Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Museum Redisplay: Moving Many Shots

Our closure to the public on Monday mornings gives staff the opportunity to undertake jobs that are difficult to complete during opening hours. This was certainly the case in November when we needed to move a custom-made case displaying a painted cowhide measuring 2.2 metres by 1.7 metres. As you can imagine, the case - as well as being very large - is extremely heavy.

Before the case could move, Heather and Andrew from the Conservation Department carefully removed the cowhide. This was painted by Many Shots, a member of the North American Plains Blackfoot community. Painted robes on bison hide and cowhide showing a man's war deeds were often made for sale, and this one was commissioned for a collector in 1893.

Left to right: Painted cowhide PRM 1895.61.1; temporarily storing the glass front of the showcase while the rest of the case is relocated; Technicians removing the case from the Museum's Court Gallery © Pitt Rivers Museum 
Once the cowhide was removed, Ady, Alan, Ali and Chris from the Technical Services Team were able to tackle moving and relocating the display case.

Technicians carefully move the case from the Court Gallery into the stairwell area © Pitt Rivers Museum
All went well and The Life of Many Shots, as the cowhide is often called, is now safely relocated to the west wall of the stairwell on the ground floor. In this new, well-lit location you can clearly see the painted cowhide so, if you have an opportunity to visit, I encourage you to look at this amazing object.

Left: the stairwell wall first thing in the morning; right: now transformed to display Many Shots © Pitt Rivers Museum 
Many Shots was relocated to provide space to build new cases to improve the display of the housing and transport models. This redisplay project is possible thanks to generous funding from DCMS Wolfson. I will keep you up-to-date on the progress of the models redisplay in future blogs.

If you'd like to find out more about the scenes painted on the cowhide see Arni Brownstone's booklet The 'Many Shots' Robe, available in the Museum shop or listen to the Museum's audio guide entry here:

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Museum Redisplay: Models On The Move

On Monday mornings when the Museum is closed we are busy doing jobs in the public areas that are difficult to do during opening hours. At the moment we are upgrading some of the model displays on the ground floor, thanks to an award of nearly £40,000 from the DCMS/ Wolfson Foundation's Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund.

This entails removing the old cases to make way for the new displays. Below you can see staff dismantling a case containing some of the building and housing models. This isn't a job that can be rushed, as each object needs to be carefully lifted out of the case. The models then need to be carefully moved out of the public gallery space.

We use trolleys to transport the objects around the Museum building. On the right you can see some of the models on a trolley ready to be moved.

They are placed into temporary storage in the areas closed to the public. This means they are easy for us to access, even during opening hours, while they are being prepared for redisplay. Below you can see some of the models in the Collections Department where we catalogue and research the objects.

They will all be individually checked by Conservation staff and will be moved to the Conservation Lab to be worked on if necessary. After Collections and Conservation staff have completed their preparatory work, Technical Services will start to design the new display.

Being able to examine the models close up provides an opportunity to see all of the details. The house model you can see below is really intricate; if you look inside you can see miniature hammocks, numerous utensils, as well as little figures.
Arawak house PRM 1901.19.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The new displays will be finished sometime next year. I will keep you informed of progress via this blog site. We are really grateful to the DCMS/ Wolfson Foundation's Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund for making this redisplay work possible.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Percy Manning Archive

Madeleine Ding looking through one of Manning's notebooks © Pitt Rivers Museum
In 2017 Oxford University Museums and libraries will be celebrating the centenary of folklorist, archaeologist and antiquarian Percy Manning. Oxford educated Manning, born in 1870 in Leeds, came to Oxford in 1888 to study at New College and went on to live out his adult life in Oxford. He was very much apart of the intellectual hub that encapsulated Oxford and to this end became very involved in various Oxford societies. His interests in folklore, custom and tradition in Oxfordshire led him to collect material culture reflecting this, in particular was his interest in collecting in the material and immaterial sense anything associated with Morris dancing and one of his most notable achievements was reviving this ‘dying’ tradition.

