This blog article comes from Morvern French, a PhD student in the school of History who has been volunteering since June.
The new exhibition at MUSA, One World: Exploring Cultures Across Continents (until 30 October 2016), showcases a fascinating selection of artefacts in the museum’s collection that have been brought to St Andrews from all seven continents of the world.
One of the first objects I saw was a piece of the mineral cryolite. This was monopolised by the British during World War II, when it was essential in the production of aluminium, used to manufacture Spitfire aeroplanes. These planes contributed to the German defeat, most notably at the 1940 Battle of Britain. Not only did this remind me of the exhibitions of Recording Britain and Recording Scotland (the latter continuing until 27 February), but it also made me think about issues of supply and demand, value, and uses for precious materials, both here in Europe and in the various far-off places from which these artefacts came.
Many of the objects on display, which have been sought after by both native and non-native peoples, have been supplied by the University’s Geology collection, which is well-represented in the exhibition. As well as precious metals and stones the collection includes thousands of rocks and fossils. Much research has been recently conducted into the Geology collection (MUSA hosted two Geology students over the summer who conducted research and led outreach events linked to the collection) and cataloguing work is ongoing.
Several of the items in the exhibition are made of jade, a typically green rock valued in many societies around the world. For example, Myanmar has exported jade to the Chinese, who consider it among the most precious of materials, since the 1770s; and the Māori people of New Zealand see it as a symbol of status and power. Jade has been used to create such objects as ornamental weaponry, jewellery, and other precious items.
One example of this is a Melanesian beku: a piece of jade polished into the shape of an axe-head from the period c.1800-1950. This would have been exchanged in a Western Pacific gift economy known as the kula or ‘ring’, in which tribal island chiefs circulate valuables among their peers on neighbouring islands in order to gain social prestige. It is interesting that jade has been used in different ways to convey power, status, and value.
A gold specimen from Australia represents a material that was so highly valued in the mid-nineteenth century that its discovery prompted the emigration of hundreds of thousands of people in search of this valuable commodity. These incomers were primarily British, Australia being a British colony, but people from continental Europe, America, and China also settled there and created a multicultural society.
These are just some of the precious natural materials within the thought-provoking One World exhibition. Not only are they economically valuable as commodities, but also as representations of cultural value, for example in the gift economy of the Western Pacific. Now in MUSA’s collection, such objects are invaluable as sources for scholars and students of geology, history, archaeology, and anthropology (to name but a few!).
The display of all these objects together also highlights the huge range of research, travel and collecting by people associated with the University through the centuries.
The opportunity for current staff to contribute a postcard detailing their recent travel for research or conferences to the display emphasises the University’s continued contribution to our understanding of the world today.**
**MUSA encourages all staff and research students who are travelling for work to send us a postcard with some details of their trip to be featured in the exhibition. There’s no need to pay overseas postage – just pop the postcard in the internal mail or drop it off at the museum when you return!