via the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery:
Professor Frank Willett, CBE, FRSE
19th June 2006
Professor Frank Willett, CBE, FRSE, who was Director of the Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery from 1976 to 1990, passed away peacefully on Thursday 15 June, aged 80.
Professor Frank Willett, CBE, FRSE, was widely respected as a pioneering scholar of African art and archaeology and as a leading figure in the world of museums. In Glasgow he was the first Director of the Hunterian Museum and oversaw the completion and opening of the Hunterian Art Gallery and the superb adjoining reconstruction of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s house. His contributions to the study of West African culture were acknowledged in many ways, most recently in 2004 by the award of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s important Amoury Talbot Prize.
Frank Willett was born in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1925 and educated at Bolton Municipal Secondary School and at University College, Oxford where, after graduating, he took a Diploma in Anthropology. In that era most anthropology students were intended to take up posts in the Colonial Service or, at least, to work in the colonies. The war, in which he studied Japanese while in the RAF, delayed Frank’s direct contact with exotic societies and his first professional appointment was as Keeper of the Department of Ethnology and General Archaeology at Manchester Museum. His growing reputation as an archaeologist led to visits to Nigeria where he collected for the Manchester Museum, and then to his appointment as the Honorary Surveyor of Antiquities for the Nigerian Federal Government between 1956 and 1957. His combined curatorial and archaeological expertise was then recognised by his appointment as Nigeria Government Archaeologist and head of the Ife Museum in Southern Nigeria. Ife was one of the earliest and most important cities in West Africa and its archaeology and culture became the focus of many of his studies and the basis of his most important publications.
In 1963 Frank and his family returned from Nigeria to Oxford where he was a Research Fellow at Nuffield College. In 1966 he was appointed Professor of Art History, African Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies at Northwestern University, near Chicago. Northwestern was then growing into one of the world’s leading centres for African Studies and his appointment was widely seen as a great coup for the university. The teaching and research programmes he created and led had enormous influence in this field. As a teacher he was kind, patient, immensely painstaking and inspired his students with the highest standards of scholarship. Many of them now occupy senior positions in universities around the world. It was at Northwestern that he published his pioneering work ‘Ife in the History of West African Sculpture’ based on his excavations and the study of Ife material in public and private collections. One of the fascinations of Ife is the presence there of realistic portrait heads cast in ‘bronze’, the earliest dating from the twelfth century A.D. Throughout the rest of his life Frank pioneered the study of these and many other types of West African brass and bronze castings, working with the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum and others of the world’s most important museums. Also at Northwestern in 1971 he published ‘African Art: An Introduction’. This book, still in print, remains the best general work on the subject and has introduced many tens of thousands of readers to this fascinating area of creativity.
In 1976 Frank returned to Britain to become the first Director
of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. He immediately
set about improving its displays, mounting a major exhibition on the
history of the University, and contributing to the teaching of the
Dept. of Archaeology. His major achievement was to oversee the
completion and opening of the Hunterian Art Gallery and of the
reconstructed C R Mackintosh house. Despite many financial problems his
pertinacity brought this project to a successful conclusion. The key
position the Hunterian now occupies within the University owes much to
Nor were these efforts restricted exclusively to the University of Glasgow. In pursuit of the interests of the cultural heritage sector more widely, he was appointed Vice-Chair of the Scottish Museums Council, a position he held from 1986 – 1989.
Despite the pressures of running a museum and art gallery/the Hunterian and fighting for resources Frank continued to work on research projects and also helped to create major international exhibitions on Nigerian art. His achievements were recognised by the award of a CBE in 1985. In Scotland he was elected a FRSE in 1979, and served as Curator of the Royal Society for five years from 1992. His major contributions to the Society were recognised by the award of its Bicentenary Medal in 1997. In 2004 he produced a summation of his life’s work on Ife by publishing a catalogue of all the known material, a gigantic project whose importance was recognised by the award of the Amoury Talbot Prize.
Frank was devoted to his family and ably supported by Connie, his wife of 56 years. He took delight in the lives of his four children and his grandchildren. His life was marked by his devotion to the Catholic faith and by many works of kindness and charity, most notably perhaps in his commitment to and support of the St Margaret of Scotland Hospice. Frank epitomised gentleness and humility, fuelled by his faith, and these combined to bring a healthy perspective to the passion he felt for his work and life.