Collecting Material Folklore: Motivations and Methods in the Owen and Hasluck Collections

By Brown, Alison K. | Folklore, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Collecting Material Folklore: Motivations and Methods in the Owen and Hasluck Collections


Brown, Alison K., Folklore


Introduction

Often neglected in the history of the Folklore Movement, the history of the collecting of material things--as opposed to intangibles such as song, dance and dialects--can reveal alternative angles on the attitudes of early folklorists towards their subject. Collections history is currently the focus of much attention in Material Culture Studies, and it is vital that the development of folklore collections as a distinct category within this field is not overlooked. This paper will examine two collections now housed in British museums: the Mary Alicia Owen Collection of Mesquakie beadwork(1) and other ceremonial objects in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (CUMAA), and the Margaret Hasluck collection of Balkan textiles and folklore in Marischal Museum, University of Aberdeen. Both Hasluck and Owen were members of the Folklore Society (FLS), and Hasluck in particular, was a regular contributor to the Society's activities (Dawkins 1949, 291). Neither received formal anthropological training, although they were both university educated and, in contrast to many "armchair anthropologists" of the day, made extensive collections during fieldwork. Their collections are amongst the most substantial surviving collections of Balkan and Mesquakie material in British museums, and were made at either end of a period in which academic anthropology was splitting from folklore and attempting to assert itself as a separate discipline; as such, they represent ideas and opinions current in the study of other peoples at the time.(2)

In addition, these collections reveal much about collecting as a phenomenon and as a manifestation of imperialism. They highlight two aspects which have received relatively little attention in academic studies: the collection of material folklore; and the documentation of the lives of those whom Martin Lovelace has called "folklore's others," fieldworkers and collectors outside the London circle who dominated the FLS in its formative period (Lovelace 1996. Quoted Ashton 1997, 20).(3) Given the number of people gathering such material during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, much more collections research needs to be undertaken to fill the gaps left by writers who have concentrated on literary works and the group of London-based folklorists Richard Dorson called the "Great Team" (Dorson 1968a, 202). The collection of objects categorised as "ethnographic" by Westerners has a history that runs parallel with that of cross-cultural contact. Until relatively recently, however, the rationale behind the creation of these collections has received scant attention in museological literature. These objects are not in our museum stores by accident; they arrived through a series of exchanges involving shifting power relations and complex selection choices.

The period 1880-1925 saw an increase in cross-cultural interactions through overseas travel on the part of Europeans. Some people collected on their travels; others travelled primarily to collect. Many of the collections of anthropological and folkloric material now in museums such as CUMAA and Marischal Museum were formed during this time. Notions of exotic "otherness" must surely have exerted some influence on the selection of objects in these collections, although the extent to which collectors were aware of this is debatable. Ideas of cultural contrasts and similarities also affected those collectors who worked closer to home, and it is arguable that their preconceptions concerning the status and habits of their subjects were modified after prolonged contact.

Putting them into their contemporary context, I will discuss how the Owen and Hasluck collections were formed within the value-system placed upon them by their collectors. In an attempt to provide a balanced overview of the impulses behind the collecting process, I shall also consider the reactions of the people from whom they collected. …

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