Thursday, 15 December 2016

Visit to South Africa the Art of a Nation at the British Museum

On Thursday 8th December, I visited the exhibition South Africa the Art of a Nation at the British Museum with members of the Museum Ethnographers Group. It is always interesting to get out of the office and visit other museums and exhibitions and I was particularly excited about seeing this exhibition given South Africa’s remarkable history. We were lucky enough to be given an insight into the curatorial process of creating the exhibition with one of its curator’s Chris Spring, curator of contemporary, sastern and southern Africa at the British Museum. The exhibition was very much a collaborative venture working closely with museums, art galleries and heritage centres in South Africa itself and contemporary South African artists.

The earliest item in the exhibition is a pebble found at Makapansgat with three circular indentations. The pebble did not originate in this location, with water-worn indentations suggesting that it was carried from water to Makapansgat by early humans. It has been suggested that the pebble is the first appreciation of art in that these early humans recognised a face in the weathered pebble and so showed an aesthetic appreciation of the pebble by collecting it. In contrast is the last room of the exhibition which display’s contemporary art pieces by the likes of Willie Bester and Lionel Davis acknowledging that South Africa’s history is not resolved by the end of apartheid but complexities still exist in the ‘New South Africa’ best demonstrated by white South African Candice Breitz video installation where she inserts herself as a passive presence in the Black South African soap opera Generations questioning her role in South African society as a white person. Most striking is the installation by Mary Sibande where the representation of her mother, her grandmother and her great grandmother through a mannequin dressed in Victorian costume alluding to the roles they had as maids in white South African households stands in juxtaposition to a second figure dressed in purple representing Sibande herself. The use of the colour purple is significant and refers to the purple dye used in the police water cannons during the anti-apartheid Purple Rain protests of 1989. In this installation Sibande is saying goodbye to her past and embracing or confronting her present and future. Overall the exhibition successfully displays the art of South Africa old and new in an interesting way, comparing and contrasting past and present and acknowledging the colourful and turbulent history of a nation.

Mary Sibande's installation, A Reversed Retrogress, Scene 1

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator

Thursday, 15 September 2016

A Gift from the New South Africa

Cruet sets. Right to left: Mandela and De Klerk (2016.44.1), Tutu and Terre Blanche (2016.44.2) and Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (2016.44.3) © Pitt Rivers Museum
I have recently accessioned an interesting new acquisition of Africana into the collections. At the time of the first free elections in South Africa in 1994 a local pottery in Bryanston, S. Africa, called Baker Street originals produced two salt and pepper sets, one depicting Nelson Mandela and F.W. Klerk and the other Archbishop Tutu and Eugene Terre Blanche; subsequently at the time of the Queen's state visit to South Africa a couple of years later they produced a third set representing the Queen and Prince Philip. Baker Street trading the manufacturers of the cruet sets was established in 1986 and through the years has manufactured various items for the home and garden including the now famous and collectable cruet sets of South African political figures. The company are still manufacturing goods but no longer produce the cruet sets, which were produced in small quantities. The Mandela and De Klerk and the Archbishop Tutu and Terre Blanche sets were donated with their original packing, a cardboard box illustrated by South African cartoonist Peter Mascher, who has worked for South African newspapers Beeld, Citizen and Daily Dispatch. The cruet sets are made from terracotta and have been hand painted, they are caricatures of the famous South African political figures and British monarch. Mandela and Tutu were famously anti-apartheid freedom fighters whilst the position of De Klerk is more complicated, he was Head of State under the apartheid era but helped to broker the end of apartheid and supported the transformation of South Africa into a non-racial democracy whilst Terre Blanche was a white supremacist, a major figure in the right-wing backlash against the collapse of apartheid.

Pepper shaker depicting Nelson Mandela (2016.44.1 .1)  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Pair of salt and pepper shakers depicting Archbishop Tutu and Eugene Terre Blanche with souvenir cardboard box (2016.44.2) © Pitt Rivers Museum
Following a series of tense negotiations and years of liberation struggle, the first democratic election was held in South Africa on the 27th April, 1994. This election changed the history of South Africa. It paved the way towards a new democratic dispensation and a new constitution for the country. For the first time all races in the country were going to the polls to vote for a government of their choice. Nineteen political parties participated and twenty-two million people voted. The African National Congress (ANC) won the election, they formed the Government of National Unity and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. De Klerk was the last Head of State of South Africa under the apartheid era and acted as deputy president during the presidency of Mandela. Controversially, the Nobel Peace Prize 1993 was awarded jointly to Mandela and De Klerk "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa"

Pepper shaker depicting Queen Elizabeth II (2016.44.3 .1)  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Queen Elisabeth II visited Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Port Elisabeth between the 19 - 25th March 1995 on a state visit to South Africa. It was the first visit of a British monarch since 1947. Her trip marked the country's return to the Commonwealth following the election of its first multi-racial government. Her visit was as Head of State visiting an independent country and also as Head of the Commonwealth to mark South Africa's return to the organisation in July 1994.

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

One of my Favourite Objects

Detail of house pole 1901.39.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
One of my favourite objects in the Museum is a carved wooden bowl from British Columbia (1887.1.632). It is carved to represent a beaver with a human face carved in the top side of the bowl. The carving is very stylistically striking using a prominent feature of indigenous art of the Northwest Coast of North America called formline. Formline is the term used to describe the distinctive style comprising ‘continuous, flowing curvilinear lines that turn, swell and diminish in a prescribed manner. They are used for figure outlines, internal design elements and in abstract compositions’ (Marjorie M. Haplin. “Northwest Coast Native Art”). In 2009 I was lucky enough to be part of the project team recording information from a research visit of a delegation of Haida people. This object was viewed as part of that visit. During their time here I was able to learn a great deal about the collection of Haida objects that feature prominently in the Museum’s displays, not least the imposing house pole (1901.39.1) which is positioned centrally in the Museum Court.  

The bowl was donated by Reverend W. Warner Parry to the University Museum and was part of a large number of ethnographic objects transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1886. From the accession entry we do not know if the bowl was also collected by Parry or if it came to him through a third party. Parry was part of the British Royal Navy and so it is possible that he travelled to the Northwest coast of America and acquired the bowl in person. A label glued to the side of the object tells us that the bowl was ‘from an Indian burial ground. Maple Bank Esquimault, Vancouver Island’. The bowl is interesting as despite its provenance having been recorded it is unlikely to have originated at Esquimault. In fact, the Haida tribal members who visited in 2009 confirmed the bowl as Haida in origin. However, the style of the bowl is markedly different from all the other Haida grease bowls in the collection. The bowl is one of three bowls with carved with the beaver motif in the Museum collections, the other two coming from the original Pitt Rivers founding collection that came to the Museum in 1884.

Beaver bowl 1884.68.48 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Beaver bowl 1884.68.58 © Pitt Rivers Museum 
The symbol of the beaver in Northwest coast tradition represents the values of productivity, creativity, creation, cooperation, persistence and harmony. The beaver is also serious and hardworking. We have a number of objects with the beaver totem from Haida Gwaii, an archipelago on the North coast of British Columbia formally known as the Queen Charlotte islands. Many are associated with rank, status and prestige. Indeed, the beaver bowl is on display in the Museum in a display case of the same title (case 58.A), such beautifully carved and handmade objects belonged to significant Haida families.

It is the exquisite carving and anthropomorphic nature of the beaver which appeals to me so much in the design of the bowl. The Haida I met in 2009 were warm and animated people, it is through them that the objects I had spent time passively observing came alive and spoke of the people who made them and used them in their former life before they became a part of a Museum collection.

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Collections Care: Boxing Clever

The Pitt Rivers Museum is currently in the process of packing over 100,000 objects in the reserve collections to move them to a new storage facility. Many of these objects have not been stored in suitable conditions during their lifetimes in the Museum. The project team are endeavouring to improve these conditions for the future. This work includes packing into chemically inert boxes, so either physical movement or pollutants do not damage the objects. To achieve this, large numbers of acid-free cardboard boxes in a range of standardised sizes are purchased from G. Ryder & Co. Ltd, based in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire. Founded in 1914, Ryder's specialise in hand-made boxes for museums and galleries. They also produce the boxes used to hold the scrolls given when receiving an honour from the Queen, hence holding a Royal Warrant since 1988.