Object labels found in the archive possibly referring to 
objects donated to the PRM by Manning in 1911 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

In 1911 Manning donated a plethora of what can only be described as miscellaneous utilitarian objects of English origin to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Unlike the archaeological material he had donated to the Ashmolean Museum, the objects donated to the PRM come with comparatively little contextual information. The motivation for him to collect these objects and then donate them to the PRM is unclear though the influence of the PRM’s curator at the time, Henry Balfour, was sure to have played a role.

Article written by Henry Balfour on Whithorns kept by Manning 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

My colleague Madeleine Ding and I are planning how the PRM should commemorate Manning in 2017 and hope to have small display including a Morris dancers outfit from Kirtlington, Whit horns from Ducklington and other objects from the PRM’s collections. In order to try and get a better understanding of this material and Manning himself, we recently visited the new Weston Library to view parts of Manning’s extensive archive held by the Bodleian. Given Manning’s fastidiousness with recording information about traditions and folk life in Oxfordshire, we were hoping to find more references to the material now in the PRM’s collections. The archives are very interesting and include correspondence between Manning and his filed collector Thomas James Carter, newspaper clippings and snippets of articles. It left us with lots to think about!

Mannings notes on the revival of Morris dancing © Pitt Rivers Museum
Article that appeared in Folklore magazine, 1897, the publication of the 
Folklore society of which Manning was a member, written by Manning 
on 'Some Oxfordshire Seasonal Festivities' © Pitt Rivers Museum
Correspondence from Carter to Manning listing expenses of having 
traveled to various Oxfordshire villages for fact finding and 
collecting on behalf of Manning © Pitt Rivers Museum

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Conservation of Two Fine Mats from Samoa and Tonga

As a third year student studying for a BA in Conservation and Restoration at the University of Lincoln I am spending six weeks within the Conservation Department at the Pitt Rivers Museum. I have been working on two finely woven mats from Samoa and Tonga. Since coming into the Museum collections in 1948 they have been housed in cramped glass frames, making it difficult to tell the condition and even their full size. Upon their release from these frames I discovered a number of interesting aspects - including the fact the Tongan mat was over two metres squared, more than twice the size of the Samoan one.

Left: Samoan Mat PRM 1948.12.1 B with the frame backing removed
Right: Tongan Mat PRM 1948.12.2 B in the old glass frame © Pitt Rivers Museum
Arthur Mahaffy, a British colonial officer, collected both mats. In a letter written in 1914 to a Mrs Harcourt - from whom the Museum received the mats in 1948 - he declared the larger Tongan mat to be over 50 years old. While specifying no age for the Samoan mat, though he noted it was cleaner and overall in better condition. Mahaffy spent most of his career in the Pacific; by 1908 he was Deputy Commissioner of the West Pacific and often visited Samoa and Tonga, where he would have been familiar with the respective political families. These included the revered figure of Fatafehi, the last in a succession of Sacred Tongan Kings, who gave the larger mat to Mahaffy.

Left: Mahaffy's letter 1914; right: detail of the red and white feathers on the Samoan mat © Pitt Rivers Museum
Despite slight differences in the cultural associations of fine mats in Tonga and Samoa - or kie hingoa and 'ie toga respectively - there are central aspects that are true for both. For instance, fine mats make up most of the material wealth of important Tongan and Samoan families and are often reserved for wearing only at weddings or funerals, or other significant events. The cultural exchange back and forth between the two islands and their shared history can be followed in the exchange of these mats down through the years. The red feathers typical of these mats are probably the highly valued rare parakeet feathers from Fiji (possibly the Fiji parrotfinch), which were traded back and forth between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Both mats are likely to be pandanus leaves (a relative of palm) the finest of these reserved for fine mats. Ideal characteristics of these leaves include suppleness, colour, and the thinness of fibre. The leaf is laboriously processed with many cycles of soaking in salt and fresh water, drying and splitting repeatedly until the desired qualities are achieved. These fibres are then woven together by hand often taking six months to over a year to complete.

Having possibly spent close to a 100 years tightly packed into frames both mats had deeply impressed creases. Plus the fibres at the folds and creases were comparatively brittle compared to the supple texture of the main body. To relax the fibres I used an ultrasonic humidifier to mist water vapour across the creases, whilst gently and carefully manipulating these areas with my fingers. The creases were then weighted and left for a time.

Left: Tongan mat crease before humidification; Middle: after humidification
Right: Samoan mat weighting of creases and pandanus ribbons © Pitt Rivers Museum
After this process both mats could be fully unfolded, making visible a number of aspects previously hidden from view. These included an interwoven zigzag design in a red-brown yarn, with a stepped edge at the top; original repairs; plus a number of holes in the larger mat. I could also see where strings of feathers had become separated from the body of the mats, which I secured with a couching stitch to prevent any losses. The original repairs were interesting to note, as they imply how important the preservation of these mats were to their original owners.

Left: Untangling the pandanus fringe on the Samoan mat
Right: Detail of the zigzag design on the Tongan mat © Pitt Rivers Museum 
In Samoa and Tonga particularly important fine mats are named. A mat belonging to the Tu'ifa family named Kie Monumonuka or mat that is wounded is described in Adrienne Kaepler's study "Kie Hingoa: Mats of Power, Rank, Prestige and Security". As a trainee conservator this is an appealing concept, where the prestige of the mat derives from the history that is visible in its current condition. As Kaepler, the Pacific scholar suggests, they are 'old because they are important and not important because they are old'.

The Samoan mat after treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

Bethany Skuce
Conservation and Restoration Student

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Visit to the Indigenous Australia exhibition at the British Museum

I always find exploring other museum collections and meeting colleagues working in other institutions a rewarding experience. Julia and I, both from the Collections Department at the Pitt Rivers, recently visited the British Museum to see the temporary exhibition Indigenous Australia enduring civilisationThe Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG) had organised a special tour of the exhibition, which included a talk by the Curator Gaye Sculthorpe.

MEG trip to the exhibition
We met up with the rest of the group from MEG, then Gaye gave an informative and interesting introductory talk before we looked at the exhibition. The British Museum collection was very impressive - including the work of contemporary Australian Indigenous artists, as well as older objects.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, along with other institutions,  had loaned some objects for the exhibition - which had plenty of visitors - so it was good to know people had this opportunity to see them on display.

A relaxing chat after the exhibition tour
with Curator Gaye Sculthorpe

After a good look around we then met up again with Gaye, who had kindly set aside time to have an informal chat with us all after we'd looked around.

Unfortunately the exhibition closed on 2 August. However, if you are interested, you can still get a copy of the publication Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which was researched and written in conjunction with the exhibition. If you are in Australia, you will be pleased to hear part of the collection is travelling there for a temporary exhibition. Plus Gaye intends to continue to to bring attention to the importance of the British Museum's Australian collections, which will involve working directly with Indigenous Australians.
PRM 1982.12.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum lent three objects to the British Museum for the exhibition. A wooden club from New South Wales; a  bark painting from Arnhem Land (right); and a carrying vessel from the Kimberleys (below). This type of vessel is sometimes called a coolamon and can be used for all sorts of things, including carrying a baby. The painting is the work of artist Billinyara Nabegeyo and is of the Rainbow Snake, which is very significant within Australian Indigenous culture.

On behalf of Julia and I, I'd like to say thank you to Gaye and MEG for this opportunity for such an insightful and enjoyable day.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

PRM 1896.50.4 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Re-Modelling the Displays

Thanks to an award of nearly £40,000 from the DCMS/ Wolfson Foundation's Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund we are in the process of improving the Museum's displays of Air and Transport Models.

Steve Grafton Joinery are in the process of making new cases that are in keeping with the period style of the Museum, plus will enable visitors to clearly see all of the models on display. When finished these high quality cases will be in the Court Gallery on the ground floor and will be positioned to allow space for staff and volunteer guides to give introductory talks about the collections to visitors.

In the old model displays not all of the objects have a label. The new cases will include these to ensure visitors can easily find out information about everything on display.

I am currently  cataloguing, photographing, and researching the collection to ensure the information on the labels is up-to-date. At the same time, I am adding information and images to the relevant object records. This means, even if you cannot visit the Museum in person, you will still be able to see the models and access all the information about them via the online database.

The photos you can see below are some of the interesting models I am currently working with. On the  left is a wooden replica model of a troll cart from Great Yarmouth in England, in the middle a wooden model of a Chinese wheelbarrow used to transport people and goods, and on the right a Saami passenger reindeer sled.

Left to right: model troll cart PRM 1892.12.1, model wheelbarrow  PRM 1897.59.6, model reindeer sled PRM 1884.1.5 
© Pitt Rivers Museum
These three models entered the Museum collection at the end of the nineteenth century so all are definitely more than a hundred years old. During this time there have been many changes to transportation so even though I am English I had never heard of a Yarmouth troll cart. I was interested to discover this type of cart was specifically designed to fit through the narrow medieval streets, known as the Rows, of Great Yarmouth. Contained within the medieval walls of the city were 145 of these narrow Rows, many of which were destroyed when the city was bombed during World War Two. Most of the rows were only 90 to 150 centimetres wide so even the doors were made to open inwards so they didn't knock passers by and as you can imagine this space was too small for a regular horse and cart. The Yarmouth troll cart was twelve feet long and a maximum width of three feet six inches. With a short low back axle and wheels that ran under the body of the carriage they could be tipped on one end when not being used, consequently taking up very little space to store.

The earliest known wheelbarrows date back to Ancient China where they were used for carrying passengers as well as heavy loads. The wheel, as is the case in the model you can see above, was characteristically placed in the centre of the barrow. This design means the barrow takes the full weight of the load, the driver simply having to guide the vehicle. Whereas the European wheelbarrow with the wheel at the front splits the weight of the load between the vehicle and the driver. Consequently the Chinese wheelbarrow can carry a much heavier load, this successful design remained widely in use in China for short haul work well into the nineteen sixties.

The Saami people are indigenous to the Arctic regions incorporating parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. This style of sled is often called a ahkio or pulka and the shape of the design makes it both easy to pull and prevents it sinking in soft snow.  This remains a successful design that is often used by mountain rescue teams, although now more commonly a human or snowmobile towed sled than pulled by reindeer. The model shows the traditional reindeer harness, as well as the style of sled.

Keep an eye on this blog and I will let you know when these new displays are complete.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Close Examination of a 19th Century Tahitian 'Poncho'

In early June I wrote a blog post about a 19th-century Tahitian poncho-like garment called a tiputa, which I conserved while on a student placement in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Conservation department. 

PRM1984.3.1, front, before conservation (left) and after conservation (right)  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Alongside the treatment of the object, I spent some time trying to identify its associated plant materials. I started by looking at ethnobotanical sources listing the plants traditionally exploited by Tahitians at the time the tiputa was made.

From this I discovered, for example, that the fine white barkcloth which makes up the body of the garment was almost certainly made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) - the most commonly used species for barkcloth in Tahiti and also the tree said to produce the palest, highest quality cloth. Other sources of barkcloth traditionally used in Tahiti, including the breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis) and two species of Ficus generally produced darker, coarser cloth.

Close-up image of the barkcloth making up PRM1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum    
Features visible to the naked eye also helped to identify ties on either side of the neck opening. This material had a distinctive elongated, open fibre structure, which could easily be seen without magnification. By comparing it with modern botanical and ethnological specimens I could identify it almost certainly as the inner bark of a Hibiscus.

Close-up image of a neck tie from PRM1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum    
The tiputa was further decorated with rosettes and decorative trims made of strips of a very shiny, golden-coloured plant leaf material, folded and stitched together. The tiputa was also fringed with long strips of a very thin, almost translucent leaf material. Finally, a yellow powder was loosely dusted over the entire surface.

The remaining plant materials present on PRM1984.3.1, from left to right: rosettes, leaf strips, and powder © Pitt Rivers Museum    
Examining these remaining plant materials with the naked eye, plus researching the existing literature, did not make their identification straightforward - there were several possibilities for each sample. 

Looking at similar objects in other institutions did not make identification any easier as the descriptions of the materials were often contradictory. For example, the rosette material is described in the Pitt Rivers documentation as “folded grasses or cane strips”; whereas in the documentation at the British Museum this material on similar objects is listed as either the leaf of arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) or coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). From my own research, I also noted remarkable similarities between the rosette material and the leaves from the screw pine (Pandanus tectorius) used in the popular Hawaiian lauhala weaving craft.
Similarly, leaf strips from the Pitt Rivers tiputa were identified in the 1980s as the “cuticle of young banana leaves retted in (probably) stale urine and boiled”; while the accession register for similar objects at the Kew Royal Economic Botany Collection describes the strips as made of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) or coconut palm. On objects at the Musee du Quai Branly the strips are identified as seaweed. More recently, Dr Caroline Cartwright, a Senior Scientist and specialist in fibre identification, identified similar strips on a Tahitian robe at the British Museum as the epidermis of sugar cane leaf.

The abundance of already detached material available for these remaining fibre types provided me with the opportunity to investigate them using two microscopic techniques.

© Pitt Rivers Museum
First, I looked at the samples using polarised light microscopy (PLM), which allowed me to magnify samples up to 200x and to observe distinctive colour changes of the samples in response to different light settings.  

On the right you can see optical microscope images taken at 200x magnification of the rosette material (top row), the leaf strips (middle row) and the powder (bottom row).

Even greater magnification is possible with scanning electron microscopy (SEM), which I carried out at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology

© Pitt Rivers Museum    

On the left you can see scanning electron microscope (SEM) images taken at 500-600x magnification of the rosette material (top), the leaf strips (middle) and the powder (bottom).

Identification of plant fibres using microscopy is not as straightforward as it may seem, particularly if the samples are from ethnographic or archaeological artefacts. Fibre reference atlases tend to contain images of clean, fresh plant material, while samples taken from museum objects are likely to look rather different as a result of processing, use and ageing.

A high level of expertise is also required to interpret features. Caroline Cartwright kindly looked at my SEM images of samples from the Pitt Rivers tiputa, but she emphasised the need to be realistic in the level of identification which can be achieved: in addition to the problems already mentioned, the taking of microscopic images is subjective and different people will choose to focus on different areas for examination.

Unfortunately, my SEM images for the rosette material and the powder did not contain enough diagnostic detail to allow secure identification. However, for the leaf fringes, Caroline Cartwright confirmed that – like on the British Museum object she examined – they were very similar to reference specimens of sugar cane leaf and definitely not similar to banana leaf specimens.

PLM (left) and SEM (right) images of the stitching thread, at 50x and 200x magnification respectively.    
Tell-tale “ribbon twists” seen in microscope images of the stitching thread used in the Pitt Rivers tiputa’s construction did allow a positive identification to cotton, rather than a type of indigenous cordage. Finding a European imported material used alongside a range of traditional materials in a single object is a fascinating clue to the creative use of material culture in colonial Tahiti.

Finally, for the yellow powder, literature research suggested it may have been used to either colour or scent the barkcloth. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a colourant frequently found in Pacific ethnographic material. However, when a tiny sample of the powder was left to react with first an acid and then an alkali, the typical colour changes indicating the presence of curcumin did not happen, so turmeric was excluded as a candidate. Whether the powder could be another type of powdered root, such as ginger, or perhaps a fragrant resinous wood may be shown using yet another technique, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR), but for now it remains a bit of a mystery.

Naomi Bergmans
Conservation Student