Wednesday, 27 May 2015

'Object Lives' visit

On the 13th April Professor Laura Peers, Lecturer and Curator of the Americas at the Pitt Rivers Museum hosted a visit of a delegation of twelve academics, curators, researchers and students from various Museums and Universities across Canada as part of the ‘Object Lives’ project headed up by Beverly Lemire, Professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

‘Object Lives and Global Histories in Northern North America’ is a collaborative research project with Edmonton and Montreal as the geographic hubs for its enquiry. The project will explore the histories of material culture within these regions, linked to wider global flows of influence that arise from trade, colonialism and migration. The object histories will be developed through the project’s multi-disciplinary partnership, generating essential new knowledge about people and object interactions. The stories of the selected objects will be presented on the 'Object Lives' website, detailing the biographies of goods that acted as surrogates of early globalization and cross-cultural exchange.

Laura Peers and delegates in the PRM research room © Pitt Rivers Museum
As part of this project, delegates are visiting object collections in Canada and more globally to develop object histories. During the groups visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum staff from collections and conservation facilitated the visit by retrieving and cataloguing those objects selected for research and being present during the visit to take notes and provide information on handling and the histories of how the objects came to be in the Pitt Rivers collections.

Wampum belt, 1952.5.08 © Pitt Rivers Museum 

The objects selected included garments, wampum belts, moccasins, horse gear and fishing equipment all from North America and the Canadian Great Lakes areas; Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and some arctic regions. Indeed, in the case of some of the objects the group were building on knowledge from previous researchers when the objects were studied by the Great Lakes Research Alliance for theStudy of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures (GRASAC) research team in 2007. An example of such an object is the wampum belt (1952.5.08) retrieved for both visits. In 2007 the GRASAC team noted that the warp threads on this particular belt were unusually wide. An expert on wampum belts, Jonathan Lainey, an archivist at the Canadian Library and Archives, Ottawa, Ontario made the same observation.

Saddle and crupper, 1884.51.14 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The ‘Object Lives’ delegates visited over three days, spending time in the research room to study in detail the twenty-five objects selected for the visit. Several of the objects promoted animated discussion and interest among the group. I was particularly excited to hear the group’s thoughts on a padded saddle and crupper decorated with quillwork (1884.51.14). The crupper consists of a loop (the crupper itself) and an adjustable strap (crupper strap or back strap) that connects the crupper to back of a riding saddle or the other parts of a harness. The strap runs from the horse's dock, over the croup, to the saddle or to the back band (sometimes called the saddle) of a harness. The saddle had been buried away at the Museum stores and not seen by Museum staff since 2007 when it was last retrieved for cataloguing. The saddle came to the Museum as part of Pitt Rivers founding collection in 1884. It is not possible to know how Pitt Rivers acquired the saddle, most likely from his circle of antiquarian friends or network of dealers. The saddle has the label “NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN SADDLE. Ornamented with porcupine quills in the finest quality of embroidery now no longer employed. The form of stirrup has a long history. It was originally Arab having been derived from the east. It was untouched by the Moors into Spain and by the Spaniards into America, from there it was copied by the Americans of both North and South America.” The group were excited by the saddle, commenting that it was rare to see the saddle and crupper together. Of special interest was the exemplary quillwork showing a range of skill and technique; loom woven, braided edging, quill wrapped beads suggesting the work of more than one woman demonstrating their ability in quillwork. What was also interesting about the saddle was that it was made using only indigenous materials, nothing imported. Retrieving the saddle for the purpose of this visit gave us the opportunity to improve the enhance it's database entry and replace the existing old black and white photograph with a colour photograph. All the objects retrieved for this visit also went through our conservation department and had their condition assessed and improved.

Conservation intern Naomi using the dinoxcope to examine dog harness, 1954.9.26 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Garments in the research room ready for day 2 of visit © Pitt Rivers Museum 
Delegates examining deer skin coat, 1906.83.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Wool suit, 1896.21.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Other objects, which captured the imagination of the group, were the various garments, of which, a striking blue felted wool coat and leggings became a good talking point (1896.21.1). Donated to the Museum in 1896 by Mrs. L. A. Tollemache, the outfit has been attributed to NE Woodlands, Wendat. The coat, in contrast to the saddle is made from a combination of indigenous and imported materials made in blue blanket cloth, lined with wool tartan material and decorated with moose hair applique floral design it is easy to see the global influences in the tailored construction of the coat and floral design of the embroidery. The European tailoring was also seen in a painted deerskin coat viewed by the group on the same day (1906.83.1). The group were particularly interested to hear Cynthia Cooper's thoughts, Head of Collections and Research and Curator of Costume and Textiles at the McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec. With the use of a Dinoxcope digital microscope facilitated by PRM conservation intern Naomi Bergmans, the group were able to examine the textiles in detail. Cynthia was able to talk about their construction with her expert knowledge and using the Internet find similar examples in other collections. The blue wool hat, leggings and coat can be seen on display in the Museum Court, case C.10.A – North American clothing. Interestingly the outfit is mounted on a carved wooden mannequin complete with fig leaf donated to Museum in 1953 intended to display a suit of Japanese Samurai armour! (1953.5.1 .23).

