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Animating Caribbean Collections Histories: Beginnings

Dr Amara Thornton, Co-Investigator of Beyond Notability & Research Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies, reflects on the start of the Animating Caribbean Collections Histories project.

The project started with a list. I had asked Michelle and Wendy to identify particular places in the Caribbean that they were interested in. Both said Barbados, and Wendy added Guyana. For my part, I was interested in material from Barbados and Grenada, because those are the two islands most closely associated with my own Caribbean family.

Once we’d set some geographical pinpoints for the project, I spent some time on the British Museum’s Collections Online searching by place for suitable material, incorporating some collectors and collections that I knew something about already so we would have enough contextual material to work with during the course of the project. To artefacts from Barbados and Guyana I added additional artefacts from St Vincent, Nevis and Jamaica, to give us a range of objects from across the English-speaking Caribbean. Michelle and Wendy were both interested in seeing pottery, so I made sure to include some pottery in the selection, but the final artefact list incorporated tools, furniture and a model.

Figure 1

To illuminate the acquisition histories of the artefacts on our list, our first project visit on 17 May was to the British Museum’s archive, “a very good place to start” (to quote from The Sound of Music!) I have been researching the history of archaeology in the Caribbean and archaeological collections from the Caribbean since 2020, but lockdowns prevented me from visiting the Museum’s archive or stores when I started my research, and limited the project that Michelle and I had previously worked on relating to collections histories of Barbadian artefacts. Therefore, not only was this Wendy and Michelle’s first time looking at archives relating to Caribbean collections at the British Museum, it was my first time too.  It would have been impossible without the help of BM archivists Francesca Hillier and Jim Hamill, who did the leg-work to locate documents associated with our list of artefacts.

In the archive, we saw correspondence; letters from or relating to named collectors associated with artefacts from the Caribbean via donation or sale to the British Museum in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We were able to see the related artefacts in person at the Museum’s off-site store with Head of the Americas section Dr Danny Zborover on 23 May (Fig 1), and followed that up on 24 May with a visit to the Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery, where there are a few artefacts from the Caribbean on display (Fig 2). Wendy has been charting our progress on her blog, with posts about our archive, store, and gallery visits, as well as our most recent visit on 8 June to the Menil Collection, held in the Warburg Institute.

Figure 2

Another post will follow with further details on collectors and collections histories we have been exploring.

Fig. 1. Michelle Keeley-Adamson (left) and Wendy Shearer (right) examining a model of a canoe (Am,+.1513)  collected in Guyana, part of a collection acquired from Everard im Thurn in 1881. (Photo: A. Thornton, 2023)

Fig 2. A case with artefacts relating to the Caribbean in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) (Photo: A. Thornton, 2023)