Video: Ursula Graham Bower – Fieldwork in Nagaland (1939-1944)

Last month several OATG members attended special walk-throughs of the Intrepid Women exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum, led by two of the curators of that exhibition Julia Nicholson and Zena McGreevy.

One of the highlights for me was the display of textiles from Nagaland, collected by Ursula Graham Bower. When she was only 23 years old she went to Manipur and the Naga Hills. She was fascinated by the Naga culture – as was I on my first visit several decades later. She returned a couple of years later with the idea of doing some medical work and taking photographs. She succeeded in doing both. As well as dispensing medicines she took several thousand photographs and shot some of the earliest colour film taken by an anthropologist.

The time she was there was certainly a dangerous one. According to the Pitt Rivers website “During the Second World War, when the Japanese threatened to launch an invasion of India through the north-eastern hills, the British asked Bower to form a band of Naga scouts as part of the ‘V Force’ guerrilla unit. Her forces became so effective that the Japanese put a price on her head.”

The Pitt Rivers Museum has an excellent collection of Naga textiles, several of which are on permanent display. Several years ago while attending a festival in Nagaland I was approached by a woman who explained she was a researcher from the Pitt Rivers and was taking images of textiles held in their collection to show the local people so she could gain more information about them. This turned out to be a two-way process as some of the patterns and techniques used on the textiles now in the UK had not been in use locally for some years.


This nine-minute video clip was originally shown as part of the ‘Intrepid Women: Fieldwork in Action” exhibition. It shows highlights of film footage, in both black and white and in colour, which was recorded by Ursula Graham Bower during fieldwork in Nagaland between 1939 and 1944.

Although the opening sequence is not so relevant to textile lovers, patience is rewarded. From 02.02 to 06.40 we see the fabulous beaded headcovers worn at the Tangkhul Spring Festival and this then leads on to footage of the weaving and spinning by various different groups – the Kabui, Kuki and Chiru. It was very interesting to see the angle at which the backtension loom was placed. Stick with this right to the end and you will see some great blankets and jewellery too.

Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. Video editing by OATG member Katherine Clough.





Exhibition: Intrepid Women – Fieldwork in Action, 1910-1957

Audrey Butt Colson making tape recordings with the Wayana people in 1963. Copyright Audrey Butt Colson

Exhibition dates: 15 October 2018 – 11 March 2019

“This exhibition focuses on six of the Pitt Rivers Museum’s most important female collectors and their fieldwork carried out between 1910 and the late 1950s. It is a unique opportunity to see objects and photographs resulting from their travels, as well as original archival material and film on display for the first time.” It has been curated by OATG member Julia Nicholson, with her colleagues Joanna Cole and Zena McGreevy.

These women were each extraordinary in their own way, and conducted research in many different areas. Barbara Freire-Marreco was the first woman to enrol on the Oxford Anthropology Diploma course in 1906. She did her fieldwork in New Mexico and Arizona at the start of the twentieth century. Makereti’s fieldwork was conducted in a different area of the globe – among a Maori community in New Zealand.

Beatrice Blackwood worked in New Guinea in 1936. During the Second World War she used her research to stress to her students that there was no such thing as an Aryan Race. Another researcher caught up in the war was Ursula Graham Bower who conducted her fieldwork in a Naga village. She formed a group of Naga scouts, who were very effective against the Japanese.

Elsie McDougall worked in Mexico and Guatemala in the 1930s and researched ikat techniques, collecting invaluable examples of weaving. Audrey Butt Colson worked in Guyana in the 1950s. She is still using her documentation from that period to help the indigenous communities fight their claim for their ancestral lands.

The objects on display include personal writing and collections of photographs as well as film – all giving us an insight into the achievements of these intrepid women, as well as the hardships they endured. On a personal level I loved the photo of the fierce -looking Papuan warriors playing with Beatrice Blackwood’s cat, Sally.

For more information visit the website of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford