Thin Description: Storyteller Giles Abbott and the Power of the Imagination

By Annamaria Dall’Anese • PhD Anthropology


Courtesy of Giles Abbott’s Facebook

As anthropology students, we are often taught the benefits of ‘thick description’. Writing down all the minute occurrences of life in the field, we are told, is the key to noticing social patterns, and to gaining an insight into a different community. Regardless of whether those minutiae make it to the final text, they are the soul of ethnographic notes, the foundational details without which no sound anthropology can be constructed.

The realm of storytelling, though, has a completely different approach to ‘thick description’. It uses it sparingly, to avoid smothering the listeners’ creativity and making of their mind a dense, Mimmo Rotella-style décollage rather than a blank canvas. A storyteller prepares his story as Michelangelo sculpted his statues: removing all superfluous matter so as to reveal only the essential form inherent in the material. The listener’s imagination should begin where the storyteller’s words end. The most beautiful woman in the world should be presented simply as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, because depicting the colour of her hair would restrain the audience’s creative power, and describing her voice would muffle the one conjured in their mind’s ear.

You can learn all this from professional storyteller Giles Abbott, who regularly performs for the Last Tuesday Society in the Victor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, located in Hackney, London. It is difficult to tell what the walls of these cramped rooms regurgitate, until after one’s eyes have slowly pierced the darkness. All available surfaces are upholstered in the macabre, the funny and the erotic, in the shape of shrunken heads, medical curiosities and other objects collected by the museum’s eponymous founder. In the basement, away from the noise of the upstairs bar, this grotto of material culture houses Giles’s performances, art at its most ethereal, reduced to its bare bones by lack of any accoutrements. His essential narrative style is in stark contrasts with the richness of the setting. Nevertheless, each story accompanies the listener through a range of emotions that are as diverse as the objects on the walls are disparate. Besides, his stories are ethereal because they are conveyed only through his magnetic voice, but not ephemeral: they are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Still, they continue to powerfully resonate with his 21st century London audience.

Seven or eight people, mostly young couples, gather around a transparent surface that reveals a skeleton underneath. Communal table or coffin? In the intimate atmosphere of the show, the stories echo the diversity of the objects on the walls, and can in turn encourage a different interpretation of these eccentric memorabilia. Giles’s repertoire draws on a variety of traditions, ranging from classic mythology to Nordic sagas, and is rich enough to cover the different themes that he presents each month, such as tainted love or rebirth.

While everyone sits still, each story unfolds within the mutual listening occurring between storyteller and audience. The words should not be set in stone, but respond to the mood of those present. However, their facial expressions, which are softened by the candle light, are ungraspable by Giles. As a visually impaired person, he has learnt to pick up clues from held breaths, gasps, as well as the sound of body movement. His visual impairment is also what led him to develop a career in storytelling in the first place. In his personal life, imagination has played as crucial a role as it does today in his relationship with his audience. In fact, deprived of the pleasure of reading when he lost his sight at the age of 25, he cultivated that of revisiting in his mind the books that had nourished him the most in his childhood and youth. Coupled with thorough voice training, this allowed him to start his career as a storyteller and voice teacher, which has brought him to perform regularly all over the UK at clubs, libraries, arts centres and festivals. He has also worked at residencies and consultancies in national museums and galleries, and appeared in Holland, Germany and India, among other countries. While developing his career, Giles encountered stories resonating with his personal history, which gave him the strength to overcome his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. This same palpable strength he now transmits to his audiences in London, where he performs regularly, as well as across Britain and overseas.

If you attend one of his shows, you will realise that his stories feel attractively anthropological: in spite of their contrasting approaches to ‘thick description’, anthropology and storytelling share a keen interest in the human. Emotions, norms, encounters, spells, sanctions, feasts… Inescapable index entries for anthropologists, the ‘stuff that things are made of’ for storytellers.


Stories On A Sunday at The Last Tuesday Society is held on the 2nd Sunday of every month at 6 & 8pm
Tickets here
Prices: GBP 11.00; concessions GBP 5.95.

For info on gigs and workshops follow Giles on Facebook 


The Position of the Anthropologist: Field Notes from a Field Trip

By James O’Donoghue • BSc Anthropology


There we were one winter night, half-naked and barefoot in a muddy West Country field, stood amongst fellow first-year anthropology students staring into a fire, all the while our lecturer stands in his speedos spinning a bull-roarer under the starry sky. This, for many of us, was our first hands-on experience of anthropology, and for all of us, an unforgettable one.

