Professor Frank Willett

First Director of the Hunterian
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Frank Willett, anthropologist, archaeologist and museum curator: born Bolton, Lancashire 18 August 1925; Keeper of the Department of Ethnology and General Archaeology, Manchester Museum 1950-58; Honorary Surveyor of Antiquities, Nigerian Federal Government 1956-57, 1957-58; Archaeologist and Curator, Ife Museum, Nigeria 1958-63; Research Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford 1964-66; Professor of African Art and Archaeology, Northwestern University 1966-76; Director and Titular Professor, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow University 1976-90 (Emeritus), Honorary Senior Research Fellow 1990-2006; CBE 1985; Research Collaborator, Smithsonian Institution 1992-2004; married 1950 Connie Hewitt (one son, three daughters); died Glasgow 15 June 2006.

The leading Africanist of his generation, Frank Willett greatly advanced the study of the art of Africa and in particular of West African metal sculpture traditions. He was an inspiring teacher and writer and an experienced museum professional who re-energised the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery at Glasgow University, where he was the first Director.

He was born in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1925 and educated at the Bolton Municipal Secondary School and at University College, Oxford, where he read English Language and Literature and then took a postgraduate diploma in anthropology. While an undergraduate he was an active member of Oxford University Archaeology Society and participated in a number of excavations. Although his career was interrupted by the Second World War (he served in the RAF as a linguist), he gained further archaeological experience at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, spending a term in the Archaeology Department in 1948. He met his wife, Connie, while they were both still at school in Bolton and they married in 1950, once he had a job.

Willett's very first post was with Portsmouth City Museum, but within months he moved to the Manchester Museum as Keeper of the Department of Ethnology and General Archaeology. The collections he curated were wide-ranging and Willett published papers on subjects as diverse as Maori woodcarving and Romano-British kilns, but in 1956 he made his first visit to Nigeria, at the invitation of the Nigerian government and with the encouragement of the Fagg brothers, William and Bernard, who at the time were the leading investigators into Nigerian art and archaeology.

The Nigerian government approached Willett again, in 1957, about conducting a rescue dig at the ancient city of Ife. The remarkable finds of lifelike "bronze" sculptures (proved by later analysis to be technically brass) together with the objects already in the museum at Ife, inspired in Willett a fascination with Ife art which remained with him for the rest of his life. In 1958 he moved his family to Nigeria and took up the position of Archaeologist for the Department of Antiquities of the Federal Government of Nigeria and Curator of the Ife Museum.

By 1963 the educational needs of their children led to the return of the Willetts to Oxford, where Frank Willett took up a Research Fellowship at Nuffield College. Three years later he was offered a new chair of African Art and Archaeology at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and the family moved again.

The decade that Willett spent in the United States served to define his scholastic direction, with the seminal volume Ife in the History of West African Sculpture published in 1967, and later translated into both French and German. The breadth of his knowledge and his ability to convey this in a clear and interesting manner to the general reader was demonstrated in 1971 when African Art: an introduction was published, a book that has never been superseded, the new edition of 2004 remaining in print.

In 1976 Willett returned to Britain, becoming the first professional director of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery at Glasgow University, and Professor in the Hunterian Museum. He immediately embarked, despite a severe lack of resources, upon the task of transforming the museum displays, and also saw the new Hunterian Art Gallery, including the reconstructed Charles Rennie Mackintosh house, completed and opened to public acclaim in 1981. Glasgow was the place he and his family enjoyed living in more than any other and this finally became home.

Meanwhile, Willett continued his research on West African brass traditions, blending a keen historical and aesthetic appreciation with groundbreaking scientific investigations involving techniques such as carbon dating and thermo luminescence, often conducted with research collaborators like the Smithsonian Institution.

Frank Willett wore his scholarship lightly and was unfailingly generous and encouraging, especially to the young. He was an active member of the Museum Ethnographers Group, an association of curators and others interested in ethnographic collections in British museums. From 1986 to 1989 he was Vice-Chair of the Scottish Museums Council, and later he took the lead in an ambitious joint SMC/National Museums of Scotland project to record all the collections of foreign ethnography in Scottish museums. This was completed in 1994 and the resulting database, representing a major information resource, is managed by NMS.

Appointed CBE in 1985, in 1997 Willett was given the bicentenary medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where he had been a Fellow since 1979 and RSE Curator for five years from 1992. Although he retired from the Hunterian Museum in 1990, Willett's research on the arts of Ife and the origins of this and related metal working in West Africa had never faltered. He was frequently consulted in connection with international exhibitions on African art. As the commercial value of the artefacts rose his encyclopaedic knowledge was also sought by collectors and curators in establishing issues of authenticity, as well as in cases of illegal art trafficking, a practice that Willett did much to expose.

In 2004 he succeeded in issuing the culmination of his life's work, The Art of Ife, a compilation of the entire corpus of Ife art, not in print but as a CD, as with over 350,000 words and around 2,200 illustrations it was too massive for conventional publication. This achievement was recognised by the Amaury Talbot Prize in 2004.

Even in his last months Willett was still working, with an American colleague, Edward Sayre, on the final publication stages of another important paper on lead isotopes in West Africa. This was published in a journal of African archaeology in Germany just before his death.

Dale Idiens

Comments