‘From the Islands of the South Seas, 1773-4’ : A student foray into the papers of Peter Gathercole in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

By Sarah Mathews

“Student Labour: Agreed that this would probably be more trouble than it’s worth, but P.G said he would keep them ‘in reserve’”

Extract from minutes taken at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1969 re. The opening of “From the Islands of the South Seas, 1773-4: An Exhibition of a Collection Made on Captain Cook’s Second Voyage of Discovery by J.R Forster ”

P.G refers to Peter Gathercole (1929-2010), lecturer of Ethnography at Oxford and the person responsible for the collation of the Forster Collection into the catalogue ‘From the Islands of the South Seas, 1773-4’. He was a founding member of the Pacific Arts Association and director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge from 1970-1981.

I came across the meeting minutes as I rifled through the exchanges of letters, research and documents relating to the exhibition during my weekly research placement at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Before the days of email, arranging a meeting to determine the origins of a single object often required multiple letters with days of waiting in-between. Following a letter trail back and forth can lead to the conclusion of a school visit to the collection, or the attribution of origin of items in collections in New Zealand. Indeed, even a handwritten application to ‘Bodley’s Librarian’ for the loan of a book dated 12/03/1970, does not go undetected.

Such seemingly abnormally drawn out procedures are nothing more than the common everyday when I am drawn back into the daily world of the 1970 exhibition’s formation, with Gathercole at its centre. The fastidious research undertaken, the precision in even the flora and fauna that the exhibition was to include, is demonstrative of the immersion and involvement that the Forster Collection was, and still is, capable of evoking.

I am responsible for cataloguing and collating the archive of Peter Gathercole’s work on the exhibition so as to facilitate eventual online access, via the Museum’s website, to the vast and fascinating documentation. In our swiftly moving lives, instantaneous and constant information is at our fingertips. It’s refreshing to slip back to the unfamiliar momentum of letter-exchange. It’s engrossing to follow the unpicking of the origin of a single object, collected in 1773-4, transported and exhibited in on the 1st of May 1970 in Oxford. The steady repetition of weaving a tapa cloth (barkcloth) such as the ones that are part of the Forster Collection, echoes the rhythmic flow of letters and draws me further back; to a corner of the South Pacific with the scuttle of land-crabs in the oil-lit shelter, and the communal hum of village chatter as one strip of barkcloth flips over the other just as was done for those collected in 1773-4.

Sarah Mathews is a second year BA History of Art student undertaking a placement in the Photograph and Manuscript Collections section of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The papers she is listing will become a new series of papers in the collection – the Gathercole Papers – and will appear online here: http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/manuscripts.html