Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Caring for the Collections

Work at the Museum stores continued throughout the cold and gloomy winter months. Collections and conservation staff are systematically improving the storage of vulnerable collections and those things considered difficult to move and access in their current storage. We replace old boxes with new conservation grade materials. To this end we have completed the arrows project, re-storing and locating all arrows in storage, adzes and axes have been moved to larger shelves and we are now working on mats and fibre clothing.

Mats retrieved from storage in the conservation lab for humidification
© Pitt Rivers Museum 
Tubing cut to size to roll mats onto © Pitt Rivers Museum

The Museum has a good collection of mats from all over the world, which are currently stored rolled on shelves on movable racking. When the racking is moved to access collections behind or in front of the mats the mats are at risk of falling off the shelving or being squashed. The solution to this is to store the mats rolled on tubing which can be easily removed from brackets on the shelves. We have been taking the mats back to the Museum so that Senior Conservator, Jeremy Uden can humidify the mats, check their condition and eventually roll them onto the tubing once the tubes have been cut to size.

Unwrapping a Malaysian mat; 1940.3.028 (above and below) 
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Sometimes at the store we come across objects wrapped in brown paper packaging, often the packaging that the object came to the Museum in the first instance in. Unwrapping the brown paper is exciting for us. Last week we unwrapped a fabulous mat and pillow from Malaysia. The mat is richly embroidered with silk and sequins and belonged to the Sultan Idris.

Detail of embroidery on Malay mat © Pitt Rivers Museum

Plant fibre fringed skirt in new box
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Whilst or technical team work on constructing the new storage unit for the mats we have been working through the fibre clothing including many grass skirts from Polynesia, Japanese fibre rain capes and African masquerade costume. The fibre clothing is made from grasses, palm leaves, bark and other plant material. This material gets very brittle over time and becomes delicate and fragile. These items of clothing were often worn and danced and used, they were not supposed to last forever by their very nature. Given the age of the some of the pieces and the distances they have travelled to be in the collections they are in remarkably good condition. The re-storage project will involve moving the clothing to larger custom made Corex boxes. We have already discovered an important fibre skirt from Captain Cook's voyages to the Pacific which had been previously un-located.

Plant fibre skirt from Tahiti, Forster 36, 1886.1.1179 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Custom made Corex boxes filled with plant fibre clothing 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Conservation grade standard sized boxes for 
smaller garments © Pitt Rivers Museum 

Fibre clothing laid out on the table at store for cataloguing (above and below) 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Custom Corex boxes on store shelves © Pitt Rivers Museum 

Faye Belsey & Jeremy Uden
Assistant Curator & Senior Conservator

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

New Acquisitions: Native American Interests

Turner collection on my desk ready for cataloguing © Pitt Rivers Museum
I recently had the pleasure of accessioning a delightful collection of Native American material kindly donated to the Museum by Jessica Turner. The collection was amassed by her father Geoffrey Eric Slade Turner, a keen Native American enthusiast. Geoffrey Turner was very familiar with the Museum having worked in an administrative position in the secretary's office at the Pitt Rivers neighbour, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for over 50 years. His passion for the Americas and service to the Pitt Rivers Museum was recognised with the title ‘Honorary Assistant Curator (later Consultant) in North American Indian ethnology. 

child's slippers; 2014.43.17 .1 & .2  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Moose hair workbox; 2014.43.10 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Despite his interest in the culture and fauna and floral of North America remarkably in his lifetime he never made the journey across the pond. Despite this, his knowledge and interests ensured that he had a healthy correspondence with North American experts. The recent donation also included an extensive collection of photographs, postcards and letters, which having had a brief perusal indicate Turner established a warm friendship with his American counterparts. The photographs included scenes of ‘cowboy’s and Indians’ and postcards featuring notable figures from the Mexican Revolution of 1910, further showing his interest in Native American history. 

