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Ethnography

Percy Powell-Cotton’s interest in ethnography increased throughout his life, but he collected objects from his earliest trips. The foundation of the ethnography collections can be found in his World Trip of 1889-1891. The majority of the items collected during this trip came from Asia and were collected as souvenirs. Objects like a model of the Taj Mahal (on display in Gallery 6) were made for the tourist market. Many of the other items collected at this time were cheap and portable trinkets, such as the vast quantities of Indian jewellery bought at markets around the country.

In the early 1890s Percy made a number of expeditions to the Kashmir hills and Ladakh, where he collected the animals now on display in the Himalayan diorama in Gallery 2. During this time he also made a collection of about 100 objects from the region, most of which reflect the Buddhist heritage of the Ladakhi people. Like many of his contemporaries, Percy also visited the Indian hill town of Darjeeling, known for the many market stalls selling Tibetan ‘curios’ to tourists and travellers. Several of the Tibetan items in the museum’s collection were purchased in these markets.

From the mid-1890s Percy began his exploration of Africa, starting with expeditions to the northeast countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. In Ethiopia he collected objects associated with Coptic Church and the Ethiopian military. Of particular note is the seventeenth century triptych purchased in the ancient city of Gondar. This was one of a number of objects that were already antique when Percy collected them and is part of the transformation from souvenir hunter to serious collector that he underwent in the last years of the nineteenth century.

As the twentieth century progressed, how Percy Powell-Cotton collected ethnographic objects and what he collected changed. He became more interested in the contemporary life of the people he met and mainly collected items that were made and in use at the time he was collecting. He also developed a keen interest in how things were made, collecting material that was part of the making process, as well as the finished item. For example, during an expedition to Sudan with his wife Hannah in 1933, he collected a number of pieces from the potter Mbitim, who was already a well-known artist when Percy met him. However Percy also collected many of the tools that were used to make the pots and filmed the process of pots being made. On their return, Hannah Powell-Cotton would write about Mbitim and his process of pottery making for the anthropology journal MAN – the research they gathered became as important as the objects themselves.

Percy Powell-Cotton’s largest ethnographic collections come from his expeditions to Sudan (areas now mostly located in South Sudan), The Congo (present day Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of the Congo and Gabon), Cameroon and British East Africa (present day Uganda). Further collections were made by his children, including a particularly significant collection of objects from Angola and Namibia, collected by his daughters Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton. Collected in 1936 and 1937, the sisters’ collection includes a substantial collection of ethno-botany – plant specimens collected with records of their medicinal uses, such as curing stomach cramps or assisting in safe childbirth.     

Today the ethnographic collections are displayed and researched alongside the museum’s natural history collections, just as Percy Powell-Cotton did. The ethnographic collections often show the strong links that existed between the people he met and the land they lived on. Many objects are made from the animals and resources found in the diverse landscapes he visited across Africa, showing how Percy Powell-Cotton’s interests in nature and culture were keenly entwined. 

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