Should We Continue to ‘bring the World’ to London Through Museum Objects?

By Dalia Iskander • Teaching Fellow in Medical Anthropology

On the 29thJune 2018, the Horniman Museum and Gardens opened its World Gallery to the public. Its aim is to explore what it means to be human in different times and places through a display of over 3,000 objects including those curated with the help of UCL anthropologists Jerome Lewis and Dalia Iskander. The new exhibition continues to speak to founder Frederick Horniman’s aim of ‘bringing the world’ to the district of Forest Hill where the museum is located. However, it also provokes questions regarding the place that museums do and should have in this endeavour, the way in which objects are acquired and displayed, and the role museums have in shaping the political encounters that underlie such exhibitions.


Horniman Museum, World Gallery. © Horniman Museum and Gardens

As you enter the upper walkway of the World Gallery, you would be hard pressed to miss the huge display of colourful kites and banners suspended from the museum ceiling (see image below). These pieces have been made for or donated to the exhibition by contributors such as Ahmadzia Bakhtyari, a London-based Afghan kite-maker, Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman, a Nigerian fashion designer, and Ed Hall, an artist from South London who made his Trade Union-inspired banner with assistance from Horniman volunteers. Intended to explore how people all over the world come together in different ways to celebrate, play or protest, they hang above a display that explains how the museum’s founder, Frederick Horniman, opened up his home – Surrey House – between 1890 and 1898 with the explicit aim of ‘bringing the world’ to London. The well-travelled tea trader and philanthropistwanted to narrow the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ by displaying his private collection of artefacts and natural specimens from all over the world to the public. Interestingly, the Horniman – which opened in 1901 to replace Surrey House – is the only museum in London that continues to keep ‘nature’ (through its aquarium, butterfly house and natural history collection)and ‘culture’ (through its vast array of anthropological artefacts and musical instruments) together under one roof in pursuit of this endeavour.


Display of kites and banners made by artists and volunteers at the World Gallery. © Dalia Iskander

In this sense, the World Gallery continues to fulfil the aim of the museum’s founder as visitors are able to interact with objects from the five inhabited continents of the world. They serve to illustrate how people form connections to objects, past and present ways of life, social encounters (from trade and travel to war and pillage), and contemporary relationships of curation and anthropology that have led to objects being displayed here. Visitors are encouraged to engage all their senses as they interact with exhibits. For example, they can touch intricate metalwork made by the Tuareg living in the Sahara, smell aromatic herbs used by Bhutanese ritual healers and listen to First Nations’ oral narratives from the Pacific Northwest Coast. As such, the permanent gallery is both an informative and engaging space that certainly encourages reflection and dialogue regarding our cultural difference but more importantly, our collective heritage.


More kites and banners made by artists and volunteers. © Dalia Iskander

Significantly, this gallery tries to move in line with calls for a museology that takes a more inclusive, participatory and politically-engaged approach to the ways in which objects are both acquired and contextualised. This is in an attempt to unveil and potentially even start to overturn many of the underlying contentious political realities and power differentials that underscore museum collections. Much criticism was and continues to be levelled at European museums in particular whose collections are largely built of huge swathes of looted and pillaged artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas during periods of Empire building, colonialism and war. Their display, often lacking any contextual information regarding the relationships around objects and the circumstances surrounding their acquisition, is said to legitimise injustices in the past and continue the legacy of domination of numerous indigenous peoples in the present. This is only exacerbated by the failure of European museums to repatriate the majority of artefacts from their collections back to their countries of origin. This is despite numerous appeals for restitution and scores of scantily filled museums in many parts of the world, which leave communities little opportunity to ‘bring the world’ to their own people. In an attempt to address this to some extent in the World Gallery, labelling of existing artefacts from the collection sometimes explicitly acknowledge instances where objects have been acquired through looting or war and point out ways in which the museum is working with communities to (at the very least) loan items back to the people that produced them (for example those from Benin in the Encounterssection). For some, this will be welcome but rather insufficient to undo the injustices of the past.

However, in the way new objects were collected for the collection, the Horniman has made a concerted effort to engage more directly with communities, both in terms of the selection or creation of objects for display as well as in the construction of the narratives that accompany them. For example, a Collecting Initiativewas launched with the UK Royal Anthropological Institute, awarding Anthropology PhD students and Postdoctoral Fellows small grants to collect and research objects for the gallery collaboratively with the communities that they engaged with in their fieldwork.

As a recipient of one of their awards in 2012-3, I worked in partnership with members of the indigenous Pälawancommunity in the Philippines, with whom I conducted my doctoral fieldwork, to provide artefacts for the Perspectivessection. Owing to my focus on health, I worked with a number of Pälawanbalayan(healers) for whom material culture plays a central role. Balayanwere very keen to donate objects to the museum because they saw this as a way of raising international awareness regarding their indigenous practices and ways of life which they feel are under threat from numerous pressures ranging from mining and economic development to climate change and environmental degradation. As one balayanput it, “this allows us to also use you. The more people in your country know about us, the more they will understand why we want to preserve our ways of life.” I provided two balayanwho were keen to donate objects to the museum – Bernas Licos and Sario Langi – digital cameras so that they could visually document their practices and the objects that they used in real-time. The pictures they took formed the basis for discussion regarding which objects the two men felt best reflected and conveyed their work and decisions about what that they would like to donate to the museum. In total, seven artefacts were admitted into the collection (see image below) as well as a set of accompanying photographs taken by Bernas and Sario illustrating how these objects are used in their everyday practice.

Display of artefacts used in Pälawan healing practices donated to the World Gallery by Bernas Licos and Sario Langi. These include a tinkop (basket) that Bernas used to carry his medicines, handed down to him from his father. A diagnostic stick (tari-tari) doll (kundu), pom poms (silad) and amulets (pananga) are also displayed which Sario uses in his healing practices.
Images © Dalia Iskander.

