Curious About the Congo? The Study’s the Place to Be

On 11th September 2015 Manchester Museum opens it’s dynamic new space The Study. The Study will provide stimulating surroundings and resources for users ranging from hobbyists to academics to explore and be inspired by the museum’s encyclopaedic collections. Part of this new space is a temporary exhibition gallery.

The Study

The inaugural exhibition for The Study’s gallery is The Phantoms of Congo River: Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo. Nyaba is an internationally renowned photographer and previously exhibited work in Manchester at Manchester Art Gallery in 2012 during the season of West African art called We Face Forward. This exhibition is Nyaba’s response to Joseph Conrad’s infamous 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. The text raises challenging questions about 19th century colonialism and racism in Africa, questions that Nyaba confronts in his work.  The curiosity and critique embedded in Nyaba’s work is the kind of new thinking The Study aims to facilitate and encourage.

Phantoms-of-the-Congo-River1-658x470

On display will be 13 of Nyaba’s most powerful prints accompanied by stunning objects from the Living Culture’s collection. You’ll be able to peruse the full series of prints in Nyaba’s catalogue which will be publicly available in the Discover area of The Study. We’ll also have copies of Heart of Darkness in the Share area. From 11th September onwards there’ll be an exciting series of events across The Study, including those related to the Congo, so keep up to date at the Manchester Museum website (http://bit.ly/1AuFKXTand The Study Twitter feed (http://bit.ly/1INaiY2).

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Mandela & Manchester Museum

Several months ago I decided to change the appearance of this blog. I wanted the lead graphic to be an image of an object that exemplified the Manchester Museum mission to promote understanding between cultures. I knew immediately which object this had to be, one of the seven voter education posters from the 1994 South African general election. This election marked the end of apartheid and saw the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president.

Voter education poster, 1994, South Africa. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

Voter education poster, 1994, South Africa. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

These posters and a facsimile voting slip were donated in 1994 by Professor Frank Jolles from the University of Natal, South Africa. Among the predominately colonial collection of ethnography these brightly coloured posters lambently resist, both aesthetically and intellectually, the other objects around them. Their progressive post-colonial and anti-apartheid message offer an invaluable juxtaposition to the 19th and early 20th century ethnographic narrative.

Voter education poster, 1994, South Africa. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

Voter education poster, 1994, South Africa. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

UK museums have greatly advanced their engagement with post-colonial discourse and increasingly diverse users. This is an extant and ambitious process not without contest. The result has been to position museums and their collections as fundamental components in the action of understanding both local and global cultural diversity. These posters articulate this mission perfectly and offer a continuing source of inspiration. Thank you Nelson Mandela.

 

Pharmaceuticals and Shamans

Earlier this month I gave a lecture to NHS staff the focus of which was the relationship between the Living Cultures collection and the history of medicine. It was part of a week-long series of events called Culture Shots which aimed at introducing NHS staff to the very many cultural assets in and around Manchester. You can find out further details about this project at http://www.healthandculture.org.uk/

Pestle. Oceania, Cook Islands, Mauke. Henry Wellcome. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

The lecture explored the life of one particularly important 19th century entrepeneur and collector whose objects form an integral component of the Living Cultures collection, namely Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome. Born in 1853 in Almond, Wisconsin, USA, Wellcome migrated to the UK in 1880. Whilst here his pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome & Company, became a market leader and with it came a vast personal fortune. Recreationally, he was a passionate ameatuer ethnographer and was fascinated with medicinal practice and around the world. He indulged this passion using his fortune and acquired an astonishing personal collection of 1,500,000 objects, 125,000 may well have had some medical use. Upon his death in 1936 the Wellcome Trust became responsible for administering his estate, it invested heavily in medical research, and continues to do so, and took the difficult decision to rationalise the huge collection. This rationalisation saw parts of the collection distributed to other museums throughout the UK and internationally. To find out more about the life of Sir Henry Wellcome and the work of the Wellcome Trust visit http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/

Sir Henry Wellcome. Copyright The Wellcome Trust.

The Living Cultures collection generously received over 1000 objects as donated in 1926, 1953, 1957, 1981 and finally in 1983. Not all of the objects in question are directly related to the history of medicine but a significant percentage are. Some of the wonderful objects from the Wellcome collection that we have here at the Manchester Museum can be seen below.

Mask. Asia, Sri Lanka. Henry Wellcome. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

 

Feather head-dress. Henry Wellcome. South America, Brazil. Henry Wellcome. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

Pestle. Oceania. Henry Wellcome. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

The fascination with non-Western medicinal practice is as strong as it ever was, with shows like Channel 4s recent Medicine Men Go Wild testifying to this.

Medicine Men Go Wild. Copyright Channel 4.

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures