Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Percy Manning Archive

Madeleine Ding looking through one of Manning's notebooks © Pitt Rivers Museum
In 2017 Oxford University Museums and libraries will be celebrating the centenary of folklorist, archaeologist and antiquarian Percy Manning. Oxford educated Manning, born in 1870 in Leeds, came to Oxford in 1888 to study at New College and went on to live out his adult life in Oxford. He was very much apart of the intellectual hub that encapsulated Oxford and to this end became very involved in various Oxford societies. His interests in folklore, custom and tradition in Oxfordshire led him to collect material culture reflecting this, in particular was his interest in collecting in the material and immaterial sense anything associated with Morris dancing and one of his most notable achievements was reviving this ‘dying’ tradition.

Object labels found in the archive possibly referring to 
objects donated to the PRM by Manning in 1911 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

In 1911 Manning donated a plethora of what can only be described as miscellaneous utilitarian objects of English origin to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Unlike the archaeological material he had donated to the Ashmolean Museum, the objects donated to the PRM come with comparatively little contextual information. The motivation for him to collect these objects and then donate them to the PRM is unclear though the influence of the PRM’s curator at the time, Henry Balfour, was sure to have played a role.

Article written by Henry Balfour on Whithorns kept by Manning 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

My colleague Madeleine Ding and I are planning how the PRM should commemorate Manning in 2017 and hope to have small display including a Morris dancers outfit from Kirtlington, Whit horns from Ducklington and other objects from the PRM’s collections. In order to try and get a better understanding of this material and Manning himself, we recently visited the new Weston Library to view parts of Manning’s extensive archive held by the Bodleian. Given Manning’s fastidiousness with recording information about traditions and folk life in Oxfordshire, we were hoping to find more references to the material now in the PRM’s collections. The archives are very interesting and include correspondence between Manning and his filed collector Thomas James Carter, newspaper clippings and snippets of articles. It left us with lots to think about!

Mannings notes on the revival of Morris dancing © Pitt Rivers Museum
Article that appeared in Folklore magazine, 1897, the publication of the 
Folklore society of which Manning was a member, written by Manning 
on 'Some Oxfordshire Seasonal Festivities' © Pitt Rivers Museum
Correspondence from Carter to Manning listing expenses of having 
traveled to various Oxfordshire villages for fact finding and 
collecting on behalf of Manning © Pitt Rivers Museum

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Conservation of Two Fine Mats from Samoa and Tonga

As a third year student studying for a BA in Conservation and Restoration at the University of Lincoln I am spending six weeks within the Conservation Department at the Pitt Rivers Museum. I have been working on two finely woven mats from Samoa and Tonga. Since coming into the Museum collections in 1948 they have been housed in cramped glass frames, making it difficult to tell the condition and even their full size. Upon their release from these frames I discovered a number of interesting aspects - including the fact the Tongan mat was over two metres squared, more than twice the size of the Samoan one.

Left: Samoan Mat PRM 1948.12.1 B with the frame backing removed
Right: Tongan Mat PRM 1948.12.2 B in the old glass frame © Pitt Rivers Museum
Arthur Mahaffy, a British colonial officer, collected both mats. In a letter written in 1914 to a Mrs Harcourt - from whom the Museum received the mats in 1948 - he declared the larger Tongan mat to be over 50 years old. While specifying no age for the Samoan mat, though he noted it was cleaner and overall in better condition. Mahaffy spent most of his career in the Pacific; by 1908 he was Deputy Commissioner of the West Pacific and often visited Samoa and Tonga, where he would have been familiar with the respective political families. These included the revered figure of Fatafehi, the last in a succession of Sacred Tongan Kings, who gave the larger mat to Mahaffy.