For Bernas and Sario, the World Gallery offered a space in which they could actively play a more inclusive part in the way they are represented to outsiders. In this way, they switched the ethnographic gaze to some extent by using the opportunity of our encounter in ways that also helped them with their own agendas. Similarly, through his long-term engagement with the Mbendjele people of the western Congo Basin, Jerome Lewis provided some of the everyday objects he collected in the field in the Encounterssection of the gallery (see image below). Here, the focus is on the minimalism of material culture and how this relates to egalitarianism. In contrast to the many parents and small children that are the regular visitors to the museum, an entire Mbendjele household can be quickly packed into a single basket (bottom left of the case) carried by women as they move between forest camps. Men carry the children and their hunting weapons. A short film display shows people moving to a new part of the forest and building a camp. Another describes some of their efforts to secure recognition for their land rights.

Mbendjele case showing women’s basket, skirts, sleeping mat and cooking utensils. A men’s handbag for keeping his fire-making kit, smoking paraphernalia and magical charms, as well as an axe, knife, cross-bow and spears are also exhibited. The barbed pig-hunting spear is on direct path to strike the rather sweet young red-river hog – one of the Mbendjele’s favourite foods.
Images © Jerome Lewis

In bringing us face-to-face with the worlds of ourselves and others, the World Gallerydoes more than simply put forward objects for us to admire in a way that uncritically legitimises and perpetuates British colonisation, power and control, past and present. Rather, the gallery also highlights the role that museums are increasingly playing in bringing to light some of the problematic relationships that underscore encounters between people – even those that are deeply uncomfortable, destructive and exploitative. There is certainly much more that museums including the Horniman can and should do to overturn political injustices. However, by involving communities in the way artefacts are curated and displayed, museums can, and should, in my opinion, continue to play an important role in post-colonial contexts. Museums (much like anthropologists) are vehicles which can be (and are) appropriated by indigenous people who use them to tell their own stories, govern their own representation and further their own causes.


Fancy a fika?☕️

By Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology

I was in the middle of a 12-hour flight, without wifi, and counting down the minutes until landing. Scrolling through the British Airways Highlife Entertainment programme, a documentary episode with the words ‘coffee’ and ‘ritual’ caught my attention. As a coffee enthusiast and an anthropologist, I could not allow myself to leave the plane without watching it.

“Knowing that word, it’s not just a fun thing, it’s actually a way of getting into society.” – (Female interviewee from Episode 1: The Ritual)

Fika: To Have Coffeeis a documentary on fika, or what Swedish locals typically refer to as having a coffee break. Now this may seem familiar to many of you (especially uni students and freelancers), but as an interviewee explained, “I guess you have the same concept in a lot of countries but you don’t have a name for it.” Fika is a slang word that originated from swapping the syllables of kaffi (an ‘outdated’ word for coffee) and omitting one ‘f’. With a dual status of being a noun and a verb, the term is used quite flexibly – you can have a fika to relax or to do work, with or without other people, in a coffee house or at home. The ways in which people and objects interact with each other in social events – from seasonal rituals to everyday life – are one of the hottest topics in the realm of anthropology. Here, I would like to briefly explore how fika in social and working contexts can contribute to the discussion.

Socialising subjects and objects

“I think it has to do with our way of being social. So we meet over something, and that’s where the fika part comes in. It’s the meeting between people more than the things you eat… or drink.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 2: The Social Bit)

The interviewee here suggests how people (e.g. sociable coffee-lovers) and things ( and coffee shops) are respectively seen as subjects and objects. What is particularly interesting is that he also places a distinction between them, despite how the coexistence of people and things constitutes an assemblage. Now this might seem like common sense, but conceptually dividing subjects from objects has been debated at great lengths in anthropology – including alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between the two factions.

“You have a reason to be intimate with someone. You could just talk to someone but it’s a little bit more strained on the conversation. If you have a cup of coffee then you can take natural breaks and, you know, there’s a reason for why you’re sitting there.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 2: The Social Bit)

Anthropologists such as Bruno Latour (1991) stress that we often undermine the status of even the most mundane objects of daily social life. In fact, they have a very important role in mediating human relationships, politics, and even morality. Building on this, architectural theorist Albena Yaneva (2009) discusses an approach addressing the issue, Actor-Network Theory (ANT), encouraging us to describe objects by focusing on more than just their practicality: 

“Drawing on the ways technical objects take part in the making of culture, that is, the anthropology of technology, ANT shows how every single technical feature of an object accounts for a social, psychological and economical world” (2009: 276).

If we apply this to fika, we can say that the architectural style or interior design of a coffee shop (objects) can create different social dynamics between customers and baristas (subjects), and how their conversations flow and change.

A state between work and rest

“An important aspect of fikais work-relation, where you can also move seamlessly between work and other topics in your conversation… It’s… a kind of state in between work and rest. You can continue some kind of work discussion with your colleagues, but in a less formal mode so to speak.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 6: The Work) 

Although primarily considered as breaktime, some locals also prefer to have a fikain order to do work. In particular, one mentioned that having an informal meeting over fikameans “no pressureto achieve something… things may be done, things may not be done.” Another fikaenthusiast explicitly made a comparison, whereby the material environment plays a crucial part in shaping certain social expectations. For him, “it’s often more creative and more productive to go with two or three colleagues to a cafe and have a fikatogether than sit in a formal meeting room discussing [certain topic]”.

Fika for thought…

“…design is not merely a beautiful aesthetic envelope that covers objects and makes [everyday life] pleasurable. Instead, design has a social goal and mobilises social means to achieve it, thus striving to enrich not to diminish, to fortify not to weaken the public bonds” – (Yaneva 2009: 276)

Generally, this documentary teaches us how having a coffee break allows us to enjoy the little things in life – not only in catching up with friends, but in being creative and productive with work as well. Still, if we look at fikafrom an anthropological perspective, it makes us question how we have taken our relationships with objects for granted.