Cynthia with the rest of the group, object research in action! © Pitt Rivers Museum 
One group member, Judy Half, Aboriginal Liaison Officer at the Royal Alberta Museum, was interested to take a closer look at a pouch made from the hide of a white-tailed deer and decorated with quillwork, brass thimbles, jingles and dewclaws (1954.9.22). Judy is making a dewclaw bag herself and so wanted to see how the historic one was made. Judy spoke of the ritual life of the bag, used in ceremonial dances by men. The fragility of the claws and jingles suggest that the bag was worn for slow moving dances, where there are pauses to hear and appreciate the gentle tinkle of jingles. The variety in the size and shape of the thimbles and the use of metal jingles again demonstrate the flow of global influences in Canada and Northern USA at the time that these objects were made and collected.

Dewclaw bag, 1954.9.22 © Pitt Rivers Museum
It was a real pleasure to be part of the ‘Object Lives’ visit and to be present during the lively and stimulating discussions around the interesting histories and stories of these objects. I look forward to following the progress of the project through the ‘Object Lives’ website.

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Temporary Exhibition: 'Preserving What is Valued'

Three arm ornaments from Africa with different methods of original repair
 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The Conservation Team are currently preparing a small temporary exhibition for a display case in the Museum's Lower Gallery showing objects that have been repaired by their original owners.

Given the nature of our work we study objects in great detail and part of our role is often to determine at what stage a repair to an object has been made. Has the repair been made while the object was still in use in the originating community, or by the original collector, or has it been repaired in the Museum?

When we find examples of repairs from originating communities we feel it gives the object a deeper resonance and is something we strive to preserve. Why was this object repaired by its original owners rather than replaced? Is it a fine example of craftsmanship or is it a sacred object? Were the materials it is made from scarce or expensive? These are just some of the questions we aim to explore in the exhibition.

We decided on the idea last summer when two of us attended the opening of an exhibition at the Japanese Embassy in London called 'Gold: All that Glisters - Japanese Gold Decoration.' One aspect of this exhibition focused on kintsugi, the Japanese method of repairing damaged or broken ceramics using urushi lacquer and, most commonly, gold powder. From early times, imperfection has been the subject of aesthetic appreciation in Japan, particularly with regard to the repair of valued items that have suffered in the course of their daily use. This idea of celebrating imperfection chimed with our attitude in Conservation and the repairs we had seen on objects from all parts of the world. We also felt that the theme of the exhibition fitted in well with the current Need, Make, Use Project, which has a focus on crafts skills and technology.

It isn't every day that Conservators have the opportunity to curate an exhibition based on their own idea and we started out by submitting an exhibition proposal to various museum committees for approval. We borrowed the working title 'Preserving What is Valued' from a book published by Canadian conservator Miriam Clavir (with her permission) and it seems to have stuck.

Having received the thumbs up, we then had to work around the schedule for the display case in the Lower Gallery used for temporary exhibitions. A gap was found for late June 2015 until January 2016, which we snapped up. At this point we also started to progress plans in collaboration with the Need, Make, Use Team for some tie-in events over the period of the exhibition. In the autumn we sent an email to all Collections staff to keep a look out for suitable objects.

We are fortunate that the Museum object database contains a search term 'repaired (local)', which refers to a repair made to the object by the originating community.

Database page showing the search term 'repaired (local)'
The term is either added to the record when the object is catalogued by the Collections Team or by Conservators when they work on the object.

Searching by this term initially produced approximately 500 records. We decided to only select object that were in storage, with the aim of producing a Museum Trail to guide visitors around some of the repaired objects on permanent display.

At this stage we were able to export the database information into a spread sheet.

Part of the working spread sheet
This enabled us to work through the list, physically finding and examining the objects to narrow the selection down further. It also made it easier to see if we had a good geographic spread.

We were down to 35 objects when we prepared a test layout. In the Conservation Lab we marked up a group of tables to the dimension of the display case and experimented with groupings. When working on the layout we considered how objects would need to be mounted in the display and how time-consuming it could be. As we work closely with the Museum Display Technicians, we are fully aware of their busy schedule and needed to make the display as uncomplicated as possible.

