The origin of RAMM’s wonderful, diverse collection lies in the early 19th century. The story begins with the Devon and Exeter Institution. It was founded in Exeter in 1813 and amassed significant natural history specimens, as well as ethnography and antiquities. Many of its members took part in journeys of exploration and research around the globe. Their objects and specimens reflected this international dimension.
Other private collections in Devon came to RAMM. Such as those of F.W.L. Ross of Topsham, and the Vaughan family who had bought items from Captain Cook’s voyages at the Leverian Museum sale in London in 1806.
These donations were complemented throughout the late 19th century by a great variety of gifts, bequests and purchases. Natural History figured most strongly, but most of RAMM’s current collecting areas were established. From early on the museum was international in scope. This was a reflection of the prominent role played by Devonian families in the army or navy, colonial service, and as missionaries and traders.
In the early 1900s there were several particularly important bequests. In 1904 the Percy Sladen echinoderm collection arrived, then in 1919 C.V.A. Peel’s collection of mammals. Among this batch was RAMM’s famous giraffe now called ‘Gerald’. Benefactors to the art collection included the horticulturalist Sir Harry Veitch, who in 1924 bequeathed a large personal collection of watercolours, oil paintings and prints.
The antiquities collection expanded considerably after 1930. A great acquisition was an extensive collection of medieval West Country woodwork formed by Harry Hems. Then, in 1946, Colonel Leopold Montague bequeathed 800 classical antiquities and ethnographic pieces to the museum.
The nature of collecting has changed considerably since RAMM’s formation. In recent decades international conventions and treaties have banned the import of protected natural history specimens. Some items already in the collection, like the Bengal tiger and Pere David’s deer, represent species that have become endangered or extinct within the life of the museum through hunting or habitat loss.
Acquisitions of ethnographic material are now sometimes made in consultation with other museums and the source communities. In recent years high-profile accessions include dance crests from New Britain and a totem pole carved by a master craftsman from Vancouver Island; and there have also been a number of high-profile repatriations of particularly significant pieces.
RAMM’s decorative art collections have expanded significantly in the post-war years, both in volume and content. An internationally important collection of West Country silver has been built up and the costume collection has grown significantly, making it a comprehensive range of clothing worn by local people from the 1700s.
From the late 1960s fine art collecting included works by Victorian artists, such as Francis Danby, William Powell Frith and Sir Edward Poynter, as well as 20th-century British artists particularly Camden Town Group painters like Walter Sickert, Lucien Pissarro, Robert Polhill Bevan, Harold Gilman and Spencer Frederick Gore. Modernist works by Dame Barbara Hepworth, Sir Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Paul Nash, John Minton and Duncan Grant are now represented in the collection.
Since the Second World War changing tastes and legislation have outlawed the import of illicitly obtained antiquities into Britain. RAMM no longer accepts artefacts from abroad, restricting itself to collecting the archaeology of Devon. Finds are mostly obtained through controlled excavation carried out by professional archaeological units financed by developers under the ‘polluter pays’ principle. And given the rich archaeological deposits in Exeter, redevelopment in the city almost inevitably leads to archaeological discoveries.
RAMM has recently acquired the following works for its collections: A painting of ‘John Rolle Walter’, 1753 by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, purchased in 2008 with assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Art Fund, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, Devon County Council, the Friends of Exeter Museums and Art Gallery and the Reynolds Chard Bequest, 2008.
An Egyptian tapestry ‘A Fields and Village on the Nile’ woven by Mahrous Abdou, which was acquired from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre, Egypt. It purchased with assistance from Dr Jenni Balfour-Paul, The Art Fund, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, and the Friends of Exeter Museums and Art Gallery.