Monday, 12 October 2020

Picturing the Arctic: Loan to the British Museum Citi Exhibition, Arctic Culture and Climate

Sealskin and pigment map of the Bering Strait, 1966.19.1. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum. 

Despite the current pandemic many Museum have now reopened to the public and are trying to resume ‘normal business’ as best as possible. A very public facing part of normal business for museums is to plan and hold a number of temporary exhibitions. Depending on the scale of the exhibition, these often take years in the planning. Just before the UK lockdown the Pitt Rivers Museum was preparing to loan an amazing sealskin pictogram (1966.19.1) from our permanent displays to the British Museum for the exhibition ‘Arctic: Culture and Climate’. Thankfully the exhibition has been rescheduled and will go ahead opening to the public on the 22nd October 2020 – 21 February 2021. The exhibition celebrates the ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness of those who live in the Arctic regions and will include work by Arctic artists, poets and musicians as well as historical artefacts. The map we have lent to the exhibition of the Bering Strait was made by a Siberian Yupik man sometime between 1850-1865 and depicts intimate scenes of life with hunting, travelling, animal migrations, spiritual migrations, spiritual beings and events happening on the Russian and American coastlines. The map was most likely made by an important whaling captain and trader and passed on to British naval officer William Hooper. For the loan to happen we had to adapt our practices, overseeing the installation of the map in the gallery at the British Museum virtually via video call. This would not be possible for a more complex object but the map was secured to a backboard and so needed minimal handling to be condition checked and put in the display case. 

Faye Belsey

Deputy Head of Collections 

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

New Acquisitions: Painting from Ethiopia

Painting by Solomon Belachew showing the defeat of Amhara Ethiopians by Ras Gobena donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum by Alan Goodwin in February 2020

At the end of February Deputy Head of Conservation Andrew Hughes and myself drove the Museum van to Osney Island, Oxford to collect an Ethiopian painting kindly donated to the Museum by Alan Goodwin. Due to the unforeseen circumstances of the Covid -19 pandemic the painting remains in the Museum’s quarantine quarters for processing. Alan had sent photographs of the painting but I was really excited to see it in the flesh. The painting is a visual treat depicting a vivid and lively battle scene commanded by Ras Gobena, General under Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II. Ras Gobena and Menelik II used guns manufactured in Europe to bring Southern and Northern areas of Ethiopia under a centralised rule. The painting clearly depicts Ras Gobena’s men painted with lighter skin attacking the Amhara Ethiopians from the Northern highlands of Ethiopia depicted in the painting with darker skin. The painting is full of contrasts; mud huts/tents, guns/spears, black/white, Christian/Animist, tunics/beaded loin cloths. This is interesting as ultimately it was the unity of Ethiopia, a country of multiple ethnicities and languages, culminating in its victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, ensuring Ethiopia’s sovereignty and freedom from colonialism. The triumphant victory at Adwa brought Ethiopia to the world’s attention, strengthening the country’s image as defender of African independence. 


Painting by Unknown artist on display at the British Museum depicting the Battle of Adwa, 1896

The painting is by the artist Solomon Belachew. It is very similar in style to a painting held by the British Museum depicting the battle of Adwa. There are stylistic similarities in the conventions used to paint the figures and conventions applied in Ethiopian religious paintings. The battle of Adwa was a popular subject for Ethiopians to paint and Solomon Belachew also painted the scene in a painting which is now at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. In our Painting the lighter skinned Oromo Ethiopians are always painted as full-faced figures whilst some of the darker skinned Amhara Ethiopians are painted in profile distinguishing the forces of good from evil. The ferocity of the battle is captured in Belachew’s depiction of blood-spattered victims strewn on the ground. 

 Alastair Goodwin photographed in Africa during the 1940's.