Brones, A. (2015) What Is Fika? An Introduction to the Swedish Coffee Break. Kitchn. Available at: [accessed 20 August 2018].

Brones, A., Kindvall, J. (2015) Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. United States: Ten Speed Press.

Latour, B. (1991) Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: essai d’anthropologie symétrique. Paris: La Découverte.

Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 1: The Ritual. YouTube. Available at: [accessed 20 August 2018].

Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 2: The Social Bit. YouTube. Available at: [accessed 22 August 2018].

Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 6: The Work. YouTube. Available at: [accessed 22 August 2018].

Yaneva, A. (2009) Making the Social Hold: Towards an Actor-Network Theory of Design. Design and Culture 1(3): 273-288.


Does AI Have a Place in the Family Home? UCL Digital Anthropology and Wizzili Explore in Collaboration

By Afreen Saulat • MSc Digital Anthropology

This research emerges from a partnership between UCL Digital Anthropology and Wizzili, a French AI company, who are building a product that will act ‘as the personal assistant busy parents never knew they needed’. The partnership supported a Masters student, Afreen Salaut, to undertake her dissertation on the intersection of AI and family life, bringing some of the broader research questions and methods of digital anthropology into dialogue with this industry start-up. Here, Afreen Saulat reports on how the project is going.

Wizzili chose Digital Anthropology as a starting point to help understand how busy parents function and how their product can cater to their needs. As a result, this year as a Master’s student on the Digital Anthropology course, I have had the pleasure of working alongside Wizzili to understand how technology and more specifically in Wizzili’s case, Artificial Intelligence, can potentially play a role in the family home. This research will take the form of the Master’s dissertation and will subsequently add to the anthropological dialogues around families and technologies, whilst also bridging the gap with industry by sharing our methodologies in an actionable form for Wizzili.

Founder Gregoire Tyrou is keen to explore the full potential as well as limitations of AI when used within a family environment. As a creator and provider of technology and AI Tyrou, as a father himself, wants to ensure that ethics are kept at the forefront of the AI conversation. Therefore, Wizzili views research within this area as an essential element to ensure that they develop optimal solutions.

Prior to the start of the main research, I decided to put my anthropological feelers out casually and went to observe some family friends on what I always thought was a very simple school run (please note – this project has been cleared by the UCL Ethical Review Process) It was not simple. Through this activity, I wanted to learn about the tools families currently use to manage their time. This raised questions around busy-ness, time management and the responsibilities that are involved within the decision making of ‘who will pick up the kids?’ I started to learn about the added responsibilities of ensuring that everyone had eaten breakfast and in some cases, that the kid’s lunches were also prepped in time. This is a big checklist of things to manage within a few hours of the early morning and there were many instances where technology played a central role.

Father playing with son

The two sets of busy parents I followed on a school run are Stacy’s and Ella’s (both pseudonyms) . Both of are based in East London and have young children. I got in touch with them through mutual connections and as I had never met their families before, so, as an anthropologist, this gave me just enough distance to casually observe in an unbiased manner, an essential and reflective skill that I will build on for the main study.

Stacey is part-time Master’s student and stay at home mum. Her husband Charles, works as a freelance graphic designer for a local company, not far from the children’s – Lotte, 5 and Gabby, 2 – Montessori School. I arrived at 7am in the morning when the family was preparing and eating breakfast in the kitchen. Unusual weather had hit the UK during that week and there was a lot of snow on the ground, which meant that the family got up slightly earlier than usual to make up for the slightly longer time it would take to get ready and to the school due to icy pavements.

Stacy’s main use of technology throughout the day was her phone, be that to keep in touch with her husband Charles or the other mums from school or even to help her wake up on time:

“I like to get up and have some time for myself, have a cup of tea and catch up with myself before the day starts”

Time management was one of the central themes that I picked up on, with both traditional methods such as calendars and more modern ones such as mobile reminders being used simultaneously alongside each-other:

“We both have our calendars on our phones and we may even email each other but the main point of all this stuff is to make sure both of us know what is going on and so that we know where the girls are and that they’re looked after.”

Ella on the other hand, a single mum to George, 3 and full-time midwife, had a different view on calendars:

“My mum loves calendars. If you want her time, you’ve got to get into her calendar. For me personally and I don’t want to cause offence but I think calendars are really old fashioned. My schedule changes too much for a simple calendar”

Instead, to keep up with her ever-changing schedule and the need to provide stability for George, Ella relies on her phone and a large, dispersed family network for help. Ella has to manage her own time and as a secondary measure, manage George’s time with her family:

“I’m lucky to have a large family that lives [nearby], I’ve got my mum and dad and numerous cousins who all have experience baby-sitting, so I’m quite lucky really. George’s dad is also around but he’s not always reliable and has his own plans, so its good to have a large network to rely on.”


Alongside time-management, there were some other themes that I came across, namely gender roles, where I discovered that I had interacted mainly with the female parent. These gender roles then underpin the level of responsibility that is then held by individuals within the family and the network. Who makes the decisions in your home and is this decision making coming from a place of equality? An understanding of how gender roles affect technology usage could allow Wizzili to create a product that distributes responsibility in a non-gendered way. This is an area the main research project will look at in more depth.

Space and decision making/allocation also came up. During my time at the homes of these families, I noticed that they usually congregated into certain areas, mainly the kitchen/dining room, where they discussed the day ahead. It got me wondering where in the home do families undertake their decision making?

Finally, another theme that arose from my short, casual observations was data privacy. For example, Stacey’s husband works in the tech industry and thus, is very careful about her putting up pictures of their children on social media sites. They tend to limit their children’s interaction with technology and cite privacy as a reason, waiting until their children are at an age where they can make informed decisions about providing their data, Stacey and Charles prefer to safe-guard them. So, whilst parents may be accepting of new technologies in the home that help with time- management and decision making, they need to understand the way in which their data is going to be used, in order to make an informed decision.

