Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Japanese amulets: Chamberlain Collection

A series of few happy coincidences brought me to the Pitt Rivers Museum, for the first time, to assist a group of Japanese academics to study the Museum’s Japanese amulets collection. That experience left me both fascinated by the collection and also impressed by the staff’s helpfulness to us, and so I volunteered to work on Japanese objects in the museum. My main work when I began working to transcribe, and to translate, the Japanese text written on ‘o-mamori’ and ‘o-fuda’, which mean amulets in Japanese, into English. These were collected by Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935) while he was living in Japan about a century ago. He was one of ‘o-yatoi gaikokujin’ (Europeans employed by the Meiji government when Japan reopened its door after nearly 300 years of isolation).

Basil Hall Chamberlain and several early editions of his book, Things Japanese, first edition published 1890. 
Charm bag worn by children with paper amulet
1892.29.10 .1 & .2 © Pitt Rivers Museum
When I tell my friends that I volunteer in the Pitt Rivers Museum, they get very excited, but most of them assume I am a volunteer guide. Well, not quite. When I explain that I work on the Japanese amulets in the Collections Department, they often become rather skeptical. Amulets and charms are regarded generally as unfashionable and as something belonging to the past and to the superstitious older generations. However, as I went through the items collected by B. H. Chamberlain, I became increasingly interested in Japanese religions, in the amulets they have produced and in the background stories. You see a lot of similar items in modern Japan. In some pictures in the old scrolls or the folding screens, you can see o-fuda pasted on a wall of a house to ward off evils. The continuity is amazing. 

Amulet, ritual purification wand "onus", 1892.21.18 .1 & .2. 
These wands were presented when praying the the Kami 
or exorcising imperfections © Pitt Rivers Museum

Amulet for the safety of horses and cattle, 
1908.82.108 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Amulet from a shrine on Mt. Fuji, 
1908.82.46 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Those amulets normally do not survive in Japan because they are discarded by being burnt, or by being thrown into rivers annually to be replaced by new ones. Therefore the Museum’s collection is really valuable. Chamberlain travelled all over Japan, and the amulets in his collection were from many different places. There is only one place where contemporary Japanese researchers can see them all together, which is oddly enough the Pitt Rivers Museum, almost on the other side of the globe from Japan.  

Fusa McLynn
Collections Volunteer 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Maori Treasure Boxes

PRM 2004.27.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum

I've been busy researching Maori treasure boxes, often called feather boxes because they were used to store valued personal possessions including huia feathers. Maori people regarded the huia, a New Zealand wattlebird now extinct, as sacred (tapu).

Only those of a chiefly rank could use the skins as ear ornaments or the tail feathers as hair decorations. This photo from around 1900 shows Maggie Papukara, who was descended from Te Arawa chiefs, with two relatives all wearing huia feathers in their hair.

These carved wooden boxes became valued treasures (taonga) in themselves. They gained prestige (manaby containing items worn on the head, the most tapu part of the body. They also became tapu heirlooms through their association with particular owners.

Treasure boxes were designed to be kept suspended from the rafters. Look at this box from the Museum collection, shown below, to see how the base is curved rather than designed to sit on a flat surface. The carved heads at each end enabled the attachment of suspension cords, as well as serving as handles.

The Maori word for treasure boxes carved in this oval-shape style is wakahuia
PRM 1933.82.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Detail of the handle
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Detail of join between the lid and
the base © Pitt Rivers Museum

As you can see, the box is decoratively carved over the entire outer surface, the pattern creating an almost seamless join between the lid and base.

The wood is finished on the outside in two colours. The darker colour was often created by mixing shark oil and powdered charcoal  The reddish orange effect usually a combination of shark oil and red ochre (kokowai).

Lid (top) and base (below) © Pitt Rivers Museum

Look at these photos on the right, showing the lid and the base, to see how colour highlights the
details of the carved pattern on the base in particular. This would be the most visible part of the box when suspended overhead.

Maori treasure boxes soon became popular souvenirs with Europeans. This resulted in some carvings being produced specifically for the tourist trade. This may have been the case with the two you can see below, both in the Museum collections, which are designed to stand on a flat surface.
Treasure boxes designed to stand on a flat surface, PRM 1952.3.3 (left), PRM 2000.21.1 (right) © Pitt Rivers Museum

You will be able to see all of these treasure boxes in the Museum towards the end of the year as part of a new display dedicated to the art of Maori woodcarving.  There are several already on display in the Museum's Court (ground floor) - you can hear staff talk about one of them (PRM 1927.81.1) here:

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

If you are interested in reading more about feather boxes and Maori carving see:

Julie Paama-Pengelly, 2010, Maori Art and Design (New Zealand: New Holland Publishers).

Roger Neich, 2001, Carved Histories (New Zealand: Auckland University Press).

D.C. Starzecka (editor), 1996, Maori Art and Culture (London: British Museum Press).

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The world in Reading: collaborative work with Reading Museum's ethnographic collections

In April I was among colleagues from museums with ethnographic collections invited by Reading Museum to a day of knowledge sharing and brainstorming around the theme of community engagement. 

