Monday, 27 March 2017

A lesson in making the colour of the night sky and deepest ocean

The indigo mixture and below indigo in the pounder 
Last week three of us from the Pitt Rivers Museum, Julia Nicholson, Head of Collections, Jeremy Uden, Head of Conservation and myself were lucky enough to attend a two day workshop on indigo hosted by the conservation department of the Bodleian Library and led by indigo expert Jenny Balfour-Paul. Jenny has studied this mysterious colour, the colour so imbedded in our everyday lives as indicated by the title of her book “Indigo: from Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans” for over 20 years. This rich, deep colour, derived from the indigo plant, we learnt, is a chemical marvel. We made a chemical dye vat (with a kit from Maiwa) using natural indigo adding chemicals thiourea dioxide and lye to act as alkaline and as a reducing agent. Ideally, we would have made a fermentation vat using all natural materials whereby bacteria would break down the indigo naturally but this is a long process which could take several days or weeks and we only had a short time. 

We left the vat overnight and returned the next day to see what it had done. Amazingly the vat is clear/yellowish, not blue as you would expect. The smell was pungent. As the material is dipped into the vat it comes out green and turns blue when it hits the air through oxidization. It was amazing seeing the transformation before our very eyes. We dipped paper into the vat, removing the scum from the surface to make dye gods, a Japanese tradition to bring good luck to the success of the vat.

We also played with indigo as a pigment, braking the raw indigo down with a pestle and mortar and adding honey and gum arabic to make paint. We experimented with burnishing and used gold to paint over the indigo. This was a technique used in ancient manuscripts from Asia, the Middle East and Europe which we had seen in the Bodleian collections on the 

first day of the workshop. We have a number of indigo 
dyed textiles in the collections of the PRM including 
beautifully shiny indigo textiles from Southwest China

All hands in the indigo vat, below, Japanese dye god
Jenny Balfour-Paul has been kind enough to donate her collection of Textiles from the Arab world to the Museum. Many of the textiles use the rich tradition of indigo dying. I look forward to cataloguing Jenny's collection and researching it further in the coming months.

Many thanks to the conservation department of the Bodleian Library for hosting the event and for letting us use their photographs from the workshop in this blog. 

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Fijian Visitors to the Museum

On the 13th of February we were delighted to host a visit by colleagues from Fiji Museum and the iTaukei Trust Fund. They are visiting the UK from Fiji as part of the Fijian Art Research project hosted by The Sainsbury Research Unit. As part of their visit to the UK they also visited The Horniman Museum, CambridgeUniversity Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum. During their day at the PRM they had a behind the scenes tour of the Museum including our education and conservation departments. We also showed them collections from Fiji from the Museum stores including breast plates, nose flutes and Arthur Maurice
Hocart’s early 19th century Fijian photograph collection. We had a great day together and enjoyed sharing insights into Museum practice both at home in the UK and across the Pacific.

© Pitt Rivers Museum

Percy Manning: The man who collected Oxfordshire

On Monday 20th February we welcomed the Kirtlington Morris dancers to the Museum to mark the opening of the temporary exhibition ‘Oxfordshire Folkloreand Customs: Celebrating the centenary of antiquarian and folklorist Percy Manning’ in the Didcot case on the Lower Gallery. The Kirtlington Morris have kindly donated some contemporary pieces of Morris dancing kit to the exhibition. They performed a number of dances outside the front of the Museum of NaturalHistory and after joined us for some celebratory tea and cake!

The exhibition closes on the 8th May. Kirtlington Morris will be participating in Oxford folk weekend alongside other Oxfordshire Morris teams on the 21st-23rd April.