Through this small and informal piece of research, the links towards bigger issues within the field of AI were opening up, namely when it comes to themes such as; accountability/transparency, public opinion and the need for institutions and managing expectations. Accountability relates to the questions around personal data management and how the data that is then collected by Wizzili is going to stored and used. With the need for public opinion on these matters, this project could contribute to the wider conversation around what it is that the general public believes their data would be most useful for. Or if indeed they even want their data to be used or stored! As for managing expectations, it wraps up the former themes nicely by honing in on the idea that as a technology, AI is still relatively immature and the process of implementing it within daily life is going to be one of trail and error. Therefore, there needs to be active academic and public discussion which takes concerns into account seriously.

Overall, from just a couple of hours of following busy parents about town, I was able to glean more information and insight than I expected. Working alongside Wizzili and the UCL Anthropology department, we aim for the main research study to be even more insightful and provide a good foundational basis through which Wizzili can curate their product further as an optimal offering to parents.

Capitalism and Hunter-Gatherers

By Simon Hoyte • PhD Anthropology


Knowledge. What is knowledge? Who has knowledge? Who doesn’t have knowledge? Who deserves to have knowledge? Who deserves to not have knowledge? The answers to these sorts of epistemological questions might seem obvious, but does our society reflect your answers?

A close friend and colleague of mine from Cameroon recently applied to the University of Cambridge for an M.Phil. in Conservation Leadership. I encouraged him to persist in the application, battling through endless questioning and terrible internet connection. Three weeks later I receive a phone call in London: “Simon, I’ve made the application but they are requiring I pay £50 to submit! They won’t recognise my card! Can you help me?”. The justification used as to why an institution with a £6.3 billion endowment behind its name has to charge applicants £50 to simply apply, including those from countries (though not necessarily excluding this one) where £50 is not easily earned back, would be interesting to hear.

Cambridge, an elite factory of knowledge generation, is built on funding accumulated from centuries of exploitation, thievery, and injustice through colonialism in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, and UCL is not so different. And this is not a thing of the past; investments held today by these universities in companies such as Shell and BP directly support climate change, the worst impacts of which are in countries ravaged by Europeans during the colonial period. Such ravaging is of course ongoing and continues to this day; “Colonialism only ever ended in the textbooks” as Dr Marcelo Chalréo puts it1. The accumulated knowledge of such institutions is then denied to them – locked away behind expensive closed-access journals, and by charging £50 fees to enrol and participate.

Knowledge, in this elitist sense, is thought of as residing in the ivory towers of the Global North: ‘The centre of knowledge’. And where has all this led us? The economic system governing the way we think, act, and dream – capitalism – is a system many believe to be the finest product of such elite knowledge, and the only direction for the world as a whole to travel. That is why it’s been subsequently forced upon all societies, no matter the stability, success, and ingenuity of their indigenous economic systems. Particularly cheated by the enforcement of capitalism are hunter-gatherers.


The Mbendjele (Gill Conquest)

Hunter-gatherers are most often thought of as living thousands of years ago; an extinct lifeway that our ancestors engaged in before discovering the joys of pastoralism and agriculture.

Some people might think of ‘lost’ or ‘uncontacted’ Indians in the Amazon in relation to hunting and gathering, but such groups are neither lost, uncontacted, or hunter-gatherers: horticulturalism has a long history here.

The truth is hunter-gatherers are with us today, and the largest population is in the Central African rainforests. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the last stronghold of hunter-gatherers share the beautiful Congo Basin with the three other African great ape species – chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. These forests are a sanctuary of abundant resources and have acted as protection from outside forces.


“Modern hunter-gatherers”, in the words of Dr Jerome Lewis, “are the last representatives of the most enduring human cultural adaptations”, basing their societies not on material or monetary wealth, but on relationships2. Relationships to other people but also other beings – animals, trees, spirits. The Baka, with whom I work in Cameroon, regard other animals not just as equal inhabitants of the forest, but, in the case of gorillas, part-human themselves3. The Baka value dancing, laughter, and happiness as essential to life; these things, alongside healthy children and intact forest, are seen as ‘wealth’. Building up personalwealth, or capital, at the expense of others is a foreign and unwelcome mentality amongst the Baka, Aka, Mbendjele, and other Central African hunter-gatherers. As revealed in Lewis’ article ‘Where goods are free but knowledge costs’, societies here operate through demand-sharing; tools, clothes, or any other material good is not exchanged, but given when requested4. Food is shared without even asking, particularly forest meat which is divided up into pieces and distributed around. If a woman returns from the forest with a harvest of bush mangoes, you have every right to go and grab your share. Interestingly however, intellectual knowledge, such as those around rituals, cannot be demanded, and are traded for other goods.

A common view amongst most capitalists is that hunter-gatherers are bound to go extinct. They are living an idealistic, nonviable, and unsustainable lifestyle, they argue. Let’s put this in perspective;  since 1970 the planet has lost almost two-thirds of mammal, bird, fish, amphibian, and reptile populations5. Climate change, caused by ‘advanced’ societies has resulted in heightened droughts, famine, infectious diseases, resource wars, extreme weather, and caused increased poverty and refugees. The very air we breathe is so polluted in parts of China that residents are importing canned air from the Canadian Rockies6. We’re living in an age with an impending threat of nuclear attack, prevalent gun and knife crime, human rights violations, depression, suicide, and record inequality whereby eight men have as much money as half of the world’s population7.


McKinley Prosperity (CC BY 2.0)

And what is behind all of this? The answer lies with an ideology – capitalism, making as much money as possible. As a result of this economic system invented a mere 500 years ago in Europe, where environmental and social values are disregarded in favour of maximising profit, a mentality of endless exponential economic growth has been adopted – ‘faith-based economics’.

In the words of a Plains Sioux Native American chief:

“Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realise that we cannot eat money”8

Those that get in the way are removed by the capitalist system – nearly four environmental defenders were killed a week last year9. For many, the introduction of capitalism has led to nothing but branding as ‘poor’, and placed at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy. But the fact is that hunter-gatherers and Amazonian hunter-horticulturalists are extraordinarily wealthy: their environments contain the most biodiversity on Earth – biological wealth; their kinship and community relationships are uniquely strong – social wealth; and, if we venture into capitalist terms, their land often nurtures vast reserves of minerals, metals, oil, and other commodities – economic wealth. Those owning such resources for so long are tricked and exploited by foreign extractors with foreign interests, in order to fuel the capitalist machine and degrade biodiversity and social rights in the process.

The system that encourages commoditisation of the Baka’s forest – turning sacred trees, ancestral land, and half-human animals into commodities to be bought and sold, is the very same as that encouraging the commoditisation of students, staff, and pensions at UK universities. It’s the whole system, the way of thinking, the ideology that needs to change, and be replaced, as George Monbiot suggests, with a revitalisation of our inner altruism; a community-focused model which embraces cooperation rather than exploitation10.

And if you’re not convinced that perhaps capitalism is not so sensible, and that perhaps so-called advanced societies are not so advanced after all, get stuck in to the literature on those predicting the future of humanity as it stands, starting with Professor Martin Rees’ ‘Our Final Century11.

Contrast all this with a hunter-gatherer economy. An economy which modern humans have utilised since our species appearance ~300,000 years ago, and though adapting and adjusting, still ongoing today.

Which do you think is more sustainable?


  1. Chalréo, M. Territory, Ecology, and Human Rights. Presented at University College London, 27thMarch 2018.
  2. Lewis, J. (2016). Our life has turned upside down! And nobody cares. Hunter Gatherer Research, 2.3: 375-284
  3. Oishi, T. (2013). Human-Gorilla and Gorilla-Human: Dynamics of human- animal boundaries and interethnic relationships in the central African rainforest. Revue de Primatologie, 5
  4. Lewis, J. (2015). Where goods are free but knowledge costs. Hunter Gatherer Research, 1.1: 1-27
  5. WWF (2016). Living Planet Report 2016. WWF International: Gland
  6. Pak, J. (2015). Chinese buy up bottles of fresh air from Canada. The Telegraph, 15thDecember 2015
  7. Hardoon, D. (2017). An economy for the 99%. Oxfam International
  8. Obomosawin, A. Quoted in: Who is the Chairman of this Meeting?(1972, R. Osbourne, editor). Neewin: Toronto
  9. Watts, J. (2018). Almost four environmental defenders a week killed in 2017. The Guardian, 2ndFebruary 2018
  10. Monbiot, G. (2017). Out of the Wreckage. Verso: London
  11. Rees, M. (2003). Our Final Century. Heinemann: Portsmouth


Fieldwork in the Collection

By Hanine Miriam Habig • MA Material and Visual Culture

Like several other students from the Anthropology Department, I have been volunteering at the UCL Ethnographic Collection to practice object-based research. Most  of my work became focused on a particular case; the Rawlings Collection. This collection comprises of 18 objects, most of them originating from New Guinea. Ritual stones, nets, arrows, penis sheaths, a belt — all with little information attached to them except the place of origin and the name of their collector, for example ‘G. S. Rawlings, UN Temporary Executives Authority, 1962, New Guinea’1.


But at least there was a name and a place! Finding out more about the collector meant learning about the objects, so I started to invest more and more time into that clue instead of just researching about the type of objects I was presented with. The goal was to verify the given place of origin, learn under which circumstances the objects were collected and, finally, how they made their way into the collection. Given that more than 50 years had passed since the objects were gifted, it was possible that relevant information was lost before the digitalisation of the data. Our initial search yielded little helpful information but, little by little, the collection’s curator and manager, Delphine Mercier, and I were able to reconstruct some major points in George Shirley Rawlings life, which proved to be quite unusual.Picture3

(Above) Belt; (Right) Carrying nets, penis sheaths, purse

He was born 1903, into a missionary family, and stationed in Japan, where he also spent his childhood. He studied there and in South China and in Taiwan, which was then Formosa. In 1932, he was appointed to civil service in the Malaysian state Malacca, which was under British rule at that time. There, he observed how the Japanese invaded Kota Bharu, one day after their attack on Pearl Harbour. After that he worked as a regional advisor in the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Ministry of Information in New Delhi, and he wrote ‘Malaya´, a pamphlet on Indian Affairs, which was published in 1945 (Rawlings 1945; Rawlings, W.: during visit 2017). For a short time in the beginning of the 1960s, he was a Divisional Commissioner for the UN on the Island of Biak, north of New Guinea (Saltford 2000). In 1963, the year he was said to be retired, he died tragically with one of his sons in a car accident in Kabul, Afghanistan (Burke’s Peerage Website).

Arrow details

Would it be possible to contact one of his descendants?

If there hadn’t been all these amazing results to our ‘detective-work’, I would have not believed it to be possible. We had gotten quite far, so now it took several attempts at contacting various people, institutions and… patience. A few times we saw ourselves being quite close. Through peerage specialist Darry Lundy,2located in New Zealand, we got into contact with Paul Whyte3, an old family friend of the Rawlings, only to find he had lost contact. Or, we obtained the address of one of G. S. Rawlings’ sons, but the letter came back.

Eventually, after further reconstructing of the Rawlings’ family tree, we found that George Shirley’s sister was the British actress Margaret Rawlings. She’d been active on stage and in films since the 1930’s onwards, and even starred in ‘Roman Holiday’ Picture4alongside Audrey Hepburn. We got into contact with Margaret’s daughter, Jane Sacchi, who passed on our inquiry to George Shirley’s first-born son, who had immigrated to Canada. She also kindly gave us the correct address of Guy Rawlings, who we had tried to send mail to before. He in turn connected us to his brother Walter, and Walter was willing to visit us.

