From the 'Fetish' to the 'Specimen': the Ridyard African collection at the Liverpool Museum 1895-1916.

Louise Tythacott

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


On 1st July 1895 Arnold Ridyard, a Chief Engineer with the Elder Dempster Co. donated his first group of artefacts to Liverpool Museum. Twenty one years and 77 voyages later, he had transported almost six-and-a-half thousand objects from coastal regions of West and Central Africa to Liverpool (Clubb 1916:1). The collection comprised both natural history and ethnographic objects, of which the latter totalled around two-and a-half thousand -almost a quarter of the present-day African collection. Ridyard barely missed a voyage in 21 years at sea, donating objects on a regular three to four monthly basis. He wasn't alone in his collecting efforts for he established a network of associates along coastal locales of Africa who donated via Elder Dempster to Liverpool Museum. An astounding total of 190 names are recorded in the Museum register as giving through this system of maritime transportation, including such prominent figures as the Governor of Sierra Leone, the Eastern Divisional Commissioner of Southern Nigeria as well as African kings, princes and chiefs (Tythacott 1998). So significant was the Ridyard collection, and so rapidly did it increase, that Annie Coombes has characterised it as...'one of the largest and fastest growing [African collections] in Britain from 1890 to 1913, second only to the national collection at the British Museum' (Coombes 1994:129). Numerous official documents attest to the rapid growth of the collections: from the 1909 Annual Report we learn that since 1896 - the year after Ridyard's first donation -11,371 ethnographic objects had been accessioned into the museum (Annual Report 1910:37), representing over a third of the present-day ethnographic holdings in a period of only fourteen years. Though not all the acquisitions derive from Ridyard, the engineer remains the single most prolific donor of his time. In 1916 - the year of his retirement - the Museums Committee even named a section the 'Ridyard' Collection of African Ethnology and described it as...'probably the finest in the country' (Clubb 1916:153). This chapter traces the formation of the Ridyard collecting phenomenon. It associates the particularity of this collection with the city that nurtured its growth and contends that only the world port of Liverpool could have fostered such a maritime associated collection. Ridyard was positioned at the interface of two changing museological worlds, and his collection was reconfigured over the 21 year period by the new orderly museum. At the beginning, he chose singularly powerful objects: there is an emphasis on so-called ju jus and masks, and particularly on the dramatic Central African minkisi - or power figures - embedded with nails, scissors and magical substances. Fifteen years after his first donation, Liverpool Museum established a more systematic framework for Ridyard's collecting activities. In 1910, a new Director - a natural historian - requested he focus on 'representative' examples of arts and industries that were thought to be dying out, in particular the 'primitive potter's art' (Annual Report 1911). The Museum intervened in the collecting methods of its most loyal and committed benefactor: an educational rationale was imposed on the engineer. The Ridyard collection thus came to be filtered through the gaze of a scientific natural historian and the lens of an increasingly pedagogical institution.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCollectors
Subtitle of host publicationexpressions of self and other
EditorsAnthony Shelton
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherHorniman Museum
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9780951814178
Publication statusPublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


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