Widening the search

Last year Eve and I spent intensive periods at each of the partner museums. We were hosted by each institution and project partner member and gained a greater understanding of the collections, their documentation systems and archives as well as having the opportunity for the intensive study of the artefacts themselves.

The standout moment for me was at Perth Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG) when combing the bookcases I discovered an anonymous notebook about the Royal Scottish Museum (now National Museums Scotland). This notebook was packed full of descriptions of the galleries, supplemented by drawings of key objects. The date of the notebook strongly suggested that the unnamed author was a curator at PMAG who had been sent on a ‘field trip’ to Edinburgh to examine the collections and displays. He (as we assume from the staff lists of the time) paid particular attention to object mounts and case furniture and it seems likely this was due to the imminent opening of the new PMAG building and the redisplay of material within.

Front cover of the notebook  from 1933 found  in Perth Museum & Art Gallery which records the Pacific displays at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh (now National Museums Scotland).

Front cover of the notebook from 1933 found in Perth Museum & Art Gallery which records the Pacific displays at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh (now National Museums Scotland).


one of the pages of the notebook found  in Perth Museum & Art Gallery detailing part of the Pacific displays at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh (now National Museums Scotland). The notes and drawings were made by a curator from Perth in 1933.

one of the pages of the notebook found in Perth Museum & Art Gallery detailing part of the Pacific displays at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh (now National Museums Scotland). The notes and drawings were made by a curator from Perth in 1933.

Not only are many of the objects roughly sketched but there is a description of how objects are grouped and how broad themes or regions were introduced using maps and text. As NMS has only one picture of the ethnographic collections on display during that time frame, and it was taken decades earlier c.1895, this provides a detailed description nearly 30 years later. There were several other galleries that had Pacific collections on display but we have no photographic record of them at all. Although a picture can be built up from annual reports, displays were rarely described in detail. Luckily for this project the notebook focuses on the Oceania collections (with some information on the North American and Asian collections) reflecting the bias in PMAG’s non-European material at that time.

The ethnography gallery in the West Wing of the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, c.1895

The ethnography gallery in the West Wing of the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, c.1895

Finally the notebook has a short summary of the documentation systems at NMS, which reads like notes taken from a discussion with a member of staff. This explanation of our use of accession registers, card catalogues and other lists revealed the reason behind certain idiosyncrasies in our documentation sources that I have been puzzling over for many years.

It describes the Card Index which is sorted by region as being associated exclusively with those objects on display and not including items in store. At that time the vast majority of the collections were on display so this explanation accounts for the fact that the card index, although extensive, has never been comprehensive. This use of the Card Index changed in later years (probably the original purpose was forgotten) as the density of objects on display was reduced and gradually some of the missing cards were added. But it is nonetheless useful to understand its early history.

More importantly the notebook provides a written explanation as to the purpose of two volumes known as the ‘Ex-registers’. Objects numbered with a prefix‘X’ were not officially part of the collections but were on display. I had assumed ‘X’ was shorthand for exchange as many objects in the registers had been disposed of and some of them to collectors or dealers. Colleagues in the Science and Technology department also hold X-registers and they had explained that they used them to provide numbers for objects used in displays but not needed in the collections (eg. a lump of coal at the end of a case on coal production in Scotland). This made sense; it provided an audit trail but not a commitment to keeping the object in perpetuity. However, the Art and Ethnography ‘X-register’ contained certain objects of such importance and rarity, such as the stunning Austral Islands headdress below, that it seemed strange to deem it not part of the collections. These headdresses are rare – only 9 are known and even in the early twentieth century they would already be about 100 years old. For years it had perplexed me as to why my predecessors had not understood its value to the permanent collections. Perhaps the answer is in the notebook:

Also a book is kept for specimens that have no data or the data has been lost, and if the data be found it is removed from this book, and entered where it should be. This is called an ‘Ex’ Book.

This explanation entirely concords with the probable provenance for this object. That it was in the University Collection (that was transferred to the museum at its inception in 1854) but the contents of which had remained packed and crated until the 1880s, meaning that much of the associated information was lost. The ‘Ex’ registers are the same format and written in the same hand as the ‘UC’ collection register suggesting that this was part of the sorting process in the late nineteenth century.

The notebook provided me with a reasoning to look through the various archival sources for the University museum to find out if I could work out when it had come into the museum. The university collection archives comprise, a register of specimens and weekly and daily report books. In February 1824, in Weekly Report Book II, is the following entry:

A large box containing three large caps or headdresses ornamented with feathers, one marked “chief’s cap from Rurutu.
The feathers of the headdresses have been partly destroyed by mice, one of which was found dead in the box’

From here I was able to check the register and day books. Unfortunately no further information is given. The headdresses are said to have come in a shipment from ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ or Tasmania. Part of the colony of New South Wales, then under the governance of Sir Thomas Brisbane, it seems likely, though not conclusive, that these three headdresses are associated with Brisbane.

Headdress from the Austral Islands in the collection at National Museums Scotland, A.1966.390 (formerly X.552). This headdress can now be positively associated with the University of Edinburgh Collection and an 1824 date.

Headdress from the Austral Islands in the collection at National Museums Scotland, A.1966.390 (formerly X.552). This headdress can now be positively associated with the University of Edinburgh Collection and an 1824 date.

Through a greater understanding of our documentation we now have 3 headdresses (one, A.UC.439A of which was gifted to the Otago Museum in 1939) that were collected together, in Australia, either from ships, traders or curiosity dealers at sometime before February 1824. This puts these headdresses at being made before this date and concords with the history of the other pieces in museums in the UK.
– Chantal

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