(Left) Discussing an object with Walter Rawlings

So, in May 2017, six months after starting the research, Delphine and I both felt like we were receiving a state visit when we welcomed Walter Rawlings to the Collection. It turned out that it was Walter who had donated the objects 50 years ago. Back then, he had passed the Department of Anthropology many times on his bike and realised it might be a place where people would find his father’s objects interesting and valuable. He showed them to Dr. Phyllis Kaberry, head of the department back then, who had been doing research on New Guinea herself and was excited to see them.

Audio Snippet 1: Walter Rawlings on how Dr. Kaberry received the objects

Meeting Walter and showing him these objects again after such a long time was an emotional and special event, and an amazing history lesson. It justified all the dead ends of the research and provided us with a rich picture of his father, George Shirley. As a humanitarian, he was always very much in touch with the local people in the places he stayed. Besides English, he spoke Japanese, Cantonese, Hokkien and Malay. He was protective of local Dani tribes during his time as a Divisional Commissioner while the UN had temporary authority in the region.

Audio Snippet 2: Walter Rawlings on his father’s concern for people and the UN

The Papuan objects were given to him directly from a Dani chief, who he had befriended whilst stationed in the Central highlands. Rawlings did not speak Dani, and at this time, around 1962, there were no air fields or roads leading into this region, so transport was by helicopter. We can only speculate about his relationship with the chief, but it seems quite meaningful since he was gifted ritual stones.

Audio Snippet 3: Walter Rawlings on his father’s special relationship with the Dani chief and a cannibal joke

It does indeed feel reassuring to know that within the late colonial system there was people like G. S. Rawlings who, although not an anthropologist, had a similar mind-set and a cultural relativist, respectful attitude towards foreign cultures.


(Right) Bow and bowstring, arrows, ritual stones and adze heads

Upon seeing the objects, Walter Rawlings remembered many of them, but not all. It also seemed that maybe a few were missing. This points to how far the Ethnographic collection has come today. It started back at the end of the 1940’s as a somewhat disordered assemblage made up from objects given by various institutions and from objects that anthropologist brought back from field trips. The objects were not meant to be studied but instead speak for themselves. During a move, some of the existing data on them was lost. Now the collection is being digitalised and professionals and students are taking care of it. Missing clues and data points are steadily being filled in, but some objects might never be fully understood with their story being lost in time, unrevealed and too few connecting points.

One such object is a bird’s nest from the Rawlings Collection, which triggered the initial research. It illustrates two fascinating aspects of object research; how unsatisfying it can feel to not be able to answer all questions, and how at the same time this mystery is beautifully enthralling, beckoning you to dig deeper anyway.

1Information from UCL Ethnography Collection; email exchange started 02.02.2017

3Email exchange started 04.02.2017

*I want to thank everybody who was involved with and supported this research. I am particularly grateful to all the members of the extended Rawlings family, that made it possible for me to learn about George Shirley Rawlings’ extraordinary life. That is: Walter Rawlings, Graem Castell, Guy Rawlings and Jane Sacchi. A big thanks to Delphine Mercier for providing the ground, inspiration and support to ‘dig deep’. Thank you to Mr. Douglas Russell (Natural History Museum, Senior Curator Birds) and Jane Pettitt (Graduate BSc Anthropology, Volunteer in charge of the basketry project at UCL Ethnographic Collection). And thank you as well to Darryl Lundy and Paul Whyte for their support of this research.


Burke’s Peerage. Website. Available at: <> (last accessed 12.12.2017)

Lundy, Darryl (The Peerage) Website. Available at: <> (last accessed 12.12.2017)

Rawlings, George Shirley (1945) Malaya. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saltford, John Francis (2000) UNTEA and UNRWI: United Nations Involvement in West New Guinea During the 1960’s (Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Hull). Electronic document. Available at: <> (last accessed 12.12.2017)

Reconstructing Ancestral Primate Vision: An Interview with Breanne Boughan

By Annamaria Dall’Anese • PhD Anthropology

As part of her master’s degree, Breanne Boughan has completed a phylogenetic study of primate colour vision. She tells Anthropolitan readers about what the world may have looked like to the ancestral primate, what is special about human vision, and what wisdom she has gained thanks to her research topic.


A young Barbary macaque eats a small red fruit in Affenberg Salem, Germany. Macaques, like humans, are routinely trichromatic and able to differentiate red and green.

Q: What can you tell us about your research on colour vision in primates, which you did for your master’s dissertation?

A: Primates are very interesting in that they have four distinct types of vision, whereas other mammals only have two. And this can range from being completely colour blind to having full colour vision, like humans. The overall type of vision an individual has is determined by the number of colour pigments we can see. For humans, this is three (trichromatic), for most other mammals this is two (dichromatic), or one (monochromatic), whereas a large portion of monkeys have a special type of vision in which males and females have different numbers of these pigments – they can be dichromatic (all males and some females) or trichromatic (only some females).  I wanted to look at why colour vision, that is trichromatic vision, as humans have it, evolved the way that it did.

Q: More specifically, what were your research questions?

A: The research questions that I wanted to look at were: did colour vision, trichromatic vision, co-evolve with activity patterns? Do you have to be active during the day to have full colour vision? Or did trichromatic vision evolve in order to find foods, specifically fruits, which tend to be bright and red?

Q: What were your main findings?

A: There doesn’t seem to be correlated evolution between either of those. There is no correlated evolution between trichromatic vision and being active during the day, and there is no correlated evolution between trichromatic vision and eating fruits.

Q: Is colour vision correlated to anything in particular then?

A: It looks like it might be more correlated to eating leaves, perhaps being able to differentiate between young and new leaves. But being able to use field studies to figure this out can be difficult. For instance: how do you define leaves? This question can be difficult to ask when you have 299 taxa to look at.


Tree illustrating phylogenetic relationships between species. Courtesy of

Q: This leads me to ask you about your research methods, because you didn’t go to the jungle to do your study…

A: The way I decided to look at it was to collect data on 299 taxa from the literature. I went through every single species and subspecies on that list and looked up their vision, their diet, and when they were active. Then I put this information into a huge excel sheet and I used phylogenetic methods to reconstruct the evolution of each trait and to test for correlation between different traits. The phylogenetics software I used came out in March 2017, so it’s definitely one of the newer methods to look at this type of stuff.

