Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Labelling Matters: The Cook Collection: Euphemisms and Omitted Contexts

The Cook collection on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum ©  Pitt Rivers Museum

 “Coloniality is what the narratives hide or disguise because it cannot be said explicitly” - Walter D. Mignolo

The advent of globalization came with a promise of happiness, innovation and scientific discovery for mankind. The price paid: a continuous and ever growing appropriation of resources, labour and mental subjection of those people falling outside this pledge. It is in the paradox of trying to realize a universalist vision of human progress through the abuse of part of humankind that the workings of coloniality are captured.

 

In pursuit of personal gain, colonial administrations actively obscured violent exploitation of peoples by presenting morally deplorable practices as aspects of a larger scheme of development. Uprooting political, economic, cultural and educational systems was justified as being part of a civilizing mission. Colonial rulers repeatedly advertised colonial missions as a responsibility and burden of white Europeans to bring civilization to mankind. It masked their true motives: economic profit and power.   

 

Masking motives, omitting contextual details and the subversion of truths are all mechanisms of coloniality that have evolved into standard practices now deeply rooted in Western practices and institutions. Euphemism became an important linguistic tool to veil injustices as well as to bend truths to fit the promise of progress. These euphemisms live forth in modern discourses and ought to be addressed in order to successfully eradicate the mechanisms and legacies of coloniality that run through society. 

 

The collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum are not immune to the workings of coloniality and have been shaped through an imperialist lens. To illustrate, the early colonial missions are consistently referred to as ‘voyages’ and ‘expeditions’ to emphasize this aspect of newness, endless possibility and scientific discovery that worked well upon the imaginations of Europeans. Such terminology obscures ulterior motives behind these missions.

 

Let us zoom into one such case of euphemism and omission. The Pitt Rivers Museum houses a vast collection of artefacts from Cook’s voyages to the Pacific between 1768 and 1775. It is right to state that these tours on the Endeavour, the Resolution and Adventure were in part motivated by scientific objectives. One of the main organisers, The Royal Society, an institute for the promotion of scientific research, co-organized these missions with the Admiralty, which at the time was a separate branch of the British government concerned with naval affairs. However, the Admiralty’s motives for involvement extended well beyond the promise of science. Recent studies place Cook’s Pacific ‘voyages’ in a different light, not describing Cook as one of Britain's greatest ‘explorers/adventurers’ but rather as a problematic figure who laid the roots for colonialism.

 

It has come to light that Cook, on orders of the Admiralty, deliberately reported false information and left out crucial discoveries in his records to keep strategic advantages over other imperial powers. It has recently been argued, on the basis of reports from both Cook himself and from people aboard the Endeavor, that Cook deliberately hid the existence of a strait separating modern day Australia from Tasmania, instead mapping what was then called Van Diemen’s Land as a peninsula. Additionally, it should be noted that nine indigenous people were killed during Cook’s first encounter with Maori who had lived in New Zealand (then Aotearoa) for centuries. It could thus be said that positive connotations underlying notions such as ‘expedition, explorer, and voyage’ are used euphemistically to obscure narratives of coloniality. Such terms conceivably fit the initial objective of universal progress, however, by placing these tours in its wider context it becomes evident that conflicts of interests underlie the so-called Cook voyages. Therefore, further contextualization is needed to fill narrative gaps and to settle on more adequate terminology.


Interpretation panel for the Cook display ©  Pitt Rivers Museum
 
The object labels addressing Cook’s travels to the Pacific overemphasize its scientific purposes whilst not mentioning the strive for influence in the area. The contextual details provided in the Cook displays mainly address his scientific observations, the flourishing of trade between voyagers and islanders and the friendly nature of these encounters. What comes to light is a narrative in line with the promise of progress. As seen above it is dangerous to assume a direct link between Cook’s voyages and universal progress. His scientific discoveries were soon used as tools of power causing power imbalances. 

