Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Female Collectors: Mother Bertha

Hawaiian Kahili
PRM 1887.1.158 
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Hawaiian pandanus fan PRM 1887.1.155 © Pitt Rivers Museum
There are many remarkable women connected with the Museum collections. One of these is Mother Bertha, who gave a collection of Hawaiian objects to the Natural History Museum that were transferred to the Pitt Rivers in 1886.

Of Scottish descent, Elizabeth Bertha Turnbull was an Anglican Nun who dedicated her life to caring for others. During the Crimean war she travelled to Turkey with Florence Nightingale to nurse the ill and injured soldiers.

Then known as Sister Bertha, she worked mainly in the General Hospital in Scutari, and then at the Castle Hospital in Balaclava. Unlike the civilian nurses, Bertha received no pay. She was given a railway rug before leaving England, which  served her at various times during the Crimea as a blanket, carpet, mattress, screen and shawl.

After the war, she continued working with the poor and the sick in England before travelling to Hawaii in 1864. In Lahaina, on the Island of Maui, Sister Bertha tended the sick during an outbreak of leprosy and helped establish St Cross School. Operating a free dispensary for the poor, she was popular with the local people and gained a reputation for her skill in doctoring to the sick.
Hawaiian gourd vessel PRM 1887.1.159© Pitt Rivers Museum

In 1867, along with Mother Sellon, Sister Beatrice and Sister Albertina she helped set up St. Andrew's Priory School. The three Sisters were the first teachers at this all girls school founded by Queen Emma Kaleleonalani. They had a close relationship with Queen Emma and regularly had tea with her in the grounds. In 1874, when there was a threat to Queen Emma's life, the Sisters hid her overnight in the Priory. Bertha and an Hawaiian Lady-in-Waiting kept watch over the Queen until the danger had passed.

Following Mother Sellon's death in 1876 Bertha became her successor. She returned to England in 1877 to take up the role of Mother Superior at Ascot Priory.  Her work caring for others continued until her death on 15 September 1890 at the age of 67. Florence Nightingale, when informed about her death, noted of Mother Bertha: "She was a kind of hero."

You can see the Hawaiian objects in the Museum from Mother Bertha using the online object database. Simply enter 'Mother Bertha' in 'Other Owners' and then perform your search to find the records for all 17 objects in this collection.

Hawaiian barkcloth, from right to left: PRM 1887.1.162, PRM 1887.1.165, and PRM 1887.1.164 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Suggested further reading:

Carol Helmstadter and Judith Godden, 2011, Nursing Before Nightingale, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Ellen Jordan, 1999, The Women's Movement and Women's Employment in Nineteenth Century Britain, England: Routledge.

Lynn McDonald (editor), 2010, Florence Nightingale: The Crimean War: Collected Works of Florence Nightingale Volume 14, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

John Field Mulholland, 1970, Hawaii's Religions, Rutland: C.E. Tuttle Co.

Henry Phillpotts, 1849, The Sisters of Mercy at Devonport, England: W. Wood.

Thomas Jay Williams, 1965, Priscilla Lydia Sellon, London: S.P.C.K.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

New Acquisitions: Pigeon Whistles

"Perched in three small vitrines, which themselves sit high above the other cases of the court, small, strange bamboo faces peer down upon the museum's visitors. Appearing almost like tiny masks, these objects are described as Pigeon Whistles from China" 

During 2012 - 2013 the Pitt Rivers Museum was lucky enough to benefit from the presence and creativity of artist, composer, performer and sound designer Nathaniel Mann. Nathaniel was appointed artist-in-residence at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Contemporary Music as part of Sound and Music's 'Embedded' programme. Nathaniel was a perfect match for the PRM. Performing solo as Animateddog and as one third of Dead Rat Orchestra, his work draws strongly on folk idioms whilst using unusual objects (including 2x4, ukulele, guitar, phonofiddle and meat cleaver!) and conventional instruments to create unique and playfully experimental music. The unique and varied collections of the PRM ensured that there was no shortage of inspiration for Nathaniel to draw on. With a large collection of musical instruments on display and in the Museum stores, both unusual and conventional, Nathaniel was able to come up with great ideas for new work and performances during his residency.