The painting was purchased by Alan Goodwin’s father Alastair Goodwin in 1946 when he was posted to HQ British Military Mission to Ethiopia (Addas Ababa and Jimma) between May – October 1946. Solomon Belachew’s son is also an artist and continues to sale his own paintings and those of other local artist in his studio and shop in the Piazza tourist district of Addis Ababa. It was during Solomon Belachew’s father Belachew Yimar’s time that such contemporary paintings in traditional style became popular souvenirs in the 1940’s for foreign visitors such as Alastair Goodwin to take home. 

Faye Belsey 

Deputy Head of Collections

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

What’s in our Drawers? Transforming a hidden collection

As many visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum have discovered, you will certainly not be short of things to see. But did you know that some 270 drawers in the Court and Lower Gallery are currently being reimagined? In this transformational project, generously supported by The Clothworkers’ Foundation, a largely hidden collection will be made accessible to visitors and open up another exciting dimension to the rich ethnographic collections cared for by the Museum.

Many drawers are overcrowded, resulting in poor visibility of the collection and damage to the objects
At present, these drawers have been used as ‘overspill’ to house objects from the collection and have been added to over the years. With a collection as vast as the Pitt Rivers, it is easy to imagine how crowded these drawers have become. Not only has this resulted in some damage to the objects, it has also limited the accessibility of these objects to visitors.

These display drawers are contemporaneous to the Museum and, like the cabinets, form part of the well-known fabric of the museum often containing objects of the same ‘type’. Younger visitors enjoy pulling open the drawers and seeing what’s hidden inside, but the very action of opening the drawers currently risks further damage to the contents. Here lies the challenge: how do you go about updating these displays whilst working with historic display units? The answer comes in the form of a laser cutter and a lot of Plastazote foam!

Curating the Drawers

The first step in their transformation involves retrieving the drawer and selecting a group of objects to keep on display in the drawer, those that do not make the cut are then packed for storage. Like the larger display cabinets in the Museum the drawers contain a wide variety of objects that span the globe and present a unique curatorial challenge. Most of the drawers are far too full and so the project of redisplay gives us the opportunity to rationalise what we display in any one drawer. This can be difficult when some of the topics are as complex as ‘divination and religious objects from Africa’. Often these objects have complicated histories. Sometimes these are explained on old handwritten metal rimmed labels and so where possible we try to make these labels visible. The hand-written labels are not without their problems, often they contain old fashioned or even offensive terminology. Luckily objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum have often been donated in multiples of the same thing, by different donors. Aesthetically it is nice to group objects in odd numbers and sometimes it can be easy to discount objects on the fact that they may be in a bad condition and there is another example of the same thing which can be used. Again selecting objects which are from the same geographic area is a good rationale as is selecting similar objects from different regions to demonstrate the ingenuity of people from all over the world to make objects for the same function from the resources they have available to them. We have allocated a postcard sized space to accommodate a short explanatory label for each drawer, this also provides a challenge to write a short text interesting enough to aid the visitor in understanding what can be seen but brief enough to fit on a postcard and cover the diverse range of geographical areas and different cultures represented by the multiple objects displayed in a single drawer. Each week we look forward to discovering the contents of a drawer and are excited to see what lies in wait for us. 

Conserving the Drawers Contents

Rebeccas re-humidifying a plant fibre sample

The project has also allowed for remedial intervention to be carried out on some objects that have deteriorated or been damaged whilst stored in the drawers. Conservation treatment has ranged from re-bonding broken clay figurines, re-humidifying pineapple fibre textile samples, and carrying out tear repairs on a folding paper scene. The sheer variety of conservation challenges has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know objects that have remained largely unseen for a number of years. Not only does this ensure that objects are stabilised, it also means that they can be discovered anew by both staff and visitors.

The plant fibre sample before (above) and after (below) conservation treatment

Redisplaying the Drawers

Another exciting aspect of this project has allowed for the development of a technique which allows custom-made Plastazote trays to be created. The new object layouts are photographed, and outlines produced in Adobe Illustrator, before being programmed into the museum’s laser cutter. 

