For this initial workshop we had an overall objective of providing regimental museum curators with a forum to discuss the opportunities and challenges raised when working with ethnographic collections in their museums. We sought not only to contribute to building their knowledge base and curatorial confidence with regard to ethnographic objects (including addressing issues such as contested histories) but also to provide attendees with an opportunity to learn how other museums have undertaken community engagement projects to foster greater inclusiveness and accessibility to their own collections.
The workshop began with a presentation by Henrietta Lidchi (Chief Curator, National Museum of World Cultures, Leiden) and Stuart Allan (Keeper, Department of Scottish History and Archaeology, National Museums Scotland) on the precursors to our current project, as well as a discussion on the categorisations that we are beginning to develop to describe the objects seen during research visits to regimental museum collections. The presentation concluded with an overview of current debates in the museum sphere and beyond on the complex issue of repatriation.
Our next session involved a presentation by Nicole Hartwell (Postdoctoral Researcher, National Museums Scotland) on the research skills and techniques used by the project team to uncover stories of military collecting which was illustrated with case studies of objects from the collections of National Museums Scotland, the National Army Museum, the Highlanders Museum and the Royal Engineers Museum. This presentation included an outline of digital and print resources that were available to regimental museum curators to undertake provenance research on their own collections.
An area that attendees were keen to explore further was community engagement. For the third session of the day, curators Kirsty Parsons and Jasdeep Singh from the National Army Museum discussed how their museum had worked with community voices to develop their Insight Gallery, as well as how to foster sustainable community networks and partnerships.
This was followed by a tour of the Insight Gallery, which includes displays of Sikh, Ghanaian and Sudanese material that were co-curated with community representatives. The presentation of multiple interpretations of the objects is facilitated through the use of audio-visual displays.
Our final session of the day was a round-table discussion where attendees shared their own experiences working with ethnographic objects in their collections and provided examples that ranged from a Burmese bell to an unidentified drum, and a silvered object that commemorated the death of British Major-General Charles Gordon at Khartoum during the Mahdist War (1881-1899).
Feedback from attendees at the workshop indicates that curators did indeed feel more confident about working with ethnographic objects, and particularly appreciated the opportunity to share experiences in a round-table format. The feedback also suggests that attendees saw many benefits to establishing partnerships between regimental museums, military historians, and subject specialists in African and Indian material culture. We now hope to foster these relationships and look forward to cooperatively uncovering further stories of military collecting.