That lecturer was Dr Jerome Lewis, Reader in Social Anthropology, who once a year for new-coming anthropology undergraduates, organises a field trip into the West of mainland Britain, to push us out of our comfort zone, to create some ‘anthropological bonding’ and to show us that we don’t need to travel 8,697 miles to Papua New Guinea to meet a shaman.


I will be purposely vague in my description of the field trip, so as not to spoil the surprise for the next first-year students awaiting their very own otherworldly experience (located just East of the M5). What Jerome wanted to show us in this unassuming place, was that something so foreign could exist so close to home. A place where we could, in his words, ‘realise that even when things appear the same they may not be the same’, due to the all-mystifying, all-complex phenomena that is ‘culture’.

For four days around forty of us lived, breathed and—very memorably—ate in the ways of our warm and welcoming hosts. Each day provided us with a new experience, teaching us valuable lessons in anthropological study. The first evening saw us introduced to the ‘plain-clothed shaman’, Great Grandfather Jem, a traveller and teller of stories. There we sat, like Nursery school children, gathered around at story time, listening to the tales that Great Grandfather Jem had acquired through his interaction with peoples across the world. Day two saw half of us engaging in heated staring competitions, to gain the approval of an appointed monarch, and the other half of us swapping pleasantries and line dancing—all with the ultimate aim to experience and understand the role of an ethnographer in an alien culture. On day three, we walked into the past and tried to connect and dance with our ancestors under the gaze of a large, looming papier-mâché dragon. The final day held the culmination of our experiences, where we put into practice all we had learnt over the few days. In a few words, it involved amateur architecture, slippery muddy floors and glowing hot, red rocks—a health and safety nightmare.

By Kyri Antoniou (top left), anonymous (top) and Lana Hall (bottom)

However, the ultimate purpose of this trip was not what we had whilst we were there, but what we would take away. Post-trip, the Anthropology group-chat was alive with people pitching in to give their experience of the trip, and what it was to them. Everyone had their own unique interpretation and stance on what we went through, and one way this was expressed was in the poems we were asked to write just before we left, to personally sum up our experiences. I have selected four of said poems for this article.

The trip brought up what Jerome considers ‘one of the biggest struggles’ one would face as an anthropologist – how does the anthropologist negotiate their position in what they are observing and experiencing? Sometimes as an anthropologist you may experience or witness something you believe is ridiculous or untenable from your worldview, but as Jerome says, ‘we still have to study them, we still have to learn about them’. Do we try to understand what we are seeing ‘from their perspective’ or do we ‘report what we see as faithfully as we can’? Perhaps we may just see it all as people ‘pulling wool over peoples’ eyes’.

By @hdword (find more of their work on Instagram)

The specific questions raised on this trip are far too complex for me to get into at this moment, and, frankly, beyond my field of knowledge for now. But what I can understand and explain was Jerome’s main reason for organising these trips. He tells me, ‘at the basic level’, it’s for some anthropological bonding; some bonding for people who may well pass through three years of study on the same course and never get to know each other. An opportunity to get to know each other through being put through some unusual situations—unusual situations that do push us a bit, and through that pushing, we become more closely connected to those we pushed through with. This was surely one aspect where everyone didn’t differ on opinions.

Overall, a lot was taken away from this trip: imperishable memories, closer friendships and of course, full stomachs. But, we also learnt a lot, not just on the trip, but also in the revelations that came afterwards. We now know that in the field, we won’t turn up with just pen and paper, but a whole history of personal experience that will shape the way we understand and interpret what we see in front of us. The anthropologist’s position is never set—it should be plastic and fluid—as we must contest our own position as much as we try to understand the lives of others.

Day of the Dead (London Style)

By Sonia Singh • MA Ethnographic and Documentary Film

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 4.11.06 PM

“Day of the Dead” (Dia de los Muertos), celebrated primarily on November 2nd, is a day to honor and celebrate the dead. Colorful sugar skulls, bright face paint, flower decorations, candle-lit altars with food offerings and loud mariachi music are just a few staples of this famous Mexican holiday. Dia de los Muertos offers a different perspective on how to respectfully honor our ancestors. Instead of inundating ourselves with grief and misery, it offers the chance to connect with the departed by celebrating their journey between earth and the afterlife. By talking to others about lost loved ones rather than avoiding the discussion, this holiday brings solace and happiness to an otherwise historically depressing topic.

