By Tony Eccles
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum is an award-winning local authority-run museum which is based in the city of Exeter, in Devon. The acquisition of ethnographic items started as early as 1865 when the museum was being built. In 1998 it received designation status. The collection numbers some 12,000 items from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania. RAMM’s Oceanic collection consists of Melanesia (1022 items), Polynesia (638 items), Australia (316 items) and Micronesia (77 items). Some of the earliest objects date back to the 18th century and were obtained on early voyages such as those of Bligh, Cook and Vancouver. Quite a few of these pieces are on display in the World Cultures gallery, including various wood clubs, headrests, tools and sheets of barkcloth.
Other voyages linked to this collection include the HMS Blossom (1825- 28), through George Peard; the HMS Curacoa (1865), through John Gould Veitch; the HMS Mildura (1898 – 1900), through Commander Henry Leah, and Bishop Wood’s trip on the mission ship Southern Cross in 1912, through Major C.V. Molony.
A good portion of the collection, however, was typically donated by individuals working within the context of Empire, serving as military or political officers, traders, missionaries, explorers and collectors, and at times accumulated through periods of conflict, such as the Maori wars and land settlement and indigenous dispossession. Additionally, there are a small number of late-20th century donations that represent contemporary souvenirs. With such historical connections, recent academic attention in the UK has been largely focused on Polynesian material culture. As a result, RAMM has been fortunate to be able to participate in a number of major international projects.  Iconic items aside, RAMM wanted to explore other elements of its collection that remain in storage, artefacts that inform aspects of Pacific island life, including souvenirs made for sale for Western visitors, or activities relating to daily life, such as hunting and carving. With interpretation for this material clearly lacking, and the need for better collection visibility, an application for a major grant was submitted. The Pacific displays have remained largely unchanged since 1998, with occasional changeovers of display, many items remain in storage and, until recently, were largely inaccessible to the public.
This project is split into three parts. The first part invites material culture specialists to visit RAMM and share their knowledge, with the resulting information being included in the new gallery interpretation. Further research is also required to make sense of some of the items under examination. The second part involves the compilation of essential documentation, photography of objects and conservation work. The final part will result in the physical transformation of the Pacific displays; the interpretation of which will be QR-coded and translated into other European languages. This latter component is to partially cater to our summer visitors but essentially is an attempt to reach a wider audience. In early 2014, RAMM received £89,900 from the Designation Development Fund for its two-year Discovering Worlds project. This museum-based project is a partnership that involves the British Museum, Sainsbury Research Unit (University of East Anglia), Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, and University College London, among others.
So what makes Exeter’s ethnography collection so special? An intriguing item is a length of barkcloth from the Cook Islands that is attributed to a donor named Vaughan. This has caused confusion as it was initially attributed to the 1868 donation made by Henry Vaughan of Captain Cook material. Vaughan was a reclusive art collector who lived at Cumberland Terrace in London, a fine neoclassical building on the eastern side of Regent’s Park. Vaughan had inherited his family’s fortune, which had been built on a successful hat- making business in Southwark. Research has shown no known family or business connection to the county of Devon. Vaughan had also been given a group of ‘curiosities’ by his father, who had purchased them from the auction of the Sir Ashton Lever collection in 1806. After kindly donating this material to RAMM, he later bequeathed his large collection of artworks to the nation. However, this Cook Island barkcloth does not belong to this donation but another made by a Mrs. Vaughan of “5 Belgrave Terrace, Torquay”. Adrienne Kaeppler suggested the possibility that this object might be linked to one of two men named Vaughan who were donors to the Bullock Museum in 1816. Mrs. Vaughan was possibly the wife of Robert Vaughan, a nonconformist minister who moved to Torquay in 1867 and who died the following year (Kaeppler 2011: 93). Clearly more work is needed to uncover the circumstances of this cloth’s acquisition.