Q: What were the advantages of using this research method?

A: The main reason why I did a huge analysis like I did was so that I could look all the way across the evolutionary tree of primates, because within any observational study it is never gonna be feasible to do this.

Q: Now that you have looked at the whole tree, do you think there is any particular branch in the tree that is worth exploring in the field?

A: Yeah, new world monkeys, that is south American primates, are. If you wanna look at the costs and benefits of dichromatic versus trichromatic vision, they are the place to look. For example, there’s the howler monkey that has trichromatic vision like us, and then there’s the spider monkey that has polymorphic vision, and they both live in the same areas. So there’s researchers who have gone out and compared vision in these two species.

Q: Besides this, do you think there is any more room for future research?

A: Yes, definitely. There’s missing data. For instance, there’s a group of leaf-eating lemurs that haven’t even been tested for their vision. So without having that knowledge you can only make limited conclusions. Also, it would be helpful to sequence more primates, and sequence wild populations instead of captive populations. ’Cause most of the data we have at present comes from captive populations, ’cause it is easier to collect.


A wild howler monkey yawning with her young infant clinging to her back. Howlers are the only South/Central American monkeys with routine trichromacy. Taken in Chiriquí Province, Panama.

Q: Apart from lack of data, did you encounter any other problem in your research?

A: Trying to figure out how to code for diet is difficult. You either wanna look at what they eat most of – do they eat more fruit than anything else? or you can look at if they eat fruit at any point during the year. I ended up doing it both ways. Taking as a criterion their main food source, the data doesn’t make any sense: there is no evidence for correlated evolution, and you can’t even reconstruct the primate tree at all. But if you look at: ‘do they eat this, or do they not?’, you can reconstruct how the dietary adaptations may have evolved through the primate tree.

Q: In what ways is your research innovative?

A: The most innovative part is that, from my research, it looks like there might be a possibility for trichromatic vision at the root of the primate evolutionary tree. I wanted to take into account that there is a specific group of species, the tarsiers, that are really important when looking at evolution, because they are very close to the root. Knowing their evolutionary past is one of the ways we can reconstruct the tree accurately. Previous research said that the prototypical “first primates” were dichromatic, nocturnal, and ate insects, possibly fruits. Essentially, tarsiers are now dichromatic, but according to some findings it looks like in the past they may have had polymorphic trichromacy. My research shows that incorporating polymorphic vision as an ancestral state for tarsiers actually helps resolve the tree. I also did the same analysis for diurnality, because there’s growing evidence that tarsiers used to be diurnal. My research suggests that the first primates ate fruits, may have had trichromatic vision, and possibly were active during the day. It is gonna be a bit controversial, because most primatologists are agreed where our origins sit: dichromatic, nocturnal, and mostly insectivorous.

Q: Looking at primates as a whole, what’s particularly interesting about their colour vision?

A: I think the interesting part is that in apes colour blindness, as we find it in humans, is really rare. Humans as a species are trichromatic unless a genetic mutation causes the loss of a colour pigment gene. This “defect” (I don’t like that word, but ‘mutation’ isn’t exactly right) is more common in male humans than in female humans and more common than in all apes that have been tested for it. As an evolutionary anthropologist, I was interested in discovering why there may be more colour-blind males now than there were in the past. Is there some sort of advantage to being dichromatic? Some have actually hypothesised that it has to do with camouflage, that it is easier to see a camouflaged object if you are dichromatic versus trichromatic.


A female capuchin eats a cicada in Panama. Capuchins possess polymorphic trichromatism. As a female, she could potentially possess trichromatic vision unlike the males of her species which are forced to be dichromatic.

Q: Extending our discussion to animals other than primates, I would like to bring in Jessica Ullrich’s talk on interspecies art, which was part of our departmental seminar series. Tell us your impressions about her lecture.

A: When she started talking about interspecies art, the first thing I thought was: ‘but a dog doesn’t see the same thing as we do!’, but she actually addressed that later, I was pretty happy. And looking at interspecies art more broadly, I think it is fascinating. ’Cause birds see one more colour than we do. So their perception of the world will be different. Even as someone who isn’t colour blind you see colours differently from someone who is colour blind. This led me to realise that science must be horrible if you are colour blind. If you look at graphs in any scientific publication, I don’t know what they would look like to someone who is colour blind, but I can imagine that it would be really difficult to interpret them. So I made all of my figures in my thesis colour-blind friendly.

Q: How did you achieve that?

A: You can either use the colour-blind filter in Photoshop, or colour-blind simulators available online. Either way, you pop in the file, and tell the system how you want to view the picture: I wanna see it as someone who is blind to red, or blind to green, or who can’t see any colours, who is monochromatic. And then you yourself can inspect it: ‘Oh, I can’t tell these two colours apart, maybe I should pick a different colour for this.’ I tried to find the happy medium: to allow both trichromats and dichromats to distinguish between different shades was important to me as a personal mission.

Q: It seems like your research went much further than simply looking at evolution…

A: The big takeaway for me as a researcher is to realise personally that the capabilities of people are different, and that science doesn’t always make it easy if you are not in the norm. So, for me, learning what it’s like to be colour blind is actually a big part of this project. As a human who interacts with other humans – in addition to monkeys, of course.

Karuta かるた: Bodies in a Sporting Art

By Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology

Karuta is based on Japanese classical poetry, but the game itself is like a sport. I think you can’t find it in any other country. I mean, classical literature has been turned into a sports game! I think that, even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can still enjoy it…it can be a good introduction to a broader understanding of Japanese culture.”
– (Akiko, Japanese female, aged 27)

Anthropologists discuss the body through a large variety of perspectives. Amongst them, anthropologist Bruno Latour (2004) tries to define the body as an interface that can learn how to be affected in specialised ways. Here, I would like to demonstrate how his idea resonates with the practice of karuta.

img56455762Figure 1. Picture of cards depicting the first (left) and second (right) verses of a poem (Bernard 2014)

What is karuta?

