Monday, 15 May 2017

Learning to make armour from coconut - a tradition from Kiribati

On the 3rd April I was invited to Cambridge to attend a workshop on Coconut fibre armour from Kiribati. The Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) is currently displaying the exhibition ‘The Island Warrior’ one of the many outcomes of the Pacific Presences research project. The coconut fibre armour from Kiribati has always held a fascination with me and the weapons that accompany it. I am inspired by the use of local materials, coconut fibre, shark’s teeth, ray skin and porcupine fish skin to make these fearsome objects. I think that the armour and weaponry of Kiribati epitomises the resourcefulness of an island nation. The Republic of Kiribati consists of thirty-three coral atolls isolated in the Pacific Ocean. The coconut fibre armour is unique to Kiribati and the Pitt Rivers Museum has the second largest collection of this armour in the UK after the British Museum. The armour consists of many component parts the most significant being the cuirass, which covers the torso, tunics, dungarees, trousers, forearm guards, waistbands and helmets. Today, the armoured warrior is a symbol of power and strength which appears on t-shirts and sarongs in Kiribati.

The ‘Island Warrior’ is exhibited in two show cases. One case displays the historic suit of armour from MAA’s collections and the other displays a contemporary suit made by artists Lizzy Leckie, Kaetaeta Watson and Chris Charteris. Also inspired by the use of local resources, Lizzy, Chris and Kaetaeta experimented with materials readily available to them from their home in New Zealand. They made the cuirass from twisted polyethylene twine used for fishing trawl nets. This material was successful after having discovered that the knotting technique used to make the original armour was indeed a similar technique used in making fishing nets. The overalls were made from sisal bailing twine. Other man made materials were used for the construction of the armour due to their availability, firmness and strength. As part of the workshop I was able to have a go at plying coconut fibre and the knotting and weaving techniques employed by the artists to make the contemporary suit. This opportunity gave me an insight into the specialist skills required, the time, effort and teamwork necessary to make a complete suit. I wasn’t very good at it and in attempting the weaving appreciated the whalebone needles Chris had made especially for the process, metal needles were extremely unforgiving on the hands! feel that the interdisciplinary approach embraced by the exhibition made me really examine the object and should be an approach adopted more often. The conservation element reminded me of the approach we recently applied at the PRM to reinterpret the Tahitian mourners costume from Captain Cook’s voyages now on display in the Cook case on the Lower Gallery. I was lucky enough the be able to stay for the exhibition opening where we were treated to Kiribati dancing from members of Kiribati community members living in the UK and working with the British Museum as part of their ‘object journeys’ project. We have on display in the Upper Gallery of the Museum a suit of coconut fibre Kiribati armour, do go and have a look when you are next visiting the Museum.

Faye Belsey

Assistant Curator

Monday, 27 March 2017

A lesson in making the colour of the night sky and deepest ocean

The indigo mixture and below indigo in the pounder 
Last week three of us from the Pitt Rivers Museum, Julia Nicholson, Head of Collections, Jeremy Uden, Head of Conservation and myself were lucky enough to attend a two day workshop on indigo hosted by the conservation department of the Bodleian Library and led by indigo expert Jenny Balfour-Paul. Jenny has studied this mysterious colour, the colour so imbedded in our everyday lives as indicated by the title of her book “Indigo: from Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans” for over 20 years. This rich, deep colour, derived from the indigo plant, we learnt, is a chemical marvel. We made a chemical dye vat (with a kit from Maiwa) using natural indigo adding chemicals thiourea dioxide and lye to act as alkaline and as a reducing agent. Ideally, we would have made a fermentation vat using all natural materials whereby bacteria would break down the indigo naturally but this is a long process which could take several days or weeks and we only had a short time. 

We left the vat overnight and returned the next day to see what it had done. Amazingly the vat is clear/yellowish, not blue as you would expect. The smell was pungent. As the material is dipped into the vat it comes out green and turns blue when it hits the air through oxidization. It was amazing seeing the transformation before our very eyes. We dipped paper into the vat, removing the scum from the surface to make dye gods, a Japanese tradition to bring good luck to the success of the vat.