Celebratory rituals honoring dead ancestors have been practiced in Mexico for thousands of years. One major tradition is to visit the graves of loved ones, and fill altars with the deceased’s favourite candies and beverages. It is believed that their souls are on a continuous journey, and can revisit earth when summoned. Blankets and pillows may also be placed near their graves, to offer rest for their ancestors after their tiring journey. Streets are filled with color, dancing, music, and happiness. It is a time to celebrate, not to dwell in mourning.

This year the owners of Milagros, a Mexican shop selling textiles and other decorations, decided to throw an early Dia de los Muertos celebration on Columbia Road in Bethnal Green, London. Tom, the shop owner, has traveled extensively through Mexico, and has fond memories of celebrating Dia de los Muertos abroad. He describes the holiday as a way of, ‘dealing with death.’ Londoners would typically avoid the topic altogether, he says, bottling up their emotions rather than expressing their grief in a healthy way.

IMG_5444 (1)

This Mexican tradition encourages those who have lost their loved ones to embrace the thought of death, celebrating the belief that the soul is eternal and can travel back and forth without bounds. The English school of thought, which treats death as a final, formal, and crushing farewell to loved ones, stands in stark contrast to the ethos of Dia de los Muertos.

The countless Londoners visiting this year’s Dia de los Muertos festival on Columbia Road, could be seen as a positive step towards the embracing and acceptance of these beautifully diverse traditions and worldviews that coexist in our sprawling city. The positive experiences these festivals have to offer not only promote inclusion, but also individual growth. At the end of the day, witnessing a new perspective on an otherwise ‘touchy’ subject can be a beneficial and valuable experience. For most Mexicans, this year’s celebration will be an especially moving event. With the recent earthquakes wreaking havoc and pain throughout their country, Mexicans are standing united to help rebuild the land and honor the many lives that have been taken.

People around the world facing adversity and loss could find comfort in the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. As the Mexican saying goes, ‘Al mal tiempo, buena cara.’ Translation: when the going gets tough, keep on smiling. Positivity will bring light into our lives.

Through a Shattered Lens

By Rebecca Marshall • MSc Medical Anthropology

Rebecca Marshall - Image 1

How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
By slowly becoming everything.

There will always be a line, a phrase; threads of words which hook onto you. For me, it was Arundhati Roy’s words above (in her latest novel: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness) that weaved their grip around a memory of mine. A memory, not unlike one of those beloved novels sitting on your bookshelf, that needs dusting off and revisiting, from time to time. Anjum, the central character in the novel is a “hijra” (Hindi term for the third gender in South Asia), who battles with identity, belonging and physical health; themes which resonated with this particular memory of mine. Just as Roy mystically paints the fragmented narratives of her characters, it was my experience of exploring a patient’s story – the backdrop to their clinical presentation – that laid the foundations for my decision to break away from clinical medicine into medical anthropology. And just as Roy utilises the power of narrative to understand contemporary Indian history, I found a similar magic in the patient’s narrative in terms of uncovering their medical history.

Entering my clinical years as a student in a wholly unfamiliar and daunting environment, my mind was already whirring with theory from my Global Health iBSc. Yet putting this theory into the context of patient cases enabled me to find a different way of seeing, a different way of knowing.

I was to meet the patient from this particular memory during my fourth year of study (with a fellow medical student), on the Infectious Disease ward inside the towering block of University College Hospital, Central London. Armed with our face masks, a few sterile facts, and an encouraging nod from our Consultant, we set off to clerk our patient. Using our well-ingrained structure, our logical framework, our clear and well-circumscribed lens; we were set the task of The Structured Medical History.

Twenty-Five year-old. Male. Originally from Pakistan. Presented with weight loss, productive cough, haemoptysis. Isolation room. Structured Medical History. Okay?

