Collecting En Route: An Exploration of the Ethnographic Collection of Gertrude Emily Benham
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In the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century the collecting of objects from colonized countries and their subsequent display in western museums was widespread throughout Western Europe. How and why these collections were made, the processes of collection, and by whom, has only recently begun to be addressed. This thesis is an exploration of the ethnographic collection of Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) who made eight voyages independently around the world from 1904 until 1938, during which time she amassed a collection of approximately eight hundred objects, which she donated to Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in 1935. It considers how and why she formed her collection and how, as a an amateur and marginalised collector, she can be located within discourses on ethnographic collecting. The thesis is organised by geographical regions in order to address the different contact zones of colonialism as well as to contextualise Benham within the cultural milieu in which she collected and the global collection of objects that she collected. An interdisciplinary perspective was employed to create a dialogue between anthropology, geography, museology, postcolonial and feminist theory to address the complex issues of colonial collecting. Benham is located within a range of intersecting histories: colonialism, travel, collecting, and gender. This study is the first in-depth examination of Benham as a collector and adds to the knowledge and understanding of Benham and her collection in Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. It contributes to the discourse on ethnographic collectors and collecting and in doing so it acknowledges the agency and contribution of marginal collectors to resituate them as a central and intrinsic component in the formation of the ethnographic museum. In addition, and central to this, is the agency and role of indigenous people in forming ethnographic collections. The thesis offers a foundation for further research into women ethnographic collectors and a more nuanced and inclusive account of ethnographic collecting.
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