed, meaning that their location was (and is) a mystery. From these entries, the ‘spears’, a wood and bone necklace, and a wooden comb had been found a registered home in the museum. The manilla envelope that the wood and bone necklace was in had CAMBORNE OVANGO NECKLACE written on it. This started another train of investigation, and took me into the box files and boxes of objects transferred from Camborne Museum, when the entire collection was folded into the care of the museum here in Helston. Both were part of Kerrier District Council at the time, and (according to correspondence) the conditions for storage were unsuitable at Camborne Library. This collection is tucked up under the eaves of the museum. I have a whole project ahead of me to go through these boxes and records in more detail (when lockdown restrictions ease) and try and work out:
* Are the ‘missing’ items from the collections records under the ‘Camborne eaves’?
* What links the objects – who donated them?
* The items are from the Ovambo Tribe, the Xosas Tribe and the Solomon Islands. What connects them? Was it a mining connection? Or a collector following ‘explorations’?
Perhaps we will never know the answers to these questions, but you don’t know unless you try. When Lockdown 3.0 allows! The last time I was at the museum, I poured over the Camborne Museum transfer documentation. I thought I knew the Museum of Cornish Life’s collection reasonably well, and was surprised to find an Egyptian Cabinet listed in the Victorian Classroom. ‘Is it really there?’ I asked Annette. It really was, tucked away in a dark corner. Annette said this was another item that didn’t really fit with the collection and didn’t have a natural home. There is an extraordinary story here, which will be explored in a later article, but the objects appear to have a link back to the Egypt Exploration Society founded in Victorian times.
I hope you will join us in uncovering what is under the eaves.
Volunteer, Citizen Curator 2020