Walking into an isolation room, a skeletal yet smiling young man greeted us.  As we delved into our framework for taking a history, he seemed to tick off many of the classical symptoms for tuberculosis. He described the many challenges of balancing so many different antibiotics and their side-effects. A gruelling task for most. We changed course to his social history. Alongside his studies, he was working part-time for a food-courier company. Joking together about the quality of hospital food (or lack thereof) seemed to mildly bridge the divide that our masks had created. A shift in dynamic and our patient started to show us photos on his phone of the appalling housing conditions he had been living in. Damp, mould, lack of heating. Yet he was happy in London, living with his boyfriend –it offered him a freedom. As a refugee from Pakistan, uprooted from his home, he faced unbearable levels of stigma and possible criminal prosecution for his sexuality. I sat absorbing, listening to each layer of his shattered narrative unfold.

Later that afternoon in our case tutorial, our teaching Consultant summed up the case: “A classical presentation of an ancient disease…. with a modern twist”.

But this didn’t capture the history. Not even close. This was a narrative of a young man struggling with his identity, torn between loyalties, across geographic and moral borders. This was not a diagnosis of tuberculosis. This was a diagnosis of stigma, of social injustice, of forced migration. This was a diagnosis of an individual uprooted from his land, his family – his home. A diagnosis shaped by the insidious forces of structural violence, both in Pakistan and the UK. Yet on a human level, this was an individual’s tale of conflict.

From this point onwards, my well-circumscribed lens had been shattered. This wasn’t a disease or case that could be neatly boxed into a category; it couldn’t be narrowed down to a single choice in an MCQ question. It was complex, messy – and honest. For me, this way of looking at illness and health alike, addressed the questions that I wanted to ask. How could a patient’s own narrative shed light on understanding the cause and impact of illness? What were the wider socio-cultural forces that had shaped his disease and suffering? How do these processes in different cultures and in different communities interact? And how do we begin to navigate these differences across amorphous global and ethico-legal boundaries?

As I continued with my clinical studies, it became evident that Medicine needs to be viewed itself as a culture: a culture with its own language, traditions and social behaviours.  As a rite of passage, a medical student is taught the structure (almost a formula) for taking a patient’s “history”. Through this robust lens, we should be able to decipher a patient’s presentation with clarity and focus. During this process the medical discourse meets the patient’s discourse: an interface – a meeting of cultures. The so called “doctor-patient interaction”. It was fascinating, as a student, to observe the myriad of possibilities and interactions that took place across this interface. Some full of hope and cure, others riddled with uncertainty, conflict and miscommunications.

Walking into our patient’s negative-pressure isolation room that day on the Infectious Disease Ward, fully masked and gowned, it was hard not to feel the presence of this interface and the creation of “The Other”.  Yet these invisible forces that have such an impact on patient care and on clinical decision making, remain neglected and under-researched.

I wanted to keep looking through this shattered lens, through the patients’ lens’ and to keep listening, examining the multifaceted influences on the human condition. For me, medical anthropology and the tools of ethnography handed me the opportunity to pursue this.

The late Oliver Sacks, in his novel An Anthropologist on Mars, echoes the importance of the narrative in understanding the world of medicine – as he states “the study of disease, for the physician, demands the study of identity, the inner worlds that patients, under the spur of illness, create”. This very much shadows Foucault’s argument of “trying to see the pathological world with the eyes of the patient himself”.

I was movingly reminded of this sentiment in Roy’s words “how to tell a shattered story….by slowly becoming everything”, just as I was when listening to the experiences, socio-cultural and biological forces that had shaped our patient’s diagnosis that day.

*This article originally appeared on the BMJ Medical Humanities blog on 18 September 2017 –


Roy, Arundhati. (2017) The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. London: Hamish Hamilton

Sacks, Oliver. (1995) An Anthropologist on Mars. London: Picador

Farmer P., Nizeye B., Stulac S., and Keshavjee S. (2006) Structural Violence and Clinical Medicine. PLoS Med 3(10): e449.

Foucault, Michel. (1987) Mental Illness and Psychology. Berkeley: University of California Press


To Become a Wayfarer: A Phenomenology of Duddo Stone Circle

By Francesca Dakin • BA Archaeology and Anthropology

It has been said that there are two distinct ways of moving through the world: by transport or wayfaring. We distinguish the two by ‘the dissolution of the intimate bond that, in wayfaring, couples locomotion and perception’ (Ingold 2007: 78). In other words, to become a wayfarer is to actively engage with landscape. This is what we anthropologists call a phenomenological experience, wherein engagement occurs through the body, relying upon the body’s sensorial capacity to experience. Interpretation thereafter relies upon the history, association and bias of the individual be they academic, social, political, cultural or religious. So, any description of phenomenological experience is entirely unique to the individual. Alongside this, the individual is also in discussion with factors of identity, biography, memory, materiality and community as derived and constructed over time through archaeological investigation, anthropological interpretation and the perceived experience of both the local community and its visitors. Thus exists simultaneously – for any place – a series of discrete individual and continuous communal perceptions of any locality. This is particularly true of historic monuments in contemporary use. These places exist in equipoise with conflating (and sometimes conflicting) experiences and perspectives.