In an effort to understand the box making process, and to discuss future requirements for the project, some of the OPS move team visited Ryder's on 26 May 2016.

OPS move team at Ryder's. From left to right: Andrew, Ashleigh, Meghan and Marina
Firstly, we were amazed at how small the premises were considering the quantity and size of boxes they produce for us, let alone all of their other customers. The second thing that stood out was how labour intensive the process is, with lots of people - each one working on one particular element of a box's production throughout the day.

Monique using the machine that creates the crease line in the card to enable folding
Tania using the machine that cuts slots in the card before the box can be folded

Janice using the machine that wire-stitches the boxes together at the end of the process

Each of these processes seemed quite manageable for the boxes they were working on that day. We realised their tasks would become infinitely more difficult with some of the large boxes we have ordered, which are over a metre long and nearly half a metre wide.

Another thing that our host, manager Rob Honour, explained was how many of the machines they are still using are upwards of 50-100 years old. This makes servicing and repairs a nightmare, with replacement parts needing to be specially made. It also limits the size of the flat sheet material that can be used to make a box. Considering these constraints, we are now working with Rob to design a box that is 1.5 metres long to be able to pack wooden clubs largely from the Pacific Islands. Rob is worried about a revolt from the ladies on the shop floor given how complicated this will be!

To see updates on how the team are using the boxes, and for news on the project, keep an eye on this blog or follow us on twitter

Heather Richardson
Head of Conservation

Friday, 3 June 2016

On the Move

The Pitt Rivers Museum is home to more than 300,000 ethnographic and archaeological objects from around the world.

The Museum is known for its dense displays and has more than 30,000 objects on display in the galleries. However, the vast majority of the collection is stored at several off-site facilities.

Over the next two years, the collections housed at the largest of these facilities will be moving to a new location in Oxford closer to the Museum. This will involve packing and transporting more than 100,000 objects, ranging from beads, baskets, and barkcloth to shields, stools, and spears. This is a daunting prospect but also a wonderful opportunity to improve access to the collections. Each object will be photographed and enhancements made to its documentation. This will facilitate future object retrieval for research, exhibitions, loans, conservation and teaching, and will enable the Museum to provide researchers with improved information about the objects in its collections.

This is the biggest project that any member of the Museum’s staff has ever worked on. The stores house some of the Museum’s most valued and fragile objects. Work has already started on this ambitious project, which will present some difficult challenges but will also uncover many amazing finds. A team of highly skilled and dedicated museum professionals has been employed, aided by members of existing staff from all departments of the Museum.

These ‘hidden’ collections will be available to the Museum’s visitors and source communities around the world both digitally, via the online database (, and physically through the Museum’s visiting researchers program.

Follow progress on this blog and our dedicated twitter feed

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Museum Redisplay: Working on Watercraft

I am currently part of a team working on a new display of model boats. I feel privileged to be part of this creative process and thought you'd enjoy an insight into the display taking shape.

Conservators, Andrew and Jem, have examined each of the models, carrying out any necessary treatments before the boats go on display. Thanks to their patience and skill, I've often seen a dramatic transformation in the appearance of the models.

Below you can see two of the models Jem has recently researched so he could accurately position the sails.

Model reed boat, or balsa, like ones used on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and Peru
PRM 1891.2.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Model skin-covered boat, or umiak, like ones used by Inuit people in Greenland
PRM 1884.81.40 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Keep an eye on this blog page and I will continue to share the display process with you.

When it is finished you will be able to see this display in the Court Gallery, on the ground floor of the Museum. The boat models will be housed in a brand new case, which has been possible thanks to the DCMS/ Wolfson Foundation's Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Caring for the Collections: A Model Boat

I am currently working on upgrading the Museum's model displays on the ground floor (Court Gallery). I work closely with the Conservation Team, who check the condition of the objects, and carry out any necessary treatment before they go on display. I catalogue each object in detail, take photographs of each one, and write the new display labels.

During this process we discovered a beautifully made model of a rowing boat from Malta. The carved wooden hull has been neatly painted and the model includes painted oars, a painted metal lamp, a wooden bucket and baler, a metal anchor, and decorative silks drapes hung over the cabin area.

