A mother-of-pearl, wood and bone hook

A 19th-century Polynesian trolling lure, used to catch tunny fish

When the original Letchworth and Hitchin Museums were set up (1914 and 1939 respectively), many local museum curators saw their role as educating the public about all aspects of world cultures. Being part of a world-wide empire meant that many people had connections with overseas, particularly with places they thought of as colonial outposts. The experience of young men in the First World War also might take them to far-flung and exotic places.

These early twentieth-century travellers often picked up curios to take home or give to their families. These sorts of things sometimes made their way to museums when people no longer wanted them. Although we would now turn away these items and suggest other places that might be interested in acquiring them, they are part of the history of the museum service and we have been able to put a few of them on display.

These objects came to us in random ways but unfortunately, we do not know the stories behind how most of them were first brought back to England. One group of Ancient Greek and Ancient Egyptian pots was given to Hitchin Museum by John Major Bull, a collector from Essex who acquired objects from around the Mediterranean. The oldest artefact in the collection, an Oldowan chopper from Somaliland that is between 1.7 and 2.6 million years old, was found by the Victorian adventurer Heywood Seton-Karr. Is this archaeology or ethnography, though?

Decorated slippers

‘Broken lotus’ slippers, worn by Chinese ladies with bound feet, a practice that was made illegal in 1912

Sometimes the supposed origin of an object is very unlikely. In the case of our tsantsa, we don’t know where it came from, as it arrived as part of a collection of Natural History objects that had no documentation. Some items are obviously souvenirs made for tourists but others are beautiful or interesting objects in their own right. Even though the purpose of the museum is no longer to tell the history of the entire world, it is a privilege to have these items in our collection.