One site where such complex interactions of narrative and identity has (and continues to) occur is Duddo Stone Circle, located in the north-east of the Milfield Basin in north Northumberland. This is an Early Bronze Age stone circle that was constructed towards the end of the stone-circle building phenomenon in Britain, dated to 2200-1900 cal. BC (Edwards et al. 2011: 341), and is nested within a wider landscape of contemporary archaeology. It is significant not only in terms of its archaeology, but also its meaning to both the local community and visiting tourists. The beauty of the surrounding Northumbrian countryside –wherein the changing of the seasons and weather is clear – elicits a unique experience for every visitor.

The initial ‘journey to’ the stones follows a pathway dictated to the visitor – cutting through the natural landscape, yet seeming to fit and flow within it in what would seem a natural manner. Thus the tone is set for the entire experience of this monument, one which harmoniously straddles those two once-dichotomous phenomena of nature and culture. The curated landscape-path guides the visitor over the lip of an initial hill, away from the country road that plays host to cyclists, farm machinery and the parked cars of ramblers. A visual of the ancient stones atop their grassy hillock is slowly unfurled, and thereafter remain the consistent focus for the visitor during the entirety of the ‘journey to’ the monument. Descending into the land of stone leaves the roadside to be swallowed by the rolling hillscape – and likewise the monument masked from modernity. This allows the visitor to focus entirely upon their journey, connecting to both a natural and social history of the place in a moment of peace.


The ‘journey within’ the monument begins when the visitor reaches the pictured grassy hillock – the actual site of the monument – and enters the liminal space of the stone circle’s interior. This is an area of obscuration from the outer world, where visitor’s conversations naturally cease in favour of introspection. Movement inside the circle follows – almost magnetically – the stones themselves. Thus creating a repetitive spatial engagement that transcends any one experience, connecting people, memories and ideologies through time. People will often pause to survey the landscape, which is visible in 360 degrees from the centre of the circle or to touch the stones, running their hands over the lichen-encrusted rillenkarren stone grooves. Through nature’s recolonisation of a cultural artefact the stones become indistinct ‘quasi-objects’ (Latour 2012: 50); thus tactile engagement with them bonds the agent to the nature and culture of both past and present.

The interaction between the physical landscape, cultural and personal narratives, memories and associations and the monument’s own agency breeds a multitude of discrete and unique interpretations of the landscape of Duddo Stone Circle. In this way the memory and agency of both people and stone interact and inform one another – as such engagement with the stones is an act of social remembrance. This may not be faithful to the agreed upon archaeological history, but rather a neo-remembrance of the new and ever-evolving social construction of the monument and its landscape.


The site may no longer hold the degree of communal necessity as they did in prehistory, but it stands as ‘an enduring record of – and testimony to – the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in doing so, have left there something of themselves’ (Ingold 1993: 152). This place gathers memories, ideologies and identities together in a highly personable and often social manner. Not only does the agent engage with their fellow visitors on the journeys to and from the site, but they also engage with the hidden hand of history and their own internal identity in their journey within the circle. Visiting a place such as Duddo Stone Circle – which forces a phenomenological interaction – a person may bridge that ever-widening gap between ‘Being and Being-in-the-world’ (Tilley 1994: 12). In doing so we are grounded in a mnemonic, tangible reality, and connected to an historic lineage of agency, identity and community. Or you could just Google it.



Edwards, B., R. Miket, and R. Bishop. 2011. The Excavation of Duddo Stone Circle, Northumberland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 77:321–353.

Ingold, T. 1993. The Temporality of the Landscape. World Archaeology 25:57–80.

Ingold, T. 2007. ‘Up, Across and Along’. In: T. Ingold. 2007. Lines: A brief history. pp. 72–103. Abingdon: Routledge.

Latour, B. 2012 [1993]. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tilley, C. 1994. A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, paths, and monuments. Oxford: Berg.