Left: Mahaffy's letter 1914; right: detail of the red and white feathers on the Samoan mat © Pitt Rivers Museum
Despite slight differences in the cultural associations of fine mats in Tonga and Samoa - or kie hingoa and 'ie toga respectively - there are central aspects that are true for both. For instance, fine mats make up most of the material wealth of important Tongan and Samoan families and are often reserved for wearing only at weddings or funerals, or other significant events. The cultural exchange back and forth between the two islands and their shared history can be followed in the exchange of these mats down through the years. The red feathers typical of these mats are probably the highly valued rare parakeet feathers from Fiji (possibly the Fiji parrotfinch), which were traded back and forth between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Both mats are likely to be pandanus leaves (a relative of palm) the finest of these reserved for fine mats. Ideal characteristics of these leaves include suppleness, colour, and the thinness of fibre. The leaf is laboriously processed with many cycles of soaking in salt and fresh water, drying and splitting repeatedly until the desired qualities are achieved. These fibres are then woven together by hand often taking six months to over a year to complete.

Having possibly spent close to a 100 years tightly packed into frames both mats had deeply impressed creases. Plus the fibres at the folds and creases were comparatively brittle compared to the supple texture of the main body. To relax the fibres I used an ultrasonic humidifier to mist water vapour across the creases, whilst gently and carefully manipulating these areas with my fingers. The creases were then weighted and left for a time.

Left: Tongan mat crease before humidification; Middle: after humidification
Right: Samoan mat weighting of creases and pandanus ribbons © Pitt Rivers Museum
After this process both mats could be fully unfolded, making visible a number of aspects previously hidden from view. These included an interwoven zigzag design in a red-brown yarn, with a stepped edge at the top; original repairs; plus a number of holes in the larger mat. I could also see where strings of feathers had become separated from the body of the mats, which I secured with a couching stitch to prevent any losses. The original repairs were interesting to note, as they imply how important the preservation of these mats were to their original owners.

Left: Untangling the pandanus fringe on the Samoan mat
Right: Detail of the zigzag design on the Tongan mat © Pitt Rivers Museum 
In Samoa and Tonga particularly important fine mats are named. A mat belonging to the Tu'ifa family named Kie Monumonuka or mat that is wounded is described in Adrienne Kaepler's study "Kie Hingoa: Mats of Power, Rank, Prestige and Security". As a trainee conservator this is an appealing concept, where the prestige of the mat derives from the history that is visible in its current condition. As Kaepler, the Pacific scholar suggests, they are 'old because they are important and not important because they are old'.

The Samoan mat after treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

Bethany Skuce
Conservation and Restoration Student

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Visit to the Indigenous Australia exhibition at the British Museum

I always find exploring other museum collections and meeting colleagues working in other institutions a rewarding experience. Julia and I, both from the Collections Department at the Pitt Rivers, recently visited the British Museum to see the temporary exhibition Indigenous Australia enduring civilisationThe Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG) had organised a special tour of the exhibition, which included a talk by the Curator Gaye Sculthorpe.

MEG trip to the exhibition
We met up with the rest of the group from MEG, then Gaye gave an informative and interesting introductory talk before we looked at the exhibition. The British Museum collection was very impressive - including the work of contemporary Australian Indigenous artists, as well as older objects.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, along with other institutions,  had loaned some objects for the exhibition - which had plenty of visitors - so it was good to know people had this opportunity to see them on display.

A relaxing chat after the exhibition tour
with Curator Gaye Sculthorpe

After a good look around we then met up again with Gaye, who had kindly set aside time to have an informal chat with us all after we'd looked around.

Unfortunately the exhibition closed on 2 August. However, if you are interested, you can still get a copy of the publication Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which was researched and written in conjunction with the exhibition. If you are in Australia, you will be pleased to hear part of the collection is travelling there for a temporary exhibition. Plus Gaye intends to continue to to bring attention to the importance of the British Museum's Australian collections, which will involve working directly with Indigenous Australians.
PRM 1982.12.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum lent three objects to the British Museum for the exhibition. A wooden club from New South Wales; a  bark painting from Arnhem Land (right); and a carrying vessel from the Kimberleys (below). This type of vessel is sometimes called a coolamon and can be used for all sorts of things, including carrying a baby. The painting is the work of artist Billinyara Nabegeyo and is of the Rainbow Snake, which is very significant within Australian Indigenous culture.

On behalf of Julia and I, I'd like to say thank you to Gaye and MEG for this opportunity for such an insightful and enjoyable day.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

PRM 1896.50.4 © Pitt Rivers Museum