Preparing the Plastazote foam for laser cutting
The result? A foam tray that can be neatly slotted into the drawer. With a cushioning barrier now surrounding each object, a much safer and more attractive display has been achieved.

To date, 56 drawers have been totally transformed. And a huge 2061 individual objects have been processed! So, once we are able to return to the museum why not have a look in our drawers? You never know what you might discover . . . 

The transformed drawer layouts
Interested in following this project? The conservation department post regular updates about the ‘What’s in our Drawers?’ project and many other intriguing finds through their Instagram account. Just search for @pittriversmuseumconservation

Rebecca Plumbe (conservation intern) and Faye Belsey (Deputy Head of Collections)

Monday, 6 April 2020

An Egg at Easter

In 1971 the book ‘An Egg at Easter’ was published. It was the result of years of research and collecting by the folklorist Venetia Newall who won the Chicago Folklore prize for it. It is a wonderful volume detailing the traditions and meanings behind decorating eggs. 

The Pitt Rivers Museum has a significant collection of decorated eggs, mostly from Eastern Europe and a selection can be seen on display in the Lower Gallery. We were able to add to the collection of decorated Easter eggs in 2019 when John Newall, Venetia's husband contacted the Museum offering to donate Venetia’s collection to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Venetia Newall sadly died in 2017 but lived an interesting life. She researched and wrote on witchcraft and magic, folklore of birds and beasts and travelled extensively across Europe, America and Asia. In 1981 she founded the International Folklore Review and served as President and Vice President of the Folklore Society of England. Her contributions in this field cannot be underestimated. It is very fitting that her egg collection has found a home at the Pitt Rivers. As well as global collections the Museum has an eclectic holding of objects associated with folklore, magic and ritual. Several prominent figures in the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum served as presidents of the Folklore society including Henry Balfour, first curator of the Museum and Pitt Rivers himself.

On a very hot summer’s day in 2019 we visited John Newall in London to view Venetia’s collection. We entered a sunny room with a cabinet containing many hundreds of eggs. The room also had framed molas from the San Blas Islands of Panama, and other pieces of art from around the world reflecting Venetia and John’s love of travel and collecting. Some of the eggs had a pungent smell, not all had been blown before being decorated. John recalled to us how Venetia’s egg collection had begun, on a trip to Prague for Easter in 1959:

“…To our amazement, the two women shown in the photo were confidently offering decorated eggs for sale in Wenceslas Square, right in the middle of the city. That was during the still ultra hard-line period, when private trade was absolutely not on. Anyway, we bought a few of their beautifully hand-decorated eggs, and that was the start of Venetia’s collection.”

Eggs have a long tradition of being decorated. They symbolise life, renewal and rebirth both in pagan times and for many Christians particularly during Easter. After having abstained from eating sweets and treats for lent children often indulge in chocolate eggs as a reward and chicken and duck eggs often featured during Easter feasts, though not so much today. Traditionally hard boiled eggs were dyed bright colours and used in Easter games such as egg rolling. In Christianity the rolling of the eggs down a hill symbolises the rolling away of the stones from Christ's tomb associated with his resurrection. The eggs in Venetia's collection show various methods of decoration. Traditional Ukrainian eggs were decorated using batik (wax resist) technique and included Christian designs: churches, crosses and fish for example and pagan designs representing symbols of fertility and creation: ears of wheat, tree of life, emblems of the sun. 

The British Museum have also acquired some of Venetia Newall’s vast collection. Some of the more interesting eggs were made by diaspora groups living away from home such as those made by the German wife of a Ukrainian living in the UK and those made by a Slovakian Czech from New York.

We have yet to have accessioned and catalogued the eggs we have acquired but look forward to doing so soon. Venetia Newall was an inspiring figure, and as well as having a passion for collecting and researching folklore traditions she cared very much for human rights and was a member of the Wolfenden Society, where she helped to facilitate reform of laws regarding LBGT rights in the UK. It really is a great honour for the Museum to have become custodian of the fantastic collection of decorated eggs she had got so much enjoyment from.  

