Bizarre, Haphazard & Gleefully Unethical

For the last month or so, I’ve spent one or two days a week leafing through old typewritten letters between collectors and dealers, in an attempt to figure out how the Pre-Columbian objects at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts became part of the museum’s collection. This is for my MA thesis. There’s loads of fun or interesting stuff in these letters, but, since it’s all private correspondence, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it–no matter how outrageous some of the dealers’ pronouncements on the legality of their activities may be.

However, I did find something cool today that’s probably ok for me to share–old-timey Australian anthropologist Henry Ling Roth’s account of how the weird little collection of Pre-Columbian artefacts at Halifax’s Bankfield Museum formed. The Bankfield Museum became a museum in 1887, after having been the home of Edward Akroyd–who, in the nineteenth century, had been Halifax’s foremost woollen and worsted manufacturer. (Halifax is in Yorkshire, by the way, and both woollen and worsted are types of yarn). Roth curated the museum’s collection between 1900 and 1925, and wrote some notes on the museum’s Pre-Columbian material. Without further ado:

At a great Exhibition held in Halifax in the year 1841 there were shown amongst other interesting exhibits, two interesting collections of domestic articles made by the natives of Ancient Peru. They were stated to be belong to a Mr J. Egan, but the name should have been spelt Hegan a member of the Liverpool firm of Hall, Hegan & Co. […] After the Exhibition was over Mr Hegan gave the two collections to the Museum of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society where they remained until the year 1896 when they were transferred with other forgotten relics to Bankfield Museum.

In the Exhibition Catalogue one collection is spoken of as ‘Peruvian Antiquities: Contents of the Tomb of a Cacica, or ancient Peruvian Princess, of the Nation of the Atacames, Found on the Southern Point of the Coast of Peru in the Valley of Sama near the mouth of the River” & consisted of about 30 enumerated articles. The other collection is spoken of as “A Unique series of Sepulchral Urns, Vases, Drinking Cups, Bottles, Paterae, & other domestic Utensils & personal Ornaments, Musical Instruments, etc., discovered in Ancient Tombs in the Valley of Sama, Lacumba, etc., in Peru & also in the Cordillera”, but none of these articles are detailed so that we cannot say whether all the things have come down to us. Strangely enough a large portion of the pottery has been labelled ‘MEXICO’, although it is distinctly Peruvian.

Further on, Roth lists the items from the tomb of the “Andean Princess”:

“A part of the Undergarment of the Cacica.

“The Upper Garment or Shirt without Sleeves.

“The Belt or Faja, worn by the Cacia, & denoting her rank among the aristocracy of the Inca’s dynasty.

“The Thorn of the Cactus, used as a Pin, anterior to the introduction of the Metals, & proving that the interment was prior to the arrival of Europeans.

“The large Kerchief called Andro, in which the Cacica carried her various implements.

“The Spindle & the Sticks forming a Loom for weaving, with the latter of which all woven articles of dress were made. Around the Sticks is a Faja or Belt in a process of manufacture.

“The Hinda or Sling now in use among the Indians of the Cordillera.

“Three instruments for making Fringes.

“Two Vichuntas used for opening the wool of stuffs.

“A smaller Kerchief to hang in front, used as a pocket.

“A Comb called Chucha.

“Spoons of different forms.

“A Wooden Spoon in the process of formation.

“A Wooden Knife used in dancing.

“Workbag of the Cacica, with her spindles etc.

“Balls of Thread found in above workbag.

“A Masorca of Maize entire, found hanging over the head of the Cacica.

“Remains of a fishing net.

“Spices with which the Mummy was found embalmed.

“Remains of net-work.

“Locks of Hair & Leaves found in Paringuita, hung over the Head of the Cacica.

“An Earthen Vase called Ura, found full of Maize.

“Vase or Bottle found full of Chicha.

“The Skull, Hair & Head-dress, & part of the Skeleton of the Cacica.

“A Skull found in the Tomb of the Cacica.’

“A large number of the articles enumerated is missing, as was to be expected, & it is not possible to determine which are some of the things. Then several have been misnamed, or imaginary qualifications given to them. There is no skull with part of the skeleton, but there is a dried head with some skin & hair attached & decorated with the locks of hair – but wooly – as above mentioned. As for the other skull, Whiteley Ward told me more than once that as a boy he & other youngsters used to make a football of it & had no doubt that it had long since been kicked to pieces. The “wooden knife used in dancing” is nothing more than a weavers beater-in.

“There is also a Mummy of which I have been able to find any record except the label which reads as follows: – ‘A Natural Mummy of a Female. Discovered in January 1834, along with seven others, within a cavern, on the mountain of Gamiza, one of the highest passable points of the Andes, in the neighbourhood of Tunja, a city three or four days from Bogota, the capital of New Granada. Presented by Miss Staveley, Springfield’. There was a John Staveley, a South American merchant in the thirties of the last century in Halifax, who was one of the earliest members of the Halifax Literary & Philosophical Society, so it is not improbable that this mummy found its way to Halifax through his business connections with the South American continent.

Oh and let’s not forget

“a Halifax mechanic, Mr C.H. Hitchen, [who] brought home and deposited in the Museum some very crude pottery from the ruins of Huanacho, which he excavated in Mar-June, 1887, & one large urn from the sacred (?) city of Pachachonac on the north coast of Peru, which he purchased in April, 1897.”

There are many reasons why I like this passage–the unrestrained use of ampersands, the copious capitalisation of words, the weirdly compelling list of looted grave goods–but, perhaps most of all, it’s a fascinating glimpse of the haphazard, bizarre and gleefully unethical way that many of the older museums formed. Also I can’t believe they just let kids play football with a crumbling Pre-Columbian skull–was it lack of concern/respect for primitive cultures or people, some forgotten Great Football Shortage that pushed people to desperate measures to enjoy their favourite pastime–or just sheer madness?

As a note: from the website, it does not seem that the Bankfield Museum displays any of these objects any more. Perhaps they still hold them in storage, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pre-Columbian stuff was sold on to art dealers or other museums–it seems likely that a silver llama on display at the Sainsbury Centre used to be on display at Bankfield (Roth describes a similar llama in his notes, and feels compel to explain that a llama is a “native sheep”).

1 comment
  1. signorinatumistufi said:

    A very pleasurable read, as always, thank you.

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