Detailed model of a Maltese rowing boat, PRM 1908.5.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Originally given to the Museum in 1908 the drapes are now faded and extremely fragile, the damage caused by past exposure to the UV rays in natural light . In addition the anchor, which the Conservators did a spot test on to identify the metal, is made of lead that is seriously corroded.

Close ups showing the faded and fragile silk drapes (left) and the corroded anchor (right) © Pitt Rivers Museum
As you can imagine staff in the Museum are extremely busy and Conservation would need to spend many hours to stabilise the silk on the boat before it could go on display.  Consequently we are going to house the rowing boat in a custom made storage box within the reserve collections.

Even if the decision is made not to include a model in the new display I still catalogue each one in detail. I add any information and photographs to the appropriate record on the object database. These form the basis for the online object database, which is regularly updated. This ensures you can access all the known information, plus see what the objects look like, on the Museum website.

Part of the cataloguing process involves clearly numbering each detachable part of the boat with the appropriate unique identification number. This enables each part to be described in detail and means even if they become separated - for whatever reason -  each part can be accurately identified and linked to the correct information.
The accession number written on
one of the oars © Pitt Rivers Museum

We number objects by applying a layer of reversible acrylic adhesive in solvent - often called paraloid - which looks like clear nail varnish. We then write the number using a rotring pen, before applying another layer of the acrylic adhesive.

As I have just catalogued and photographed the Maltese rowing boat this seemed an ideal opportunity to show you this particular model. Described as a daisa, in the information written down when this was given to the Museum, this appears to be a model of a traditional water taxi used to carry passengers and their baggage. To propel the boat a man stood facing forward pushing on the two oars, rather than sitting down to row.

One of the distinct features when you look at the boat is the height of the stem and the stern. The shape of these - as well as being decorative - provided a means of support for passengers to easily board and disembark.

Carved hull with high stem and stern © Pitt Rivers Museum
I hope you have enjoyed looking at and reading about this beautifully made model.

I will continue to keep you informed about the redisplay of the models with regular posts so keep following this blog.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

An Object Label with a Story: Death of a Missionary Bishop

I have been transcribing some of the Museum's old hand-written labels. Each label will be filed as part of the "related documents" for the specific object and the relevant information added to the Museum's object database. The labels have become separated from the objects and do not always include the Museum identity number for the actual object. So a bit of detective work is sometimes required to match the information to the appropriate object.

The tiny neat hand-writing is lovely to look at but the content of the label is usually basic and not particularly interesting. Typically it will only say what the object is, the year the Museum acquired the object, the name of the donor, and where it is from.

Some of the labels I have been transcribing

Recently I came across a remarkable label that included more text than usual and even referred to a brutal death. This is what the label says:

Type of dancing club used in SANTA CRUZ group. Was labelled "Norfolk I. Facsimile of club wh. killed Bp. Patteson". L.M.S. states that he was clubbed & speared at NUKAPU, S. CRUZ group. L.M.S. station is on NORFOLK I. d.d. HEREFORD mus.

L.M.S stands for the London Missionary Society and d.d. for the Latin dono dedit, meaning 'gave as a gift'.

You can see the actual label below, plus the dance club it refers to - which the labels says is similar to the one used to kill Patteson.

Left: Club PRM 1942.1.408, right: the object label © Pitt Rivers Museum

Intrigued, I did some exploring and found out this was not a straightforward story. Bishop John Coleridge Patteson (1827-71) was the first missionary Bishop of Melanesia and was related to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his mother was Coleridge's niece. He went to Balliol College in Oxford from 1845 to 1848 and became a Fellow of Merton College in 1852. He was ordained in 1854 and, in the same year, was recruited by Bishop Welwyn of New Zealand for missionary work in the South Seas. They left for Auckland together the following year.

Patteson was a good linguist, who mastered many local languages, and made many friends among the indigenous people. It was in 1861 he became Bishop of Melanesia where he worked tirelessly for many years in this vast diocese, crossing the seas again and again.

So why did he meet such a violent death, brought about by the very people he had been working for?

It seems there were no witnesses of the actual murder. When he visited Nukapu in the Solomon Islands in September 1871 he went ashore alone. Separated from the others on the ship, who were then attacked, no one knew what had happened to the Bishop. His body was later found in a canoe floating in the sea, covered with palm fibre matting. On his chest was a palm branch.