Pigeon whistle on (1921.36.14) display in the Museum 
attached to a stuffed pigeon
Pigeon whistle (2014.44.5) made and 
used for 'Audible Forces' 

One group of objects that caught his attention quite early on in his residency was a collection of pigeon whistles on display in the Museum's Court. There are 78 pigeon whistles in the PRM collections, all from China and Indonesia. In China there has been a long tradition of attaching these light whistles - often made from gourd and bamboo - to the tail feathers of a flock of pigeons so that when the birds fly, the wind blowing through the whistles sets them vibrating, and this produces an open air concert for the instruments in the same flock are all different. According to the Chinese these whistles are intended to keep the flock together and to protect the pigeons from attacks of birds of prey. 

Pigeon whistles donated by Nathaniel Mann 
(2014.44.1, 2014.44.2, 2014.44.3, 2014.44.4, 2014.44.5)
Nathaniel decided that he would design his own pigeon whistles and fly a flock of pigeons wearing them. The ‘Audible Forces’ project toured the UK and proved to be a huge success. To read more about the development of the project and to see and hear video and audio of the whistles in action visit the PRM’s 'Embedded’ blog. 

After Nathaniel’s residency in 2014, he was kind enough to donate a number of Indonesian pigeon whistles, contemporary and traditional in style from his own personal collection as well as one of his home made pigeon whistles designed for the project. The whistles complement the historical whistles that already existed in the collections. It is interesting to compare and contrast the shapes and materials of old and new. The pigeon whistle designed for the purpose of the project is made from recycled materials; a 35 mm film pot, a piece of a Chris de Burgh record and lolly pop sticks! The lightness of the material meant that the pigeons were comfortable wearing them and it did not hurt them or worry them too much. Nathaniel also kindly donated a fabulous book on pigeon whistles to the Balfour library; Beijing Pigeon Whistles by Wang Shixiang is a beautifully illustrated volume with detailed descriptions of the different styles of Chinese pigeon whistles, how they are made and how they are carried by the birds.

As well as the pigeon whistles the PRM also acquired a custom-made tuned meat cleaver, which featured in Nathaniel’s residency finale ‘Rough Music’, which incorporated his Dead Rat Orchestra colleagues and a piece featuring the pigeon whistles.

Nathaniel Mann playing his meat cleaver in the Museum

Tuned meat cleaver (2014.44.7) used for 'Rough Music' performance 

Faye Belsey

Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Maori Wood Carving Tools

In the Museum collection is a whalebone mallet and a number of stone chisels from New Zealand. Maori carvers still use mallets like the one you can see below to drive chisels into wood.

Wood carver's whalebone mallet showing wear from use on the surface area © Pitt Rivers Museum 
The mallets are made from either wood or whalebone, this particular one is made from the bone of a sperm-whale. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the wear and tear on the surface where the mallet has been used to strike chisels.

Today a Maori carver's toolkit will contain a wide range of metal chisels but early carvings were made using stone tools. Chisels made from greenstone nephrite (pounamu) were particularly popular for fine work. When examining old carvings it is difficult to tell whether nephrite or metal tools were used, as both produce similar cuts.

Stone chisels including one of greenstone nephrite (top).
From top to bottom PRM 1923.87.45, 1921.93.233 and 1927.73.5 © Pitt Rivers Museum 
If you visit the Museum you can see a number of Maori stone woodworking tools on the first floor (Lower Gallery) in case L.83.A Tools for Building and Carpentry. Staff are also working on a forthcoming display highlighting woodwork techniques from around the world, which may include the whalebone mallet. You can also explore the entire collection online using the object database on the Museum website.

If you want to find out more about Maori wood carving I have suggested some reading material below. You can also read about the history of wood carving, plus see the work of contemporary carvers, on the website of the Te Puia Maori Wood Carving School.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Suggested Further Reading:

Neich, Roger, 2001, Carved Histories, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

Neich, Roger, 1996, 'Wood Carving' in Maori Art and Culture, D.C. Starzecka (editor), London: British Museum Press.

Paama-Pengelly, 2010, Maori Art and Design, New Zealand: New Holland Publishers.