 

In conclusion, it is not right to simply state that ‘expeditions’ and ‘explorations’ such as Cook’s voyages preceded the arrival of colonial powers. They were itself in part an expression of coloniality. Through euphemisms and by omitting contextual details in the museum’s object labels, colonial legacies remain intact and are reinforced. The Labelling Matters project is thus not limited to the identification of derogatory language use but also inquires into that which is not said explicitly. Paradoxically, it is perhaps within the embellishing narrative and the realm of silences that historical truth resides. 


By Jip Borm

Labelling Matters project Intern

Masters Student, University of Leiden

Monday, 15 March 2021

Labelling Matters: The Role of Language in the Ethics of Representation

 “In January 1897 a small party of British officials and traders on its way to Benin was ambushed. In retaliation a British military force attacked the city and the Oba was exiled. Members of the expedition brought thousands of objects back to Britain, including many of those shown here.” - Label from the Court Art of Benin Case, Lower Gallery, Pitt Rivers Museum

This label is illustrative of the colonial legacies rooted in the Pitt Rivers collections. Not only is this notion of ‘bringing back’ objects a euphemistic description of a large scale loot of artefacts, but by using a positive term such as ‘expedition’ it also obscures what was in fact a colonial mission. Such a label obscures the violent colonial context in which these objects were extracted. 


A variety of labels from the Pitt Rivers Museum illustrating the use of offensive terminology. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum.
 
Institutions like the Pitt Rivers Museum are in the middle of a deconstructionist shift. The 19th century objective to bring cultures together for the purpose of the creation of a universalist epistemology is no longer considered a tangible project. It has come to light that the colonial context in which such appropriation of cultures took place has uprooted rather than established harmonies between cultures and their respective epistemologies.

The museum’s commitment to create an inclusive and welcoming space for all goes beyond the use of words, yet it is through language that one can start to build an adequate ethics of representation. It is within the realm of language that a course of action towards a morally equitable space for the preservation and production of knowledge is revealed.

 

In line with this, the Labelling Matters project seeks to revise the language used to describe objects as well as to re-conceptualize the prescriptive nature of its labels by rethinking what and how labels in the museum should relate to its readers. Such a self-reflexive project plays an important role in the process of decolonisation of the Pitt Rivers collections. Through identification of derogatory, Eurocentric, euphemistic and exclusionary language, a new vision towards fairer cultural exchanges is established. By reconsidering the power and function of language, new spaces for more pluriverse and inclusive narratives emerge.


The colonial model pushed ‘outside’ cultures through a process of one sided hermeneutical interpretation. Here, the ‘European’ served as the measure against which to compare and contrast others. As a result it rooted the Eurocentric idea that Western culture signifies something absolute, universal and is itself free of social differentiation. The legacy of this project is a set of misleading norms and axioms that are wrongly regarded as the universal principles that lead to human understanding. 

 

Such mechanisms of coloniality remain an obstacle to impartial dialogue between cultures. The current reactionary movement, of which the Labelling Matters project is constitutive, works to address and tackle such problematic legacies in order to establish fair dialogues and promote rich exchanges of knowledge amongst peoples. 

 

Although the museum has always been part of a process of change and revision, cases of inadequate representation remain multifold. To illustrate, these include instances of unjustifiable hierarchical rankings of cultures, misrepresentations of the ritual functions of objects and Eurocentric claims to interpretive agency. The study of such cases takes a pivotal role in this series of blog posts. 

 

Thus, the Labelling Matters project seeks to tackle the colonial foundations that stand in the way of the healthy relations and interactions between peoples that it wishes to create. The project envisages a rich field of interplay between cultures in which all peoples are regarded equally valid players in the production of knowledge. In this way the museum works towards new relevance in the contemporary world. It is through the formation of a pertinent ethics of representation that the museum wishes to create an inclusive space in which the plurality of narratives that make up human reality are rightfully valued. 


By Jip Borm

Labelling Matters project Intern

Masters Student, University of Leiden

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