The most plausible explanation appears to be he was mistaken as a slave-trader. At the time, many men in the area were kidnapped by the 'blackbirders', who used tricks and violence to recruit labourers for the sugar plantations in Queensland and Fiji. In Nukapu five men had allegedly just been taken away by 'blackbirders' when the Bishop and his colleagues arrived. The timing, therefore, seems to have been desperately unfortunate.

An alternative point of view argues that he had unintentionally made enemies of the mothers of the Island by taking their young sons away. Boys going to be educated at his School were away from home for several years. Some have suggested these women might not have clearly understood the difference between the missionaries and the slave-traders.

The death of Bishop Patteson made headline news in England. This caused people to take an interest in both Christian missionary work and human-trafficking in Britain's Pacific territory. Public outrage resulted in stricter enforcement of the law regulating the recruitment of plantation labourers. In addition, there was a call for the improvement of their working conditions.

There is a memorial to Patteson in the chapel at Merton College in Oxford.

Left: the Chapel at Merton College, Oxford; middle and right: details of the memorials inside the Chapel
including the one to Patteson © Fusa McLynn
After researching this story I think there are still a few questions about this incident that remain unanswered. A recent paper by two Norwegian researchers re-examines the circumstances of Bishop Patteson's death and makes some fascinating suggestions. Plus I would love to know more about the connection with Hereford Museum, who donated this object to the Museum.

You can see the dance club on display in the Upper Gallery on the top floor of the Museum in case U30A.

Fusa McLynn
Collections Volunteer

References and Suggested Further Reading:

C.H. Brooke, "The Death of Bishop Patteson", Mission Life: An Illustrated Magazine of Home and Foreign Church Work, ed. Rev. J.J. Holcombe, M.A., Vol. III, Part I (new series), London: W. Wells Gardner (1872), pp. 1-23

Reverend H.N. Drummond, Bishop Patteson Pioneer and Martyr, Parkstone: Ralph and Brown (1930)

T. Kolshus and E. Hovdhaugen, "Reassessing the death of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson", Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 45, Issue 3 (2010), pp. 331-355

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Tiwi Islander Research Visit

In October last year Bede TungutalumDiana Wood Conroy, and Alison Clark visited the Museum to study the collections from Melville Island in Australia. Melville Island is located 100 kilometres north of Darwin and is the third largest island of Australia - after the mainland and Tasmania. Melville Island and the nearby Bathurst Island are known as the Tiwi Islands, which are home to nearly 2500 Tiwi-speaking people.

Bede is from Melville Island and is a senior Tiwi artist who is skilled in painting, carving and printmaking. Diana is an archaeologist and artist who has worked closely with indigenous communities on Melville Island since the 1970s. Alison is a researcher at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and studied the Tiwi collections at the British Museum as part of her PhD.

We were pleased to be able to show Bede, Diana, and Alison the objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum from Melville Island. This included three very heavy carved and decorated wooden burial poles and two large painted bark baskets. While we were all studying the collection they kindly told us more about these interesting objects.

The poles and baskets are still made and continue to be used in Pukumani ceremonies.

Nicholas and Alison from the Pitt Rivers looking at
one of the Pukumani poles with Alison, Diana and Bede
© Pitt Rivers Museum

This is a public ceremony performed to ensure the spirit of a dead person passes from the living to the spirit world. The painted bark baskets are placed on top of the poles at the end of the Pukumani ceremony as gifts for the spirits.

Looking closely at the bark baskets © Pitt Rivers Museum
I really enjoyed meeting Bede, Diana, and Ali and spending time with them talking about the objects and life on Melville Island.

From left to right:
PRM 1915.10.23, 1914.43.1,
 1915.10.25, 1915.10.24
© Pitt Rivers Museum

PRM 1915.10.20
© Pitt Rivers Museum

On the left you can see the carved poles we  looked at, the one in the middle has one of the  bark baskets placed over the top.

You can see the other bark basket on the right.

If you have an opportunity to visit, you will find all three of the Pukumani poles on permanent display in the Lower Gallery of the Museum.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator