Frank Willett, CBE, FRSE, described by an obituarist as the "leading Africanist of his generation", was the first Director of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, from 1976 to 1990, and titular Professor in the Hunterian Museum. Under his dierctorship, the Hunterian Art Gallery opened in 1981.
Frank Willett was born on 18 August 1925 in Bolton, where he spent his childhood and attended Bolton Municipal Secondary School. In 1943, at the age of eighteen, Frank was called up for military service to the Royal Air Force where he served as a Japanese translator.
Following on from military service, Frank attended University College, Oxford where he read English Language and Literature and graduated in 1947. It was whilst studying for a postgraduate diploma in Anthropology that he began to develop an interest in African material culture. Following on from his studies in Oxford, he was employed by Portsmouth City Museum on 1st January 1950, and in November of the same year, he became Keeper of the Department of Ethnology and General Archaeology at Manchester University Museum.
During 1956-1958, Frank is known to have made several journeys to Nigeria, where he collected items such as pottery and carvings, as well as participating in excavations based at Ife.
His interests and passion in African material culture is reflected in the large number of exhibitions and publications which he produced throughout his career. His written publications include Ife in the History of West African Sculpture (pub. 1967), African Art: An Introduction (1971), and journal publications such as 'A Chapter of Accidents: Archaeological Discoveries in Ife' (2006). He also had a publication in the Journal of African Archaeology based on his later work as a research collaborator for the Smithsonian Institute alongisde Edward Sayre. Together, they investigated copper-alloy figures from Benin and Ife with their studies suggesting that the the worlds earliest metals such as copper originated from African sources.
A three-year research fellowship at Nuffield College, Oxford in 1963, led to Frank beginning a series of investigations into the art and archaeology of Ife, with his subsequent publication examining Ife sculputures and pottery. His connection and research into Ife continued throughout his career, and enabled him to progress with his research statistical methods such as isotope analysis.
In 1966 he became Professor of Art History, African Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies at Northwestern University. Whilst at Northwestern University Frank is known to have had a significant impact on both the programmes and teaching which were on offer in the department. His influence in the department is reflected by many of his graduate students going on to become well-respected individuals within their field of study.
After ten years at Northwestern University, Frank became Professor and Director of the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, on his return to Britain in 1976. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1990. He greatly improved the reputation of the museum and art gallery, despite facing challenging financial times. Whilst undertaking the restoration of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's house he also importantly transformed the rather unguided museum displays.
As well as continuing to pursue his own areas of interest, he devoted time to teaching in the University's Archaeology department and contributing to research programmes and exhibitions further afield, such as developing the exhibition, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria .
In addition to being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1979, a society for which he served as curator between 1992-1997; he was also awarded a CBE in 1985, and later served as the vice chairman of the Scottish Museums Council between 1986-1989. As well as participating as an active member in the Museum Ethnographers Group in Scotland, he was also a significant participant of the Scottish 'Foreign Ethnographic Collections Research Programme' where he led management committees and offered advice as a specialist consultant.
In 2004, whilst in retirement, Frank succeeded in producing a complete catalogue of all the art which had been excavated from Ife. Titled The Art of Ife: a Descriptive Catalogue and Database , it contained more than 350,000 words and 2,200 illustrations works of art from Ife. Published by the Hunterian, the CD-ROM won the Royal Anthopological Institute's Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology. Professor Frank Willet died on 15th June 2006.
Source: Journal of Museum Ethnography , no. 19, March 2007, pp. 1-6
Source: Picton, John, 'Frank Willett: 1925-2006' in African Arts , vol. 40.2, Summer 2007, pp. 13-15