Case Study 1: Powell-Cotton Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum began working with the Powell-Cotton Museum to help it develop a Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Looking Back to Find Them Looking Forward: The Visionary Powell-Cotton Sisters’.  

The project focussed on ethnographic film and female collectors. In 1936 and 1937 two daughters of the founder of the Powell-Cotton Museum, Diana and Antonia Powell-Cotton, made ambitious collecting and filming trips to Southern Africa. The result was just under three hours of edited black-and-white 16mm film, accompanied by nearly 3,000 objects and 2,000 photographs. The films portray local ceremonies, craftworking, and family life in rural Africa through the eyes of the two women. Together they provide a unique record of the region at a crucial time in its history, before the full impact of the massive cultural changes brought about by missionization and colonial rule.

Girls stick skirt, fake eyebrows, beard and hair piece collected by the Powell-Cotton sisters and now in the Pitt Rivers Museum (1940.7.88, 91-93) © Pitt Rivers Museum

The sisters’ collecting practice was visionary in that it placed photography and film-making in a central role in the collection of material culture, something few other museum collections were doing at the time. As a result their collection represents a significant part of the film and museum heritage of the county. Until this new project, however, their achievements were not recognised in the galleries of the Powell-Cotton Museum.

The project culminated in a temporary exhibition of Angolan artefacts and archive film and photographs, co-curated with the Angolan Cultural Foundation and the Angolan Embassy, and in the development of a permanent exhibit to celebrate Angola and its culture.

Pitt Rivers colleagues supported this project in several ways. Jeremy Coote, Head of Collections at the Pitt Rivers, wrote letters in support of the museum’s funding application, and provided ongoing professional advice throughout the project. Early in the project, colleagues from Powell-Cotton attended training days at the Pitt Rivers Museum to expand their knowledge of what is involved in creating exhibitions and to learn from Pitt Rivers staff about working with source communities. Pitt Rivers colleagues also contributed practically to the temporary exhibition, providing conservation and mount-making services, and sharing their knowledge of these areas with the Powell-Cotton team.

This initial engagement has formed the basis for an ongoing relationship between the two museums and an extension of the development partner relationship. More recently Andy McLellan, Head of Education at the Pitt Rivers, assisted colleagues at the Powell-Cotton in developing an education delivery plan as part of an upcoming funding bid, and Chris Morton, Curator of Photograph and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers, is providing continued advice and support to the museum as they undergo a leadership change.

There is a long history of cooperation between the two museums.  In 1933 Antoinette Powell-Cotton was a trainee of Henry Balfour at Pitt Rivers.  On accepting her he wrote, "If she can put up with odd jobs (some perhaps, very odd) and is not entirely disheartened by my lectures on Technology, she will probably get on all right".' She catalogued footwear and worked on the card index in 1933 and 1934.  She also came and showed some of the films at the 372nd meeting of the Oxford University Anthropological Society held on 6 June 1940.

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