Thursday, 20 August 2015

Caring for the Collections: Good Gourd!

The information found either written on an object or on a label attached
to the object allows us to track the object down on the database, assign it the
correct accession number,catalogue it and record its location making the object
more accessible for staff and researchers. © Pitt Rivers Museum

The wooden drawer units  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Box storage  © Pitt Rivers Museum

After having embarked and completed the rather large and daunting project of cataloguing and improving the storage of plant fibre clothing in the collections at our store we turned our attention to a more manageable project to see us through the summer. The Museum has a large collection of gourds kept in a less than useful wooden drawer system at the store. Gourds are particularly vulnerable to getting broken or damaged due to their delicate composition, odd shapes and sizes and varying thickness/thinness. And so, to this end, for the well being of the gourds the wooden drawer system is being replaced with conservation grade boxes and packaging.

The collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and indeed ethnographic collections all over the world demonstrate imaginative use of the gourd. Gourds of all shapes and sizes are a natural resource across the globe and in societies today gourds are still being used as bowls, vessels, hats, musical instruments and for many other utilitarian purposes. Conservator Jeremy Uden and myself have been surprised by the variety of shapes, sizes and uses of the gourd and the varying thicknesses from eggshell thin to an inch or more thick. We are half way through the cataloguing and re-storage project and are getting an eye for identifying preferred decorative techniques from country to country. As well as gourds we are also working through vessels made from seed and nut including coconut vessels mostly from Oceania. Coconuts are readily available to Pacific Islanders and prove useful repositories for carrying and storing water and drinking water and kava from.

Above: gourds and coconut vessels in the process of being
catalogued and packed  © Pitt Rivers Museum

Gourd of the Lengua Indians; 1903.19.3  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Decorative techniques also vary greatly, with surfaces being incised with linear, figurative and geometric designs and decorated with burnt patterns known as pyro engraving. Coconut shells are inlaid with pearl shell and shell beads for aesthetic effects and white lime rubbed into incised designs to highlight the pattern. A particularly ingenious method of carving the lid so that it fits perfectly onto the gourd vessels is that of the Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco, South America. One end of the gourd is cut from the other with a zigzag line. Some of the coconuts and gourds have been decorated with perfect circular patterns created with a compass. We have more than one example of a coco de mer, or double coconut having been refashioned into a Hindu Sadhu's begging bowl with metal chain suspension for wearing around the neck. The value of the gourd as a utilitarian object is also emphasised by the local repairs found on some of them. Rather than make a new one, someone has taken the time to repair a damaged gourd already fashioned as a vessel. Later in the year the Museum will have a temporary display curated by our conservation department focusing on objects with local repairs 'Preserving What is Valued' including gourds. Some of these techniques and methods of using and decorating gourds can been seen on display in the Museum Court in the Geometric Form in Art case C.145.A and also in musical instruments particularly stringed lutes and zithers where the gourd forms the resonator part of the instrument.

Hindu Sadhu's begging bowl made from a double coconut;
1933.51.65   © Pitt Rivers Museum

Above, two gourd vessels which have local repairs where the
gourd has split and broken  © Pitt Rivers Museum

Above are coconut shells fashioned into water carrying vessels.
The top photograph shows how a plant fibre basketry frame has been
made to cradle the two coconuts and the one below has simply
been decorated with pearl shell; 1887.1.578 & 1933.38.27  © Pitt Rivers Museum

Above; gourds decorated with pyro-engraving technique, where burn marks
applied often with a poker have been used to make patterns and
decoration on the gourd; 1900.55.431 & 1934.8.102  © Pitt Rivers Museum

The two gourds above have been decorated with incised designs and
patterns and then rubbed with lime which is white and
acts highlight the design; 1935.56.15 & 1946.6.63 .2  © Pitt Rivers Museum

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator

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