“The Man Who Lives with the Tribes” Talks about Why This Is Not Enough

By Shosha Adie • BSc Anthropology

Bruce Parry started his talk by pouring water, the ice clinking against the sides of the glass as his hands shook. After a moment, he clears his throat to speak, the seven hundred people filling the chairs of the Royal Geographical Society’s auditorium creaking forward to listen.

“Hi guys,” he says after a moment, followed by a nervous chuckle reciprocated by the crowd. He tells us, “I’m not used to talking in front of so many people… But they said you’re sweet, are you sweet?”

Any person who can win the hearts of a dusty audience with lines like this must have a certain level of charisma, and Bruce Parry certainly fits the cut. After living in Spain for ten years, the BAFTA award-winning documentarian, indigenous rights advocate and former Royal Marines commando officer has finally come back to the UK, where he grew up. After leading numerous treks from the Amazon to the Arctic, and spending months at a time in environments completely polarised from our own, he comes back to tell us, “There is no pristine hiding place anymore,” and that, “we’re in this together and in the best place to be part of this change that the world needs”.

This change he talks about is not about single-handedly trying to take on world hunger, or climate change; it is much more embedded that that. It is about all of us uniting in taking responsibility for the role that each of us has already played in these global disasters, instead of dissociating ourselves from the guilt by rallying the blame. Despite not being “a professional anthropologist,” he tells us his privilege of experiencing so many cultures made him think he “could wax lyrical about human nature.” Yet, the more he learnt, the more he realised he was wrong.

This realisation, of something missing, was one of the driving factors which led to his first attempt at both producing and directing for his latest, and first feature- length, documentary, Tawai: A voice from the forest. Though he warns us this time not to expect to see him “drinking blood and jumping cows”, he hopes to present “something much more poetic.”

Attributing some of the inspiration for this film to Daniel Everett’s book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes (2008), where the pursuit of happiness, and a role reversal, means a missionary becomes a convert, the film presents a journey for reconnection, and a rejection of the individualistic society which puts ‘the self’ at the centre of consciousness. This film manages to motivate others to reflect upon, and contest, their own worldviews, without being propagandistic.
The title ‘Tawai’ is a term used by hunters and gatherers in Borneo, to describe an inner feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves – being interconnected; being at one with nature. The Penan, one such group, who have watched Borneo’s forests fall prey to consumerism and have been unable to have their land rights recognised by the Malaysian government, explain it to us like this: “Trees are like humans… If the really big trees die, so do all humans.”
In order to try and answer why we don’t have a word for this feeling in ‘the West’, Parry consults various experts from home along the way. On screen, experimental psychologist Dr Iain McGilchrist sheds some light on a cognitive basis for why we see the world differently by discussing the parallel functions of our brain. Our own Anthropology Department’s Dr Jerome Lewis, alongside his partner Dr Ingrid Lewis, gives further insight into the effects of consumerism on egalitarian groups and societies.

Though the film focuses on what we can learn from the lives of persecuted indigenous groups, featuring both the Pirahã, from the Amazon, and the Penan, Parry doesn’t just look to small-scale societies for answers. At the end of the film we see him consulting the wise family of Mahant Jagadesh Giri, who teach him how to translate this feeling of ‘oneness’ within himself. He finally achieves this running naked with 30 million other pilgrims on the ‘Maha’ Kumbh Mela festival, at what he notes could have been the largest gathering of people the world has ever seen.

Bathing Day; The Kumbh Mela festival in India takes place every three years, rotating around four different locations. Every twelve cycles of the twelve year rotation (144 years) culminates in a ‘maha’ or ‘great’ gathering. This is a very rare arial view of the bathers at this latest ‘Maha’ Kumbh Mela, quite possibly the largest gathering of humans in all of history with an estimated 30 million attendees. The entire city is created just for this event and must be dismantled before the whole area is washed away by the mighty Ganges in monsoon flood. This Kumbh Mela took pace at a confluence (Triveni Sangam) of the river Ganges and river Yamuna with the mystical Saraswati (which has long dried up) in Allahabad, itself one of the oldest cities in India. TAWAI – A voice from the forest A film from Bruce Parry In cinemas this Autumn #Kumbhmela #India #Ganges #Tawai #Greatestgathering #Allahabad #Saraswati #TAWAI #travelphotography

A post shared by TAWAI A voice from the forest (@tawai_film) on

Parry openly admits, his need to help the people he’s worked with is not necessarily run on an altruistic desire, but in fact correlates directly to his own happiness. He is often asked how he can live with himself, flitting around from place to place, when he leaves his boot-prints all over his hosts’ lives, who are already struggling to maintain their identity and integrity in the face of extinction. To this he can only ask people to look at the greater picture, and then realise his presence is a mere blip in the timeline of the effects that globalisation is having on small-scale societies.

