Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Museum Ethnographers Group 2015 Conference Review

MEG Conference – Powell-Cotton Museum, Kent, 20/21 April Nature and Culture in Museums

Every year the Museum Ethnographers Group holds a two-day conference to explore an important theme within the discipline of museum ethnography. As web officer for the Museum Ethnographers group I was lucky enough to attend the 2015 conference. This year’s conference theme was aptly chosen to suit the unique setting of the conference host, the Powell-Cotton Museum.

The Powell-Cotton Museum has long embraced in its displays the duality of nature and culture, natural and man-made, animals and objects. This was emphasised during conference organiser and Head of Collections at the Powell-Cotton Museum Inbal Livne’s welcoming speech. The first day of the conference was held in Gallery 1, an inspiring gallery, finished in 1939 with wall-to-wall dioramas displaying the animals of north and west African and India, speakers had a hard job competing with the visual stimulus of the gallery but often what was being spoken was directly being reinforced by the displays. This was particularly useful for Jude Philips (Macleay Museum, Sydney University Museums) talk on the Macleay Museum’s recent exhibition Stuffed, stitched and studied. When Jude’s power point presentation struggled to get working Jude was able to use the displays as her visual prompts to illustrate her talk. After a stirling effort of Powell-Cotton Museum staff the power point was up and running and Jude was able to share images of the exhibition with the group including quirky artist photographic portraits of taxidermed specimens emphasising taxidermy as a human endeavour and the anthropomorphical attributes we assign to them.

Our first speaker, Paolo Viscardi (Horniman Museum) was the first of other speakers to talk of the role of collaboration between anthropologists and natural historians, referencing the early cabinets of curiosities or ‘wunderkammer’, encyclopaedic collections where categorical distinctions and boundaries between disciplines; art, geology, archaeology, ethnology and natural history were yet to be made. This was also alluded to by Alison Clark (Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) in her presentation ‘All the World for Sale: Nature and Culture at Gerrard and Sons’, taxidermist and art dealer whose sales room often included zoology specimens alongside ethnographic collections. Alison also reminded us that ethnographic collections are made up from composite objects, made up from animal parts as well as other organic materials. Collecting practices during the 19th century reflected in publications such as ‘hints to travellers’ encouraged this multidisciplinary approach and resulted in collections including a diverse range of objects exploring the natural and man made world, nature and culture. Jenny Walklate was the third speaker to reference ‘wunderkammer’ in her presentation ‘Swifts in the Tower of the House of God: The Reciprocal Framing of Nature and Culture in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’ and the complex relationship the building reflects between science and faith. Jenny finished her presentation with an insightful auto-ethnography of her personal reflections on how the Victorian aesthetic of the museum impacts upon contemporary personal interpretations of the natural world.

A long and very tasty lunch gave delegates the first opportunity to look around the Museum galleries and gardens including the much anticipated newly opened Gallery 6. The subject of an ACE funded project ‘Securing the Future of Our Past’ the gallery has been re-designed to encourage every visitor to be a researcher, introducing Percy Powell-Cotton's expeditions on which he amassed his collections. The gallery also puts the Museum’s handling collection at its centre, a combination of natural history and ethnographic objects for visitors to experience first hand. The modern design of Gallery 6 contrasted with the more traditional displays in the rest of the Museum but highlighted the Museum’s potential.

The end of day one saw interesting presentations from Caroline Cornish (Royal Holloway) and Mark Nesbitt (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) on ‘Seeds of Industry and Empire: Revitalising Economic Botany Collections’. I was not overly familiar with the concept of ‘economic botany’ defined by Caroline and Mark simply as ‘plants transformed into items of use to human beings’ These collections were established and displayed in colonised countries, modelled on the oldest such collection, the Kew Museum of Economic Botany. The end of empire marked the end of these collections and many were dispersed and put into storage. Caroline and Mark, through the course of their project on the subject have been re-discovering these collections and exploring their relevance today.

Lastly, the day was finished on an entertaining note with a look at the role of animals and Museum displays and marketing campaigns in Antonia Lovelace’s presentation ‘Comparing the meerkat and falling for ‘Digital’ monkey – How trending animal totems playfully impact on our relationship with real animals and Museum displays’ Antonia has had to present a case for acquiring some of these popular characters into the collections at Leeds City Museum, a collection that already includes toys. Her paper asked ‘is there a place for these objects in contemporary collecting?

The day’s sessions finished at 5.00pm allowing more time for exploration of the galleries, a drinks reception and a short talk from Chris Spring of the British Museum on the temporary touring exhibition Social Fabric: African Textiles Today. Delegates enjoyed top-notch catering of a delicious three-course meal provided by the Powell-Cotton’s in house caterers.

Day two of the conference was opened by Anita Herle (Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), Tony Eccles (Royal AlbertMemorial Museum Exeter) and Alison Brown (University of Aberdeen) and their paper ‘Storied Landscapes: Enlivening Blackfoot Collections in UK Museums’ and the work all three are doing through their respective institutions extending networks between Blackfoot people and UK collections and how for Blackfoot people landscape and sites of encounter contribute to a fuller understanding of Blackfoot historic collections.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the conference theme ‘Nature and Culture’ was metamorphasied by interventionist artist Alana Jelinek by cleverly using the science of ecology as a metaphor for the art world. Alana reinstated and emphasised the reoccurring themes of the conference; that the dichotomy between nature and culture may not exist, there is no clear divide between what is human and what is not human. Alana proposed using the science of ecology to understand the complex interactions between the range of cultural practices at play in the art world.

As well as the more thematic papers on ‘Nature and Culture’, the conference as usual offered a plethora of interesting ‘work in progress’ papers for colleagues to share and up-date members on current projects in the sector often reflecting current trends and practice in ethnography more generally. Included in this was an update from Len Pole on the ‘Uniques’project: getting to know more about ethnographic collections in Kent and Sussex’, Alison Petch on progress being made on researching Spencer and Gillen collections outside of Australia, Heather Donoghue on cataloguing the Cooke Daniels collections at the British Museum before she embarks on fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Clare Wintle’s potential project exploring ethnographic museums at the end of empire, 1945-1980, a period often thought of as the ‘dark ages of museum ethnography’, but how far is this theory true, in what ways were museums in the UK contributing to wider political, economic and social change during the middle years of the twentieth century? Catherine Harvey spoke about a recent significant acquisition for Hasting’s Museum of North American material from Colin Taylor and the challenges faced by small local museums during difficult economic times in advocating world culture collections. Alison Brown concluded the work on progress papers having just returned from Russia having, through an AHRC funded project facilitated the loan of a mammoth ivory model of ysyakh from the British Museum to the National Museum of the Arts, Yakutiia.

A selection of papers from the conference will be available in the next issue of the Journal of Museum Ethnography (JME) (available from April 2016).

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Conservation of a 19th Century Tahitian 'Poncho'

As part of the final year of my MSc in Conservation for Museums and Archaeology at UCL, I am undertaking a five-month internship in the Conservation Department of the Pitt Rivers Museum. I have been lucky enough to spend some of my time here researching and conserving a fascinating object. Although it was "found unentered" (that is, found without an accession number or other identifying information) in the Museum store in 1984, more has since been discovered about the object's provenance. More recently, it came to the attention of Conservation staff, who blogged about it here - which is how it ended up as my internship project.

Based on analogies with objects at the Royal Economic Botany Collection at Kew Gardens (42977, 73328 and 73329) and at the British Museum (Oc1960,11.22, Oc1960,11.24 and Oc1960,11.25), the object can be identified as a traditional Tahitian poncho-like garment called a tiputa. It consists of a rectangular piece of barkcloth with a central opening to pass over the wearer's head. It is elaborately decorated with rosettes made of folded monocot leaf strips or stems and long fringes of extremely delicate plant leaf epidermis.

PRM 1984.3.1, front shown after conservation treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

Given the lack of information about how the poncho came to be in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections, it is not implausible to suggest that - like the comparable objects from Kew and the British Museum - it may have been collected by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, during a visit to Tahiti in 1869.

The Duke of Edinburgh is shown in this carte-de-visite photograph surrounded by Tahitian royal women in 1869 (image taken from the web page 'Ahoy - Mac's Web Log', where a now defunct commercial website '' is credited as the original source of the image). 

Prince Alfred's visit took place almost exactly a century after Captain Cook's first voyage, by which time there had already been extensive contact between Tahitians and Europeans. In fact, contemporary travellers' and missionaries' accounts describe islanders wearing a combination of barkcloth and Western woven textile clothing. It is interesting to note that by the mid-19th century, barkcloth production had probably ceased on Tahiti, so the material may have been imported from another Polynesian island. The highly decorated style of the poncho, moreover, does not fit in the traditional category of Tahitian high-status barkcloth, which was white and undecorated. All of this points to the poncho being the product of a period marked by dynamic, creative use of material culture to define colonial identities.

PRM 1984.3.1 as found in storage, before conservation treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

From a conservation point of view, the poncho presented several problems, many of which resulted from inappropriate storage conditions in the past. The garment had been folded in half twice, and was then tightly packed into a wooden crate. This led to distortion and creases in the barkcloth material itself, as well as extensive damage and material loss to the fragile decorations. The decorative fringes which remained on the object were tangled, creased and damaged. The object was also rather dirty.

Bag of detached fragments. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Thick covering of dirt on one of the rosettes. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Tangled, creased and damaged edge fringes. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Besides providing an opportunity to revisit some research into the poncho's cultural and historical significance, the main aim of the conservation treatment was to improve the structural stability of the poncho, while also improving its visual appearance. I used a Preservation Pencil to humidify the fringes one by one, straightened and untangled them, and repaired damaged areas with small patches of Japanese tissue paper adhered with starch paste. I cleaned the rosettes with a fine brush and vacuum tweezers and then misted them with a consolidant coating to strengthen the material. Finally, integral to the conservation treatment was devising a more appropriate storage solution, which would allow the object to be stored more comfortably and accessed more safely and conveniently in the future.

Humidifying and straightening the edge fringes, in progress. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The scale of a conservation project like this cannot be underestimated. I spent 110 hours in total on the treatment and used around £78 worth of archival-grade materials (corrugated polypropylene board, Plastazote foam, cotton calico and polyester wadding) for the repacking. The volume of the new storage box is approximately 540 litres - nearly eight times the volume of the old crate. This clearly has implications for space availability inside the Museum store, an increasingly precious resource.

PRM 1984.3.1 in its new storage box, with the old crate pictured alongside © Pitt Rivers Museum
Finally, the treatment has provided me with an opportunity to collect already detached samples of the various plant materials present, with a view to carrying out more detailed identification using scanning electron microscopy and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy at UCL's Institute of Archaeology. This analysis will be done over the next few months and I hope to be able to share the results in a follow-up blog post then.

Naomi Bergmans
Conservation Student