By Tabitha Cadbury, Curator of Social History and World Cultures
In preparation for the redevelopment of the Museum and Art Gallery for the History Centre, myself and my colleague Rachel Smith have started to pack and document our world cultures collections.
There are over 4,000 objects altogether. About 10% of these are currently on display in the ‘Bringing the World to Plymouth’ gallery on the Museum’s ground floor. We’re trying to keep as many things on public display as possible until the building closes, so we won’t start on packing these objects until September.
In the meantime, we have nearly 900 boxes to go through in the store! We also have larger items which are stored on shelves, 19 large rolled objects including textiles and barkcloths, and about 250 long objects such as spears and staffs which are stored on wall racks. The objects in our world cultures collections include everything from weapons, pots and baskets to costumes and model boats.
The very first box we looked at contains two items of clothing collected by Gertrude-Benham (1867-1937).
Benham was an intrepid female explorer and mountaineer who travelled the world nine times during the 1920s and 1930s. She climbed over 300 peaks including mountains in the Rockies and Himalayas. In 1909 she became the first recorded woman to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.
Benham came ashore in Plymouth in January 1928 after one of her treks. She visited the Museum and was impressed with what she saw. Six years later, in 1934, she gave us a collection of over 800 objects gathered from nearly every country in what was then the British Empire.
The two items of clothing in box number one were a gloriously striped sash and fantastically colourful child’s cotton tunic from Guatemala – a republic in Central America which is bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. Fittingly, records show that Benham was there in 1927 on the trip she took that ended in Plymouth.
The use of vibrant colours is typical of traditional Guatemalan clothing which often features geometric patterns such as stripes.
The items in our box are great examples of this. The decant of the Museum is an excellent opportunity for us to get to know our collections even better than before.