Test layout for the display in the Conservation Lab
Following the layout we are now down to 31 objects and have discussed the mounting requirements with Chris and Alan, who  will be working on the display. As we do not currently have any examples of kintsugi ceramics in the collection we have arranged to borrow one or two examples from a local private collector.

The selected Museum objects are now in the Conservation Lab being assessed, photographed, some mounts made and the text prepared. This stage will be completed by the end of May ready for the objects to be passed on to Chris and Alan to begin work on a mock-up of the display from the 1st June. All being well the exhibition 'Preserving What is Valued' will be installed by the 29th June. Please look out for the exhibition and the range of tie-in events we hope to have over autumn 2015.

Heather Richardson
Head of Conservation

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Loan to the exhibition ‘Making Monuments on Rapa Nui’ at Manchester Museum

PRM objects being unpacked for condition reporting  © Pitt Rivers Museum. 

On 26th March I travelled to Manchester to meet a small case of stone tools from the PRM collections, which had travelled by truck for installation in the temporary exhibition ‘Making Monuments on Rapa Nui’. The exhibition, curated by Professor Colin Richards, an archaeologist at Manchester Museum who has completed extensive fieldwork on Rapa Nui (more commonly known as Easter Island), takes a fresh look at the iconic statues, or moai, the island is most famous for.

PRM objects after having been condition reported and PRM stone tools (1916.36.167,
1916.36.175, 1916.36.191 and 1916.36.249) arranged for display  © Pitt Rivers Museum.

carved stone head 1916.36.319
 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The objects loaned from the PRM include a number of stone tools, a number of mata'a flakes and hammer stones, from a mata'a factory. Mata'a are stone tools, often tanged spearheads, made from obsidian, a natural glass quarried on the island. Rapa Nui, being a volcanic island has an interesting geological make up, rich in volcanic lava stone from which the monumental heads were made and obsidian. Mata'a appear much more frequently and in larger numbers in later archaeological contexts on Rapa Nui. This has been interpreted as evidence that the islanders' traditional way of life descended into civil strife and open warfare. However, warfare was a part of life on many Polynesian islands, including the Marquesas and it is quite likely to have occurred on Rapa Nui from when the island was first settled. The stone tools were donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1916 by William Scoresby Routledge and his wife Katherine Routledge, both British born and Oxford educated archaeologists, anthropologist and adventurers, who collected the specimens during the voyage of their schooner yacht “Mana” to Rapa Nui and Pitcairn Island between 1913 and 1915. Amongst the stone tools loaned to the exhibition are displayed stone tools belonging to Manchester Museum, the British Museum and World Museum Liverpool. The Routledge’s assembled important collections from Rapa Nui. The PRM has 270 objects from their time spent excavating the island including the more ubiquitous carved stone heads such as this one (1916.36.319, above) which did not go on loan.

PRM stone tools (1916.36.118 - .135) on display  © Pitt Rivers Museum.

Carved lava head, 1970.40.3  © Pitt Rivers Museum
As well as stone tools Manchester also borrowed a small carved human head. Carved of light porous volcanic stone the head has a heavy brow beneath five parallel lines across the forehead. Round protruding eyes, prominent nose, wide mouth and very thin lips. Six parallel vertical lines from the lower lip to the chin indicate a beard. The head was purchased from Staff Sgt. Joseph N. Pansing in 1970 and was obtained by him during his time spent on the island between August 1966 and March 1967. The slightly comical features of the head and in particular the detail of the beard led Museum colleagues at Manchester Museum to speculate as to whether the head is a ‘fake’ and was made to sale to tourists. Researchers during the 19th century saw small stone figures outside the entrances to Rapanui houses.

The exhibition includes some excellent images of Rapa Nui, two large polystyrene reproductions of moai (statues) and a reconstructed quarry as well as current research and thinking from ongoing research by Professor Colin Richards, The University of Manchester’s Professor of World Prehistory and Archaeology, who is currently investigating monumentality, as part of the AHRC-funded Rapa Nui: Landscapes of Construction project involving UCL, Bournemouth University and University of Highlands andIslands. The exhibition is runs until the 6th September, I recommend a visit to Manchester to see it and the newly refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery which I was able to fit a visit to whilst I was in Manchester.

Replica moai in the exhibition at Manchester.

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator  

Reading List:

Obsidian Procurement and Consumption on EasterIslandChristopher M. Stevenson, Leslie C. Shaw and Claudio Cristino Archaeology in Oceania Vol. 19, No. 3 (Oct., 1984), pp. 120-124.

Routledge, Mrs. [Katherine] Scoresby Routledge (1919) TheMystery of Easter Island: The Story of an Expedition. London: Sifton, Praed & Co. Ltd.

Katherine Routledge (Pease): van Tilburg, Jo Anne (2003) Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and herRemarkable Expedition to Easter Island. London: Scribner.