Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Interning with Object Collections: Researching Model Houses and the Cultures Behind Them, Then and Today

As an intern in Object Collections (see my introductory blog post), something I’ve been researching is model houses from Asia. These objects are being redisplayed and when this happens research needs to be done. While the descriptions on the object database, which can be searched online, gives some information about these collections, like the materials they are made of and some background information, it can often be sparse or outdated.  The case text from the pre-existing display gave additional detail but was centred around a theme that enabled the objects to be compared. For example, several of the model houses I’ve been researching were grouped together under a common theme of thatched roofs.

Toda model house, PRM 1900.78.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum

I started my research by having a look at the model houses and the current information the museum has on them. Several were from the Toda people (a small indigenous group in the Nilgiri Hills in India); many brass models were from Sumatra in Indonesia (at least some being from the Minangkabau people); a few models were from the Ainu people in Hokkaido, Japan; and finally one model – which reminded me of a North American tipi in appearance – was from the Khanty people (who are also referred to by several other names in texts about them), living in Siberia.

As not all of the database entries for the models had reference photographs, I also got to experience how these were taken – the objects were carefully positioned against a plain light-grey background with a scale in centimetres placed in front of them to indicate how large the objects are. Taking the photographs, I had to aim to not distort this scale with the angle of the camera. Once these photographs are linked to the appropriate record, you will be able to see what the models look like, as well as read about them, using the online database.

Khanty model house photographed with scale bar,
PRM 1915.50.73 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Looking for books on houses from around the world, myself and my supervisor, Zena, had a browse of the Pitt Rivers’ Balfour Library, and with the help of the librarian tracked down a couple of books. These only had small sections of relevant information, however, so I used the internet (particularly JSTOR and Google Scholar) to find academic journal articles on the groups the model houses were from. I also browsed Google Images and Wikipedia to find recent photographs of the homes to see if the styles still existed unchanged today or had changed or disappeared over time (all of the models were donated between 1900-1924, so were all at least 93 years old, some at least 117).

I found myself drawn to aspects of the research which discussed the impact of tourism and interactions with other groups – for the Ainu, Japanese tourism had greatly impacted their lifestyle, with tourist villages being a primary source of income for some Ainu people and even – some felt – a way to maintain traditional aspects of their culture, but reductive portrayals in some of these villages and in mainstream Japanese media have had a large effect on how the Ainu are perceived. According to these articles, many Japanese citizens view the Ainu as ‘primitive’ and at one with nature, living exactly the same as they did centuries ago, rather than using modern transport vehicles, for example, among other things.

Ainu model house, PRM 1900.78.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum

I think there is a tendency to view indigenous peoples as wholly separated from other societies, living uninterrupted by country’s governments. Or, alternatively, gone – semi-mythical people of the past who are no longer in existence today. Researching these groups in the present day and in relation to others in their countries helps to disperse these distorted views and myths, and shed light particularly on how energy consumption often has a disproportionate impact on indigenous groups despite these groups gaining the least from this consumption.

For example, in one of the articles I read there was a recent photograph of a traditional Toda temple, which included a sign in English ‘NO ADMISSION (TEMPLE)’. This suggests regular interaction with English-speaking tourists. Government policy can also have a dramatic impact on the lives of indigenous minorities. For example, the lives of Khanty people has been greatly impacted by Soviet policy. There have been various projects to try and assimilate the Khanty into mainstream Soviet culture and most of their land from the 1960s onwards seized for a petroleum deposit.

Minangkabau model house, PRM 1960.5.22 .1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

In other areas of my research I read about construction and materials used, and the significance of certain elements of the dwellings and their locations, usually having both practical and religious reasons. For example, traditionally Ainu houses have only one window which is used for sacred purposes only – weapons are passed through it to be blessed for a hunt, and food caught during this hunt is then passed back through the window. The window is always positioned facing upstream as this is believed to be where the Gods reside. For the Khanty, river systems also have religious importance, believed to be created by divine ancestors who protect family hunting areas.

I would like to see the model houses placed alongside contemporary photos if the Museum is able to secure the copyright for these images (or find photographs without copyright).

Miranda Reilly
Museum Intern


Lisa Hiwasaki, ‘Ethnic Tourism in Hokkaido and the Shaping of Ainu Identity’ in Pacific Affairs, 2000 (on JSTOR)

Peter Jordan, Material Culture and Sacred Landscape: The Anthropology of the Siberian Khanty

Contemporary photographs of the Khanty (more can be found by searching ‘Khanty’ or ‘chum’ – the Russian name for the Khanty tent – on Google Images): Click this link and this one for two examples.

George Lugosi, ‘Mathematical Tourism in Siberia’ in The Mathematical Tourist, ed. Dirk Huylebrouck

Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, ‘Ethnicity without Power: The Siberian Khanty in Soviet Society,’ in Slavic Review, 1983 (on JSTOR)

William A. Noble, ‘Toda Dwellings and Temples’ in Anthropos, 1966 (on JSTOR)

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