“Everyone thinks I’m one of the tribe, even my BBC tagline is “Bruce Parry who lives with the tribes” – but despite meeting all these people, deep down I realised I’d always felt kind of superior in a way. [When I eventually decided] to try on a different hat and experience the world from their eyes… I mean I knew I could always take it off again later… but from that point, as cliché as it sounds, my whole world changed.”

At 6:30pm tomorrow, Thursday 12th October, Parry will be running a Q&A at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, and UCL Anthropology students should have been emailed a discount code to put in at the top of this list – It is really worth going to listen to his experiences, even as a non-professional anthropologist, as he has experienced a great deal and learnt a lot from the same people that are featured on our reading lists as subjects, not authors. As well as this, you will get a chance to ask questions about his theories on collective consciousness and mindfulness.

Material Culture Collection: Volunteering Opportunities for Anthropology Students

By Annamaria Dall’Anese • PhD Anthropology

If you have a passion for ethnographic objects and wish to acquire experience in the field of museum conservation, you perhaps need look no further than the departmental Material Culture Collection. While you may have noticed the exhibits that welcome visitors to the foyer, you should be aware that they are only a fraction of its treasures. Tucked away in the basement are thousands of neatly catalogued pieces, ranging from Prehistoric times to the present.

Delphine Mercier is the Collection’s curator – collection management and care. Educated at the École du Louvre and at Université Paris-Sorbonne, she was head of projects at Patrimoine sans Frontières, and she previously engaged with École du Louvre and other schools as Art History teacher.

Annamaria 2 - Photo 1

Volunteer Maria Solomou (MA Principles of Conservation) at the UCL Ethnography Collection

When Delphine became curator of the Material Culture Collection, she realized that, although many items were already housed in display cases, others were still ‘homeless’ and awaiting to be assigned to a suitable mounting. Therefore, Delphine started a collaboration with students working towards an MA in ‘Principles of Conservation’ at UCL’s Department of Archaeology, a collaboration which is still alive. During the first term, the students receive practical training in museum mounting. During the second term, they hone their research skills by studying one specific item and by designing and completing the mounting for one other piece in the collection. Alongside their MA assignments, around five students also volunteer two hours per week during term two, and often during term three as well. As volunteers, they design and make boxes for the very diverse types of objects that the collection consists of.

Such boxes allow their contents to be sheltered from environmental stress factors, for instance fluctuations in temperature and humidity rate. Containers can also be purposefully designed to avoid damage to the object. In particular, they allow conservators, researchers or students to inspect objects without handling them, and therefore to detect any conservation problem before it becomes severe.

Annamaria 2 - Photo 2

UCL Ethnography Collection

Each year the team, headed by Delphine and one project-manager student, focuses on a particular material (leather, basketry) and the conservation challenges it poses. For instance, some bags from Papua New Guinea were chosen because they had been kept in a drawer in such bad conditions that their fibers were at risk of breakage. In order to manufacture a box for a piece that had such irregular shapes, it was necessary to proceed by trial and error, testing what was and what was not suitable for the object.

Thinking through the requirements of a case, such as the support the object needs in order to withstand mechanical pressure, is always a lengthy process, but one that also brings volunteers closer to the materiality of the specimen. This rewards them with a proximity to ethnographic pieces that is by far superior to the one enjoyed by a common museum visitor.

Slowing the deterioration of the collection and acting with reversibility in mind is important if the collection is to be available in the long term not only to UCL students, but also to schools and the broader community. In fact, besides the opportunities outlined above, the Material Cultural Collection offers other volunteers (up to 20 per year) the option to work on school and community initiatives, as well as inventory, documentation, or curation projects.

Delphine welcomes volunteers from the Department of Anthropology, who could engage with their discipline from a different perspective, while working in a professional environment and getting to know other students in a collaborative atmosphere.