I was very pleased to be revisiting Reading Museum where I started my Museum career. Reading Museum is a sizeable local authority Museum situated in the town centre. The Museum has galleries including displays of Huntley and Palmers biscuit tins, a Victorian replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, Roman artifacts from nearby Silchester, and 20th century art and sculpture. The Museum has a large temporary exhibition space currently hosting the exhibition 'Reading at War'.

Reading Museum also has reserve stores and a successful school loans service. Included in the stores and in loans boxes are objects from all over the world, which form the 3000 object strong 'World Historic Objects' collection. Like many local authority museums, the curator responsible for this collection does not have an expertise in ethnography or anthropology. She is also responsible for the art collection of which Reading has a significant collection of art by notable local and regional artists. 

The day was organized by Felicity McWilliams, project officer at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), and Brendan Carr, curator of community engagement. As part of the ACE funded project 'Reading Connections' both Felicity and Brendan have been working on raising the profile of the Historic World Objects collection. I worked on basic cataloguing of the collection several years ago when I was a museum assistant at Reading Museum. The collection was in a state of neglect for many years. The main aim of the 'World Cultures' strand of the Reading Connections project was to create enhanced records for 600 Historic World Objects, to be included in a new online catalogue for Reading Museum collections. Felicity and her colleague Adam gave a short introductory talk to the group illustrating the range of objects in the collection.The Historic World Objects collection was mostly collected between the late-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. Most of the objects were donated by local people who had gathered artifacts during their own travels abroad. Smaller numbers were collected during the course of overseas expeditions, and others were donated as part of large collections, including Reading Museum's founding Bland and Stevens Collections. The Museum officially 'closed' the Collection and stopped acquiring objects for it in the early 1950s.

A major aspect of the 'World Cultures' strand of the project has been consultancy with Reading Museum and MERL working in partnership. A number of consultancy days have advised on different aspects of the collection and the focus of the day I was invited to was community engagement. In the morning we heard of a number interesting engagement projects and personal experiences of such projects from Helen Mears, keeper of world culture at Brighton Museum and ArtGalleryKeiko Higashi, education project officer at the Powell-Cotton Museum, Catherine Harvey Education officer at Hastings Museum and myself. I spoke to the group about the 2011 temporary exhibition 'Made for Trade' and the Pitt River's Museum's current HLF funded VERVE project Need Make Use and some of the community engagement activities we have been exploring during the first year of this project. 

The afternoon provided us with an opportunity to digest some of the ideas from the morning session. After an introduction by Matthew Williams, Reading Museum Manager, to Reading’s follow on project from ‘Reading Connections, ‘Reading Engaged’ a joint project with MERL aimed at strengthening engagement with local communities, we split into groups to brainstorm engagement ideas for Reading’s ‘Historic World Objects’ collection. Reading is a vibrant town of great community spirit and diversity. From Matt and Brendan we learnt that the Museum has taken a proactive approach by positioning itself as a leader in Reading’s cultural life and activities. The morning presentations stimulated great discussion of how to proceed having done all the ground work in cataloguing and researching the ethnographic collection at Reading Museum encouraging the Museum to reignite partnerships with Reading Solidarity Society (RISC) and other local community groups. I was very happy to be part of such a knowledge sharing and thought provoking day and look forward to hearing more of Reading’s activities as the project progresses.

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Paddles Project in the Lower Gallery

The lower gallery of the Museum is currently closed to enable the movement of several large display cases at the east end of the gallery. While the gallery is closed a team of conservators, collection managers and technicians are taking the opportunity to take down over 500 objects suspended from the floor of the gallery above. All four sides of the gallery have paddles, walking sticks, staffs and calendar sticks on open display above the heads of the visitors.

Grills in the floor 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

The last time the objects were taken down and cleaned was in 2009, when the Museum was closed to redevelop the entrance and install air conditioning equipment. As part of the building works, holes were cut into the floor of both galleries and metal grills installed. This was done to improve circulation of the cooled air to all parts of the Museum. Unfortunately, collections and conservation staff have become concerned over the past year that the addition of the grills in the floor has substantially increased the levels of dust and debris settling on the objects suspended beneath. While high levels of dust are not good for an object, it can generally be removed fairly easily. However, we have found paddles with new water stains, sweetie wrappers and even breadcrumbs stuck to the surface.

Examples of some of the paddles covered with dust and debris 
in the areas directly below the grills © Pitt Rivers Museum

Staff originally tried to think of a way to prevent the dust and debris falling through, but this was problematic as the grills needed to remain clear for the air to circulate. It was also not possible to remove the objects, as the Museum does not have capacity in its stores for over 500 additional long objects. Even if space were available, it would be a sad decision as the paddles on open display are part of the quirky nature of the Museum.

A conservator removing the dust a debris with a brush and vacuum 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Technician Alan Cooke working from a scaffold tower 
to remove the brackets from the old positions 
© Pitt Rivers Museum
The solution we have devised is to move the brackets supporting the objects to positions where the objects do not sit directly below the grills in the floor. This involves taking down all the objects from a rack, unscrewing the brackets and moving them to the new positions along the wooden beams. In some areas the brackets need to be re-orientated to avoid the grills. While the objects are down they are cleaned, assigned a condition assessment, and their cataloguing and location information checked. The objects are then returned to their new positions.

When the gallery re-opens on Saturday 6th September, remember to look up!

Heather Richardson

Head of Conservation