Thursday 3 August 2023

Barbie and other dolls at the Pitt Rivers Museum

With the release of Mattel’s new Barbie movie and a renewed public interest in dolls, it only felt fitting to share the Barbie that we have in the Museum’s handling collection alongside some of the dolls in the Object collection. Barbie and the Barbie movie connect to the dolls in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection in fascinating and unexpected ways, from spirituality to her dual purpose as a toy and collector’s item.

One obvious similarity that can be identified is between Barbie and the jointed Greek Pottery dolls on display in the Doll's case in the Museum’s Lower Gallery. These types of dolls have primarily been excavated at temples and gravesites and, according to the Palatine Anthology, were dedicated to the gods by girls before their wedding to signify the end of her childhood. Terracotta dolls with articulated limbs continue to be a subject of debate among scholars, with some arguing that they clearly weren’t meant to be played with due to their fragile materiality, and others pointing out that their kinetic structure inidcates that they were meant to be used as toys. I personally agree with the viewpoint that they might have been used for both- as an effigy dedicated to the gods or buried alongside young girls who experienced an untimely death, but also treated as toys (perhaps with material differences between the dolls being played with in the human world and in the afterlife).

1917.53.516 Jointed pottery dolls from Greece donated in 1917. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum

This of course raises the question: are all dolls meant to be played with? Dolls have a long history of being associated with ritual and magic, but often dolls don’t fit into the neat categories of “for ritual” and “for play” as many Western scholars like to classify them. Most dolls have played a multitude of roles that have waxed and waned in significance over the course of their histories, causing the concepts of “play” and “ritual” to frequently overlap. We see this interaction between the human and magical world in the Barbie movie when, “stereotypical Barbie'', played by Margot Robbie, makes the journey from Barbie Land to the human world to find out who’s playing with her, as actions in the human world have started to influence her experience as a toy. The role of dolls as intermediaries between the human realm and intangible realms, like the spirit world, is an idea that has existed across cultures past and present. One example of this at Pitt Rivers Museum is the collection of Nenets Uko dolls, which are made from the beaks of migratory birds and dressed in traditional Nenets clothing.

1935.52.14 Nenets Uno doll with head made of goose beak. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum

The beaks of migratory water birds are used to create Uko dolls because it was believed that these birds fly away to the Nenets god Num every year, making them innocent, pure, and able to protect the children. The use of beaks also allowed Nenets people to leave the dolls faceless to avoid humanising them. It was once a widely accepted notion that giving a doll a human face gives it a human spirit, and potentially the ability to harm its user (especially if the user has played with them too roughly). Over time, the function of Uko dolls within Nenets culture has shifted from religious objects to beloved children’s toys. Despite this shift, Uko dolls remain closely linked to Nenets spirituality. According to ancient Nenets beliefs, a girl’s actions when playing with Uko dolls (including breaking or losing them) can foretell her future destiny, so playing with them carefully and putting them away in special pouches known as “padko” was encouraged.

Both of the examples above link dolls to childhood, but there are numerous historic and contemporary examples of dolls and dollhouses being purchased by adults. Adults purchasing dolls and dollhouses is nothing new- one of the earliest recorded purchases of a doll's house was one commissioned for Albert V Duke of Bavaria in 1557-78, “as a cabinet of curiosities for the Duke’s delight.” Like doll houses, Barbie and her dream house also appeals to adult audiences, and in the newly released Barbie movie, “stereotypical Barbie” is surprised to discover that it is the mother of the family that has recently been playing with her. Off screen, Barbie is also popular among adult toy collectors- in 2021, Vice interviewed one adult with a staggering 12,000 Barbies in his collection. Although the initial intention of Ruth Handler (the inventor of Barbie) was to make a doll for little girls, over time Barbie has taken on this additional role as an object for adults.

2004.3.44 Wooden Kokeshi doll painted in the traditional style. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum

Kokeshi dolls have a similar story, and there is just one in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection. Kokeshi dolls likely originated from the Tōhoku region of Japan. They were made by woodturners, who usually made objects like plates and bowls, as toys for their children. Their simple, cylindrical shape was easy for infants to hold and play with and they eventually became gifts commonly given to newborns, sometimes with their name engraved onto the doll.

The introduction of railroads during the Meiji era (1868-1912) resulted in a boom in domestic travel and Japanese farmers began travelling during their off-seasons to mountainous regions like Tōhoku to experience the hot springs. The woodturners living in these areas saw this as an opportunity to sell their wares to tourists, including kokeshi dolls. Today, Japan is visited by tourists from across the globe, and kokeshi dolls have become a coveted souvenir for those visiting its onsen towns and looking to bring back a piece of rural charm from their holiday.

All these dolls that have been researched as part of the Play! Project will be available for families to experience as part of Saturday Object Handling sessions later this year. In addition to purchasing tangible versions of Museum objects for visitors to experience, the Play! Project has also purchased some Barbies to compare to these international examples. One of these is Interior Design Barbie, who also has a disability.