Faye Belsey
Deputy head of Collections

Monday, 30 March 2020

One of my favourite objects: A Bridal Headdress from Palestine

In the Body Arts section of the Lower Gallery of the Museum, a Palestinian bridal headdress (1952.5.86) is to be found. It is one of my favourite objects in the museum. 

The headdress is from Bethlehem, it is made from cotton and lavishly decorated with 1600 silver and gold modern and ancient coins attached to it. It was presented to the bride’s family as a gift from the family of the bridegroom. The headdress was collected by Charles Warren in 1870 when he was working in Palestine and donated to the Museum in 1952. Shelagh Weir suggests that the headdress may have been made around 1845 due to the presence of a large number of coins milled in 1844.

The headdress was and still is an emblem of the wealth and social status of the bridegroom’s family within rural society in Palestine. The headdress usually has either silver or gold coins, so the headdress displayed in the museum is untypical because it contains both. 

It is worn on the head and the bride also wears a long black embroidered dress as well as a black embroidered headdress (a Palestinian bridal headdress is to be found in the textile section of the museum). The embroidered patterns stitched on the dress as well as on the headdress belong to the area where the bridegroom’s family live. 

After the religious ceremony has commenced on the agreed wedding day, the bridegroom’s family visits the bride’s family to take the bride to her new home. The tradition is gradually fading away as more people from the country move towards the city where the wedding traditions are different. 

George Kwaider 
Gallery Attendant 

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Resurrections and Resonances- the stories of the Nun’s Book

During my time at the Pitt Rivers I had the opportunity to work with a range of amazing objects from across the collection. My day might range from accessioning Palaeolithic stone tools, to photographing Ecuadorian terracotta votives, to trying to piece together letter fragments from the 19th century found in an ancient Peruvian pot. However, of all these objects and their associated histories, one that struck me the most came in an unlikely form- a 17th century manual on loop braiding, the so-called ‘Nun’s Book’ (2008.67.1). What had begun as a routine exercise in cross-referencing the database, unfolded into a compelling tale of the resurrection of a lost art form and its associated lives. These lives subsequently challenge our preconceptions of historical intimacy and relationships, while also offering an interesting test case in how we might locate ordinary ‘queer’ lives in history. Ultimately, the book attests to the unexpected power and insight that seemingly mundane objects can hold, a tenet that holds true of the museum’s collection as a whole.

Detail of braid included in 'Nun's book'
Below: Page from Nun's book 2008.67.1

Loop braiding or fingerloop braiding is the name given to a number of techniques where loops of thread, attached to a central point, are hooked around fingers and interlaced in different ways to create braids. This technique was common in Europe through the Medieval and the beginning of the Early Modern period, but the craft appears to have fallen into obscurity from the 17th century onwards. Historical examples of such braids are rare due to the degrading of the textiles through the centuries but a number of manuscripts survive with ‘patterns’ for such braids. The Nun’s Book is one such pattern-book, notable for having surviving examples of braids (figs. 1 & 2) but the book becomes truly unique when you consider the type of braids it contains, letter-braids. These are braids with letters and messages woven into them of which very few examples remain. The technique of creating such braids was all but lost until the pioneering research and analysis of Naomi Speiser and Joy Boutrup. While the Nun’s Book is a pattern book the instructions contained within are incredibly opaque to a modern reader, a series of baffling tables seemingly impenetrable even by experts. However, through in depth analysis of the surviving braids and experimentation, the technique has been cracked, resurrected after more than 200 years and along with it an intriguing glimpse into their original creators and the braids’ potential purposes.