There are 37 artifacts in Jessica Turner’s donation which include a model totem pole, moose hair embroidered pieces, moccasins and skin pouches to name a few. Among the objects were letters and itemized listings of most of the objects detailing where they came from, approximate dates and other provenance information. The collection includes beautiful examples of moose hair embroidery including this satin and bark workbox and card case. My favorite item from the collection are these child’s slippers made from Caribou skin with white fur cuffs.

Embroidery techniques and a selection of moccasin vamps © Pitt Rivers Museum

Catalogued and traded up ready for photography © Pitt Rivers Museum
The collection is an interesting array highlighting Turner’s personal interests, eye for the aesthetically pleasing and scholarly interests such as the index cards with white cotton woven braid illustrating hair embroidery techniques. These techniques feature in the publication written by Turner as a Pitt Rivers Museum Occasional Paper titled ‘Hair Embroidery in Siberia and North America’, 1955. Again, emphasizing his scholarly interests are a collection of Moccasin vamps showing straight edges, scalloped edges and seal-fur.

Page 31 of Turner, 'Hair Embroidery' © Pitt Rivers Museum
Catalogued and traded up ready for photography
The collection has now been catalogued, photographed and put in storage. Given that most of the collection was organic it was frozen for a period before accessioning. The collection includes some early pieces and was mostly in good condition. I spent time making a soft mount for two beadwork necklaces, which would otherwise get tangled in storage.

Beaded necklace on soft mount for storage; 2014.43.24 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

New Displays: Maori Wood Carving

New to display this
canoe baler
© Pitt Rivers Museum
I have been busy working on a new Museum display highlighting the art of Maori wood carving. I am pleased to let you know this display is now complete thanks to the effective teamwork of staff from the Collections, Conservation, and Technical Services Departments.

Most of the carvings, which are  are a selection of architectural carvings, canoe parts, paddles and treasure boxes, are from the reserve collections (26 of the 36 objects in the case).  So, if you can visit, this really is an opportunity to see objects new to display.

In Maori mythology the knowledge of wood carving was obtained from Tangaroa the god of the sea. Carving is a prestigious activity and the carvings regarded as prized possessions or taonga. If you do visit I encourage you to spend time looking at these cultural treasures.
New to display this
model sternpost
© Pitt Rivers Museum

This new display can be found on the ground floor of the Museum in the Court Gallery in case C.13.A.

If you are not able to visit in person you can still see the Maori carvings on the website using the online object database. To search for all the Maori wood carvings in the Museum just select 'Maori' for cultural group, 'carved' for process, and 'wood plant' for material.

Enjoy exploring this amazing collection!

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

New to display this paddle © Pitt Rivers Museum

The new display of Maori Wood Carving © Pitt Rivers Museum

Friday, 9 January 2015

Bellarmine Jars

In the Pitt Rivers Museum we have seven Bellarmine bottles.  The bottles are also known as Bartmann jugs or ‘greybeards’. 

The vessels were originally used to transport wine from Northern Germany to England in the 16th and 17th century.  The name Bartmann means ‘man with a beard’ in German.  This type of vessel was made at a pottery in Frechen near Cologne.

The vessels are stoneware and salt glazed.  The bearded face is a mould added to the neck of the vessel.  Later 17th-century vessels also had moulded medallions on the body of jug.

The jugs in the Pitt Rivers Museum were recently studied by a researcher interested in witch bottles and concealed objects. Two of the Pitt Rivers Museum bottles have contents and could have been used as witch bottles.    

The bottles contain nails, pins and hair.  One bottle contains a cloth heart. 

Top right: PRM accession number 1893.81.4
Left: PRM accession number 1910.18.1 with its contents pictured below.

Jugs from the PRM collections for inspection in the visiting researchers' room 

Witch bottles are said to offer protection and counteract spells cast by witches. The Museum of Soho has a bellarmine bottle that was found concealed in a wall. 

Madeleine Ding
Assistant Curator