We also played with indigo as a pigment, braking the raw indigo down with a pestle and mortar and adding honey and gum arabic to make paint. We experimented with burnishing and used gold to paint over the indigo. This was a technique used in ancient manuscripts from Asia, the Middle East and Europe which we had seen in the Bodleian collections on the 

first day of the workshop. We have a number of indigo 
dyed textiles in the collections of the PRM including 
beautifully shiny indigo textiles from Southwest China

All hands in the indigo vat, below, Japanese dye god
Jenny Balfour-Paul has been kind enough to donate her collection of Textiles from the Arab world to the Museum. Many of the textiles use the rich tradition of indigo dying. I look forward to cataloguing Jenny's collection and researching it further in the coming months.

Many thanks to the conservation department of the Bodleian Library for hosting the event and for letting us use their photographs from the workshop in this blog. 

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Fijian Visitors to the Museum

On the 13th of February we were delighted to host a visit by colleagues from Fiji Museum and the iTaukei Trust Fund. They are visiting the UK from Fiji as part of the Fijian Art Research project hosted by The Sainsbury Research Unit. As part of their visit to the UK they also visited The Horniman Museum, CambridgeUniversity Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum. During their day at the PRM they had a behind the scenes tour of the Museum including our education and conservation departments. We also showed them collections from Fiji from the Museum stores including breast plates, nose flutes and Arthur Maurice
Hocart’s early 19th century Fijian photograph collection. We had a great day together and enjoyed sharing insights into Museum practice both at home in the UK and across the Pacific.

© Pitt Rivers Museum

Percy Manning: The man who collected Oxfordshire

On Monday 20th February we welcomed the Kirtlington Morris dancers to the Museum to mark the opening of the temporary exhibition ‘Oxfordshire Folkloreand Customs: Celebrating the centenary of antiquarian and folklorist Percy Manning’ in the Didcot case on the Lower Gallery. The Kirtlington Morris have kindly donated some contemporary pieces of Morris dancing kit to the exhibition. They performed a number of dances outside the front of the Museum of NaturalHistory and after joined us for some celebratory tea and cake!

The exhibition closes on the 8th May. Kirtlington Morris will be participating in Oxford folk weekend alongside other Oxfordshire Morris teams on the 21st-23rd April.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Loan to the exhibition ‘The Global City: Lisbon in the Renaissance’ Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Facade of the Museum Nacional de Arte Antiga © Pitt Rivers Museum

On the 15th of February I travelled to Lisbon with two objects, a Congo cushion cover and an Aztec pendant. Both objects travelled in a crate in the cargo hold of a Tap Portugal plane. Myself and the PRM crate arrived in sunny Lisbon later that day. We were driven to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Portugal’s national art gallery where the crate was stored overnight for the objects to be unpacked and installed in the exhibition ‘The Global City, Lisbon in the Renaissance’ the following day.
Cushion cover 1886.1.254 .1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Pendant 1905.56.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The exhibition recreates the mercantile heart of Renaissance Europe’s foremost global city, Lisbon. A time when luxury and exotic goods, spices and commodities were imported from Africa, Brazil, Asia and elsewhere and sold on the streets of Lisbon. The cushion cover loaned to the exhibition is an important part of the PRM’s collections. The cushion cover is from the Museum’s earliest collections, that of the Tradescants from the 1600’s. The cushion cover has been radio carbon dated AD 1360-1436. The cushion cover is made from raffia fibre, admired for their beauty by European explorers, they were soon prized as bedcovers and floor coverings and taken back to Europe as luxury items. The PRM cushion cover is displayed alongside two other raffia textiles from Kongo from the Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome, Italy. The pendant is made from jade and is from Mexico and was donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1905.

PRM crate being prepared for cargo at Heathrow © Pitt Rivers Museum
The crate arriving in Lisbon © Pitt Rivers Museum
Installation in the exhibition gallery © Pitt Rivers Museum
Due to the age and fragility of the cushion cover it was packed by our conservation department for a safe journey to Lisbon. For the duration of the exhibition it is very important that the environmental conditions of the display case are kept stable and the textile is not exposed to too much light, humidity or fluctuations in temperature. Before installing the display in Lisbon I checked the condition of the two objects and monitored the environmental conditions of the showcase. I then ensured that the cushion and pendant were secure before leaving for Oxford. The exhibition closes on the 9th of April when I will return to Lisbon de-install the loan and collect the cushion cover and pendant.

Faye Belsey

Assistant Curator