Whilst voyage provenance has been correctly disputed, its age has not. Whilst various academics have examined this cloth, it might, perhaps, benefit from a Rarotongan perspective. In the meantime, Discovering Worlds intends to conserve and analyse this piece so that it can be made widely available. It will certainly be exhibited in the forthcoming display.
As part of this project, Samoan artist Rosanna Raymond has visited RAMM to offer a Polynesian artist’s insight into parts of the collection, particularly items made from organic fibres. Raymond, however, is no stranger to RAMM as she was commissioned in 2007 to respond to a question concerning the relevance of barkcloth to Polynesian identity in the modern world. Geneaology was the concluding work that now stands juxtaposed with historic Samoan andMaori artefacts. Using a pair of Levi’s,a company Raymond used to work for,she constructed not only what she felt represented a sense of identity and female creativity, but also she “was using the past to make a relevant future” for herself. 
Discovering Worlds also includes researching the lives of donors. Vaughan is one example, Francis William Locke Ross, who served as midshipman on the HMS Tagus in 1813, is another. His voyage journal resides in the New York Public Library.
Ross never finished his naval career but later resided in Topsham, a port village a few miles south of Exeter. Topsham is where he created his own museum of natural history which included ethnographic curiosities. Whilst his life in Topsham and his interests in birds are well documented, his naval career is not and research is currently being carried out by George Hogg RN who also happens to be married to one of Ross’s descendants.
Ross died on Christmas Day 1860 andhis wife donated over 160 ethnographic items from his collection that included a wood u’a, a paddle and a pair of carved tupava’e, or stilt steps. Ross was present on the Tagus when it stopped at the MarquesasIslands and he recorded the ship’s stay there in his journal. These items were likely acquired later on in his life when he founded his museum at Broadway House. Topsham was a haven for naval officers and Ross would have been well connected. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing who brought these items into the country but they certainly pre-date James Edward Little’s forgeries; they may have even influenced him!
Of course, like any collection, ethnography is concerned with people. Many objects in RAMM’s collection, believed to be of scientific interest or artworks, were acquired largely during the time of colonialism. They are therefore bound to be associated with unethical acquisition, either through conflict or through the simple fact that acquisition was conducted through unequal relationships and at times without consent. Human remains cared for by ethnography are stored respectfully and some of this material has been repatriated.
During the period 1997 – 2008, sacred items and remains were repatriated with the assistance of legislation and relevant source communities; RAMM is proactive. What really enabled these acts to take place was the documentation that accompanied them. Although the Truganini ornaments had a slightly different context for their return to Tasmania, the donors who had acquired remains from the other nations had kept written notes about how they had been obtained. This made the act of return possible. A visiting Ngarrindjeri delegation in 2008 also enabled RAMM to receive valuable source community engagement with its collections. Information regarding our practice will continue to have a place within the gallery.
Discovering Worlds is due for completion at the end of March 2016.
 After a period of major redevelopment RAMM won, among others, the Art Fund Prize in 2012 http://www.theguardian.com/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2012/jun/20/royal-albert-memorial-museum-art-fund  Designation identifies pre-eminent collections of national and international importance held in England’s non-national museums, libraries and archives based on their quality and significance. The scheme is currently run by the Arts Council http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/applyfunding/funding-programmes/renaissance/designation-development-fund/  Exhibitions include Pacific Encounters: Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860 in 2006, James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific in 2010-11 and The Arts of Fiji later this year.  RAMM’s own website went live in 2011 and with it an online search engine that enables visitors to explore its collections. Collections Explorer is updated with new information on a monthly basis http://rammcollections.org.uk/  Kaeppler, A. 2011. Holophusicon: The Leverian Museum. An Eighteenth-Century English Institution of Science, Curiosity and Art. Altenstaldt: ZFK Publishers  Eccles, T. Rosanna Raymond’s Genealogy (2007): Notes on a New Addition to the World Cultures Collection at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Journal of Museum Ethnography, no.20 (March 2008),pp.120-7