Kyogi karuta (競技かるた) is a traditional Japanese card game that is based on a collection of 100 poems by 100 different poets called Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首). Each of the 100 cards used in the card game has one of these poems on it, but only the second verse. A reciter is present to read the poems in a random order. The goal is to quickly touch the corresponding card with the second verse when the first verse is being read by the reciter. Karuta has a set of complex rules of sportsmanship and etiquette, and requires a lot of mental and physical effort to play. This includes memorising the cards of all the poems, and strategising the placements of each card on a wide platform (as well as memorising the placements themselves). Moreover, you are expected to react quickly to subtleties of sound, and move the body efficiently to reach each card in time. To find out about the standard technicalities and progression of the game in more detail, please click here.

Karuta in London is a karuta-practising community founded in 2016 by, Momoko Okuyama, a 3rd year BASc Arts and Sciences student at UCL. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I had the pleasure of filming one of their weekly practice sessions. After the session, I interviewed two players – Momoko and Akiko (pseudonyms) – with questions based on my observations during their matches. In the interest of anthropology, recurring themes of memory, body technique and sensorial experience arise in the playing of karuta.


Figure 2. Photo taken by author of Karuta players during a practice match hosted by Karuta in London

Practise, memorise, practise

  • Body techniques
    • Momoko and Akiko have highlighted that you need to pay attention to the way you swing your arm, as well as the shape of your hands to reach the cards as quickly and efficiently as possible. To facilitate this, your body posture is crucial too. We can see this in their practice session in the video, as most of the players were practicing their arm swings and hand slams in-between citations.
  • Memorising the poems
    • Momoko and Akiko spent around 3-5 months memorising all 100 cards, but of course, they said that it depends on the person.
    • A: “Personally, I already like the more famous classics, so those ones are easier to remember. When I look at a card, I see a visual…an image. Linking it with the image, I understand the meaning of the poem…I also practice the actual memorisation of the cards. The faster you [recall your memory], the better you get at playing karuta” (e.g. the quicker you can get the cards).
    • M: “I also did a lot of practice with reading out the cards. It allows me to internalise the rhythm that I’m supposed to move my body in. In a sense, I’m using my own reading as a way to let all the parts of my body, not just my hand… like this is how you’re meant to move depending on the poem that’s read at this rhythm. I think sound and music could be an important component. When I say music it’s mostly just the rhythm. At which second is the first syllable read [by the reciter etc.]”


Figure 3. Illustration from the World of Kyogi Karuta, of the moment when karuta players compete to take a card

Experiencing the ‘rhythm’ of karuta

During the practice session, I often noticed the players (even if they were not playing against each other) moving in sync when specific syllables were recited. Rhythm, as Momoko has hinted, matters significantly when playing karuta. I asked her, “during a karuta match, what usually goes on inside your head? Do you think about something?”

  • Mindlessness = quicker response
    • M: “When you’re actually playing the game…the moment when you hear the sound of the reader reading the first syllables, it’s not like I’m thinking about ‘something’. Because if I were, then I can’t respond fast enough to take the card from my opponent. It’s only when I empty my mind… I just focus on the sound and ‘knowing’ the positions of the cards.”
  • Waiting for the ‘right’ moment
    • M: “In terms of the sensation… when I touch the correct card, that’s when I get this sense of satisfaction… For me, at the start you don’t have an expected ‘rhythm’ when you’re taking the cards. But when you practice again and again you start to get the rhythm. When you manage to take a one-syllable card out of a hundred cards, that is the correct one. And then you have two-syllable cards where you have to listen for two syllables before you know which one it is. And three and four, and so on. I learnt the three-syllable ones first. For example, ‘arima‘ is a card that you can take after having heard the a-ri-ma. And when I know that I touched it right when I heard the ‘m’ of the reader, that’s when I feel the satisfaction. It’s not so much about who’s sitting in front of me but just the fact that I took it at the ‘right’ moment. Not faster than the other person, but just the fact that it was spot-on.”
  • Different ways of sensing sound
    • M: “Some people say that they also listen to the height… I mean the pitch! For example, they say this is an ‘a’ that started with a high pitch, then the next words must be this instead of something else. I’m not able to do it, I’m not at that level. Some people have a lot of talent in this area. For me I can’t do it with the pitch, but I can do it sometimes with the length of the syllable, which also relates back to rhythm.”

Overall, we see that a lot of sensorial elements are involved in the practice of karuta. Through the process of memorising and practising, Momoko and Akiko formed their own aesthetic relationships with the words on the cards as foundations for their own techniques. By understanding the poems, they can automatically recall them by visualising the meanings themselves. Additionally, they train their bodies regularly to continuously enhance their physical and mental reactions for obtaining the cards as quickly as possible. In Latour’s terms, they have gone from being “dumb” to karuta to becoming karuta bodies.

On a side note, if you are interested in trying the sport, please contact Momoko at Whether you have only just heard of karuta now, or are a well-seasoned player already, Karuta in London welcomes all levels, backgrounds and interests. It is a rare opportunity in London and a great way to get to know more about Japanese culture hands-on!


Bernard, C. (2014) Karuta: Gotta Catch ‘em All! An old Japanese card game brought into the light. Available at: [accessed 18 February 2018].

Bull, D. (1996) Karuta: Sport or culture? Japan Quarterly 43(1):67.

Karuta in London (n.d.) About. Available at: [accessed 18 February 2018].

Latour, B. (2004) How to Talk About the Body? The normative dimension of science. Body and Society 10(2-3):205-229.

World of Kyogi Karuta (n.d.) Detailed Rules of Kyogi Karuta. Available at: [accessed 18 February 2018].