Tony Eccles with African beadwork

African beadwork donated to Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Tony Eccles with African beadwork

Kenyan and Tanzanian beadwork from an Exeter collection will enhance the World Cultures displays when Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) reopens next year.

Sheila Unwin from Branscome, East Devon, donated a wide range of East African adornments to RAMM before she died last year.

Choice objects will be used in the redisplay of the World Cultures gallery when RAMM reopens in 2011, others will enhance the handling collections used by schools and in presentations by RAMM’s volunteers. A new case of African beadwork in the redisplay will be dedicated to Sheila Unwin in recognition of her contribution.

The objects come from the Kamba, Kikuyu, Pokot, Embu and Maasai peoples – they include aprons, bracelets, necklaces and armlets.

Over 200 items have been donated. They reflect many aspects of East African life during the 1950s and 1960s when they were collected. They include both ceremonial and everyday adornments worn by the varying sectors of these societies: girls and boys, men and women, rich and poor, the young and the elders. All are rich in symbolism and many visually stunning.

Sheila Unwin’s fascination with Africa started when she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in the Second World War and was posted to Egypt. After the war, she moved to Tanganyika with her husband.

She then lived in Kenya and travel widely in the region before returning to Britain in the 1970s and retiring to Devon. She took great interest in local cultures, participated in historic digs along the Kenyan coast, became very knowledgeable about Swahili and Arab coastal cultures and an expert on the brass studded wooden chests common throughout the region.

Her outstanding collection of handicrafts was donated to RAMM and the Horniman Museum in London.

(Images: RAMM Curator of World Cultures, Tony Eccles, with East African beadwork donated by Sheila Unwin.)