In Appendix I of Speiser & Boutrup (2009) is a list, straightforwardly titled ‘Texts for Letter Braids’, suggestions found within The Nun’s Book and other manuscripts of messages people could weave into their braids. What I found within this list was strange, surprising, and touching. The majority of the texts were deeply affectionate messages directed towards the wearer-

Deare friend I’le do my best Indeaver- To knit your affection unto me forever
No greater portion would I crave- Then whilst I live your Love to have
Take it and wear and think withal- My Love is great though gift be small
Though far a parte- Yet neare in hearte 

Moreover, we find similar messages suggested in other letter braid manuscripts suggesting that this is not simply a peculiarity of The Nun’s Book but an intended characteristic in the creation of these braids-

My Love in this: Presented is[iv]

These suggest the braids were intended as gifts between close friends or lovers, a memento while the other was absent. A touching piece of history, but the story becomes more intriguing when we realise these were most likely primarily exchanged between women, an interpretation Speiser suggests in her work which is also apparent in some of the suggested messages-

Heare May you see in Letters few- The Love of her that honoreth you

Another aspect worth noting is the emphasis some place on concealment of affection, a notion that the two cannot freely express themselves-

I love you well but dare not show it- Doe you the like but let me know it
The Love I owe I cannot showe

The question then becomes- what was the nature of these relationships? Can we see these as expressing romantic love between two women? Or do these instead show different standards of expressing affection than modern normative conceptions? Are they both? While the lives of the women who created and exchanged these braids are lost and we cannot speak in certainties these grant us a tantalising glimpse into expressions of intimacy between ordinary women of the 17th century. Even without these certainties, it certainly serves as a potential challenge to our preconceptions of this historical period, while also providing us examples of how and where we might locate ‘queer’ lives in history.

Alex Grindley

Collections Intern

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Interning with the Pitt Rivers Collections Department

Last summer I spent five weeks interning with the Pitt Rivers Museum’s (PRM) Collections department, this was an invaluable experience for me as a student looking to pursue a career in the museum sector. The internship taught me a lot; both in practical skills and about working in museums in general. I am very grateful for the opportunity, and for the Santander award funding I received through the Oxford University Internship Programme.

For the duration of my internship I was shadowing Faye Belsey and Nicholas Crowe in their day-to-day work. They, the whole Collections team, and everyone working at the Pitt Rivers were incredibly welcoming, friendly, and always eager to answer any questions that I had. I got to engage with so many different tasks, ranging from photographing La Madeline stone tools, to collecting objects from museums cases, to researching objects. Here I will just summarise a few tasks I undertook.

Over the course of my internship I assisted with two research visits, one from a curator of the Sarawak Museum, and one from a Maori art collective. These were very interesting experiences as they allowed me to engage hands on with material and learn more about the objects from people who really understood the context of the objects. Assisting with the Maori research visit was definitely a highlight of my time at the PRM. The objects the artists were exploring were mostly cloaks, but there were also woven bags, a piece of bark cloth, a Huia bird skin, and a tuatara knife. These artists explored the collection with excitement and passion, able to analyse every woven stitch to uncover how the object was made. Before beginning their research, a statement was made and their hands were washed, with some of the artists being moved to tears. This was incredible to see as it really contextualised the objects as belonging to a present cultural group, not some past peoples, as is so often expected of early collected ethnographic material. 

For the Sarawak research visit the objects were: two tobacco boxes, two shirts, four jackets, one hat. Of particular interest to the researcher was the hat (sera’ong). The this type of bamboo hat offers a protective power to a woman and child when worn. It offers protection from the sun, and from snakes and head hunters in the area outside the longhouse. The researcher had come across the hat on the PRM Online Database and thought there was a possibility it may have once been in the collections of the Sarawak Museum. It was a very exciting moment when, through handling the object, the Sarawak Museum Accession Number was uncovered, confirming the researcher’s theory.

