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

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