Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Temporary Exhibition: 'Preserving What is Valued'

Three arm ornaments from Africa with different methods of original repair
 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The Conservation Team are currently preparing a small temporary exhibition for a display case in the Museum's Lower Gallery showing objects that have been repaired by their original owners.

Given the nature of our work we study objects in great detail and part of our role is often to determine at what stage a repair to an object has been made. Has the repair been made while the object was still in use in the originating community, or by the original collector, or has it been repaired in the Museum?

When we find examples of repairs from originating communities we feel it gives the object a deeper resonance and is something we strive to preserve. Why was this object repaired by its original owners rather than replaced? Is it a fine example of craftsmanship or is it a sacred object? Were the materials it is made from scarce or expensive? These are just some of the questions we aim to explore in the exhibition.

We decided on the idea last summer when two of us attended the opening of an exhibition at the Japanese Embassy in London called 'Gold: All that Glisters - Japanese Gold Decoration.' One aspect of this exhibition focused on kintsugi, the Japanese method of repairing damaged or broken ceramics using urushi lacquer and, most commonly, gold powder. From early times, imperfection has been the subject of aesthetic appreciation in Japan, particularly with regard to the repair of valued items that have suffered in the course of their daily use. This idea of celebrating imperfection chimed with our attitude in Conservation and the repairs we had seen on objects from all parts of the world. We also felt that the theme of the exhibition fitted in well with the current Need, Make, Use Project, which has a focus on crafts skills and technology.

It isn't every day that Conservators have the opportunity to curate an exhibition based on their own idea and we started out by submitting an exhibition proposal to various museum committees for approval. We borrowed the working title 'Preserving What is Valued' from a book published by Canadian conservator Miriam Clavir (with her permission) and it seems to have stuck.

Having received the thumbs up, we then had to work around the schedule for the display case in the Lower Gallery used for temporary exhibitions. A gap was found for late June 2015 until January 2016, which we snapped up. At this point we also started to progress plans in collaboration with the Need, Make, Use Team for some tie-in events over the period of the exhibition. In the autumn we sent an email to all Collections staff to keep a look out for suitable objects.

We are fortunate that the Museum object database contains a search term 'repaired (local)', which refers to a repair made to the object by the originating community.

Database page showing the search term 'repaired (local)'
The term is either added to the record when the object is catalogued by the Collections Team or by Conservators when they work on the object.

Searching by this term initially produced approximately 500 records. We decided to only select object that were in storage, with the aim of producing a Museum Trail to guide visitors around some of the repaired objects on permanent display.

At this stage we were able to export the database information into a spread sheet.

Part of the working spread sheet
This enabled us to work through the list, physically finding and examining the objects to narrow the selection down further. It also made it easier to see if we had a good geographic spread.

We were down to 35 objects when we prepared a test layout. In the Conservation Lab we marked up a group of tables to the dimension of the display case and experimented with groupings. When working on the layout we considered how objects would need to be mounted in the display and how time-consuming it could be. As we work closely with the Museum Display Technicians, we are fully aware of their busy schedule and needed to make the display as uncomplicated as possible.

Test layout for the display in the Conservation Lab
Following the layout we are now down to 31 objects and have discussed the mounting requirements with Chris and Alan, who  will be working on the display. As we do not currently have any examples of kintsugi ceramics in the collection we have arranged to borrow one or two examples from a local private collector.

The selected Museum objects are now in the Conservation Lab being assessed, photographed, some mounts made and the text prepared. This stage will be completed by the end of May ready for the objects to be passed on to Chris and Alan to begin work on a mock-up of the display from the 1st June. All being well the exhibition 'Preserving What is Valued' will be installed by the 29th June. Please look out for the exhibition and the range of tie-in events we hope to have over autumn 2015.

Heather Richardson
Head of Conservation

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