The Maya & Manchester: Cultural Continuity in Central America

In 1981 Manchester Museum accepted a generous donation of  just under 300 objects from South and Central America on behalf of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. Amongst the collection were parts of Manuel García Elgueta’s Mayan collection which Sir Henry Wellcome (1853 – 1936) had acquired.

Elgueta (b. 1846) was a pioneer of Mayan linguistics and archaeology, and simultaneously a politician, writer, and journalist. He collected extensively in the Huehuetenango region of northwestern Guatemala and his objects were displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, USA, and the 1894 Mid-Winter Fair, San Francisco, USA.

Picture1

Mayan head carved in stone, Classic period (250-900), Chalchitán, Guatemala

The stonework in the collection comes from the important pre-Hispanic Mayan site of Pichiquil, Guatemala, and dates to the Classic Maya period AD200 – 900.  Elgueta’s collection has been widely dispersed with the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, USA, in possession of a very significant amount.

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Mayan ball court marker carved in stone, Classic period (250-900), Pichiquil, Guatemala

Elgueta studied the people and cultures of the Guatemalan highlands, specifically the K’iche’, in an attempt to demonstrate cultural continuity with the pre-Hispanic Maya. Today the K’iche’ continue to fight for indigenous rights and promote their Mayan heritage in Guatemala and beyond. To learn more about the history of the K’iche’ in the 1960s and 1970s visit the the University of New Mexico K’iche’ Maya Oral History Project. As part of the Wikitongues project you can also hear examples of  the K’iche’ Mayan language being spoken, such as this clip featuring Lorenzo:

 

 

 

 

 

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Board & Plaque

Recently Manchester Museum Youth Board chose a wooden plaque from the Canadian Pacific Northwest for inclusion in their forthcoming exhibition. The large plaque, which we believe was collected by Sir Henry Wellcome (1853 –1936) in the late 19th century, had been displayed somewhat out of view in the World Cultures gallery for over a decade. It has now been taken down and is awaiting the attention of our conservators.

Carved wooden plaque. Pacific Northwest, Canada. 19th century. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2013.

Carved wooden plaque. Pacific Northwest, Canada. 19th century. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2013.

The plaque, made from several pieces of cedar wood, depicts a pair of killer whales and a bear in inimitable Pacific Northwest style. Both of these animals are extraordinarily important to the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and their images adorn innumerable wooden carvings, including totem poles. Pacific Northwest tribes such as the Haida and the ‘Namgis have a long and rich tradition of expertly and artistically sculpting wood.

Detail of a carved wooden plaque. Pacific Northwest, Canada. 19th century. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2013.

Detail of a carved wooden plaque. Pacific Northwest, Canada. 19th century. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2013.

To get a closer look at the plaque be sure to visit us when the Youth Board exhibition opens in the next few weeks!

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