Hat and inside of hat, 1923.86.102 . ©  Pitt Rivers Museum

Kesang Ball, London 2018. © Nyema Droma and Pitt Rivers Museum

At a later date, I helped with the transcribing of subtitles for the video of interviews shot by Nyema Droma during her photoshoots. It was particularly interesting to see how different people held conflicting opinions on the basis of identity, such as how much of it is symbolised by local dress. For example, Tsewang Gonpostated,“I think Tibetans should wear traditional costume more often as wearing a Tibetan outfit shows your Tibetan identity.” Whereas Tsering Yata believes, My Tibetan identity is not about what I am wearing.” 

During my internship, the largest piece of independent research I undertook was the documentation of the John Driver acquisition. This was a collection of eighteen items donated to the museum after the passing of linguist John Driver. The objects were a selection of items from Driver’s time in Tibet, and were all textile based. I greatly enjoyed handling the textiles and trying to uncover their function and relation to other objects. One piece that was particularly exciting to analyse was the mask (2018.220.1) 

Mask, 2018.220.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Through searching online I discovered that this particular style of mask is a soft-shaped mask, of the hard quality type. It was made using paperboard as a roughcast and then cloth and animal skin are stuck on, with holes cut out for the eyes and mouth. This type of mask is seen primarily in folk operas, dancing performances, singing, and story-telling. They are basic and unsophisticated, displaying a strong influence of Tibetan folk art and the characteristics of the primitive art of masks. After researching the objects, I updated their information on the database, sewed on their labels and photographed them. It was incredibly rewarding being able to work with a group of objects from start to finish as I got to see first-hand the amount of work that goes into acquisitioning an object.

Both these research activities involved getting to grips with the Objects PRM Database. This was initially a difficult piece of software for me to navigate, but with time I got the hang of things and could confidently update information and search for objects. Near the end of my internship I attended a meeting centred on understanding how the database is used across the museum, and the functions that must be obtained when the software is updated. This was really interesting as I was able to learn how the database was used across the different departments; from collections, to conservation, and education.

One very exciting job I was lucky enough to assist with was the hanging of the Performing Tibetan Identities exhibition, photographed by Nyema Droma. It was fantastic to see the amount of work different departments do to both plan for and install an exhibition, and wonderful to see that a year of work had culminated in such a great result. The end result was stunning and conceptually interesting, with the installation boldly filling the empty space above the cabinets in the Great Court, producing the aesthetic of contemporary western art whilst echoing the form of strings of traditional Tibetan prayer flags.

This focus on the importance of traditional dress in identity making was particularly interesting to me having worked with the Tibetan textiles from the John Driver acquisition. Some of the pieces I researched were exquisitely made, and it would have been interesting to have discussed with their makers how they felt the pieces were reflective of Tibetan identity in the same way Nyema has asked contemporary Tibetans.

Another key task I performed during my internship was working at the off-site store. The OPS project has meant that all the material stored at the off-site store needed to be audited and packed to be moved. I arrived in the last few weeks of this project and assisted with the packaging of spears and identifying objects that had been found unnumbered.

The spears I was packing were mostly Australian or Asian, but there were also spears from all across the world. The variety was extraordinary, ranging from a sharpened stick to those that were ornately decorated, such as spears from Nagaland, North East India. Great caution had to be taken while packing so as not to damage the object, but also to avoid causing injury to myself or others around me. The approach was to consider all objects likely to be poisoned, which I had discussed with the Conservation department beforehand, and I was made aware of the safety precautions that ought to be taken.

The found unnumbered objects (FUs) are objects that had been found in the packing of the collections without an accession number on them. I worked with Joanna Cole to try and match these objects to database entries, and where it was not possible we endeavoured to describe the object and its possible use in as much detail as possible.

This experience has definitely affirmed my desire to work in the museum sector. Being able to engage with the different tasks of research visits, independent database work, exhibition planning, and collections management/organisation has definitely encouraged me to pursue work in a Collections team specifically. I have had an amazing experience interning at the Pitt Rivers, and am incredibly grateful to Nico and Faye for all their help, and I would certainly recommend the internship to others.

Catherine O’Brien