Museum handling object. Interior design Barbie

Mattel has a history of making problematic and stereotypical dolls but its recent career dolls and “Inspiring Women” series have demonstrated the company’s attempts at positive change. These newer designs, although continuing to portray unrealistic body proportions, have the potential to broaden the perspectives of today’s generation of children about how they view themselves and others. This enables us to initiate important conversations with children about body image and inclusion through these dolls.

If you want to learn more about the dolls at the Pitt Rivers Museum, come along to the Monday lunchtime talk on 16th October:

The section on Uko dolls was made possible thanks to material provided by members of the Nenets community and translation work carried out by Anya Gleizer.

By Megan Christo

Collections and Public Engagement Officer

Play! project

Further reading:

Elderkin, K. M. (1930). Jointed Dolls in Antiquity. American Journal of Archaeology. The University of Chicago Press. pp. 455-479.

Gerber, R. (2019). Barbie Forever: Her Inspiration, History, and Legacy (Official 60th Anniversary Collection), Epic Ink, Washington.

Gutschk, F. (2019). Greek Terracotta Dolls: Between the Domestic and the Religious Sphere in Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas. pp. 215–222. Doi: 10.1163/9789004384835_016.

Japan House London. Kokeshi - Japanese Wooden Dolls. [online] 

Okazaki, M. (2021). Japanese Kokeshi Dolls, The Woodcraft and Culture of Japan's Iconic Wooden Dolls, Tuttle Publishing.

Ненецкая Игрушка в собрании ненецкого краеведческого музея, каталог. (Nenets Toys in the collection of The Nenets Museum of Local Lore, catalogue).

Thursday 16 June 2022

 A Toxic Fascination: Pufferfish (Fugu) in Japanese Art and Culture


On the ground level of the Pitt Rivers Museum, in a case dedicated to lamp-lights and lanterns, a strikingly unique object can be spotted: a hanging lantern made from the dried skin of a pufferfish (a fish referred to as fugu in Japan, where this lantern originates from). This object (1909.32.10) was acquired in 1909 by Miss E. C. Bell, a field collector for the Pitt Rivers Museum. A similar pufferfish-skin lantern from China (crafted in 1883 according the Pitt Rivers Museums’ collections database) was acquired by Oxford University Museum in 1893, and entered the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1917 (1893.82.4).

Japanese Fugu lantern 1909.32.10

Pufferfish lantern from China, 1893.82.4

While not exactly common, lamps such as these ones made from genuine dried puffer skin can still be purchased today. They have historically been found across Japan as children’s toys, folk art, souvenirs, and as decorations and advertisements outside restaurants specialising in the preparation of fugu. Pufferfish skin has also been used in Japan in the creation of everyday items such as wallets and waterproof boxes. Pufferfish lanterns made from paper can also be found throughout the country – the restaurant Tsuboraya in Osaka (which closed in 2020 due to Covid, but served customers fugu delicacies for nearly a century) was known for the iconic oversized pufferfish-shaped paper lanterns which hung outside to advertise the restaurant.

Exterior of the Tsuboraya restaurant in Okanawa, Japan, before its closure in 2020

Other than in the form of lanterns, pufferfish can be found referenced in Japanese visual culture (both historical and contemporary) as well as throughout popular culture worldwide, most likely due to their unique appearance and the fact that they are highly poisonous. For example, Hiroshige’s Shoal of Fishes print series from 1832 features an illustrated pufferfish, and the creature makes numerous appearances in Japanese folk culture. In contemporary Western media, a notable reference to the fish can be found in a 1991 episode of the popular animated cartoon The Simpsons, in which the main character eats improperly prepared fugu while visiting Japan and is told he only has 24 hours to live, due to the fact that the dish is toxic if prepared incorrectly.

Frame from the 1991 Simpson's Episode 'One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish,  Blue fish'

Despite this toxicity, fugu have been viewed as a delicacy in Japan for centuries, with evidence suggesting that they were eaten as early as the Jōmon period; pufferfish bones have been found in shell middens/kaizuka (dumps for domestic waste) dating back 2300 years. They are also present in Korean cuisine and can be found referenced in traditional Korean culture. Due to their high levels of toxicity – fugu flesh can be hundreds of times more poisonous than cyanide – they were banned as a dish by the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo period, but with the fall of the Shogunate they rose to popularity once again. In Japan, chefs are now required to obtain a license (requiring three years of training) to prepare and serve the dish, in order to avoid potentially fatal incidents (multiple people have died in the past as a result of consuming improperly prepared fugu). Given this potential toxicity, it might come as a surprise that fugu is one of the most prestigious and celebrated Japanese dishes. The town of Shimonoseki is known as the fugu capital of Japan, where the fish are caught and sold, and Osaka is also known for its high consumption of the fish. Despite scientists having been able to produce a non-toxic version of the fish through altering their diet, the toxic version still proves popular in Japan: for those that choose to consume fugu, perhaps the danger is part of its appeal.

Print by Hiroshige including a pufferfish (below), 1832 (woodblock print)

Illustration by Kuwagata Keisai in a children's book The Servants of the Dragon, King of the Sea: Fish and Sea, Edo period

By Lois Gardner (Pitt Rivers Museum Intern, History of Art student, University of Oxford)

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)