Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Couriered loan to Wellcome Trust Library Reading Room

The Wellcome Trust Library Reading Room have borrowed 111 amulets on loan from the Pitt Rivers Museum.  The Reading Room is due to open in 2015.  The Reading Room combines books and objects in an innovative space.

Loaned objects must be accompanied by a member of Pitt Rivers Museum staff. Their role is to safeguard the objects on their journey and oversee the installation. The amulets lent to the Wellcome Collection come from the collections of Adrien de Mortillet, Edward Lovett and Walter Leo Hildburgh. The amulets originate from all around the world.

The amulets packed for transport

Madeleine Ding and Faye Belsey travelled to London along with the carefully packed crate of objects. The condition of all objects was checked at the Reading Room. The amulets were arranged in their new display case. Some objects had supporting stands made by Technicians at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The Reading Room have produced a booklet to accompany the display.

Installing the amulets
The objects sit on a red felt cloth. The felt was oddy tested before being selected for the display ensuring that it will not cause any damage to the objects due to the release of chemical gases during the display period. Before the installation was completed the lid was secured and the environmental conditions were assessed. The light levels, relative humidity and temperature were checked to ensure the objects would be housed in safe and stable environment.

The finished layout

Faye Belsey and Madeleine Ding

Assistant Curators

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

New Displays: Forthcoming Maori Carving Case

Before conservation treatment showing
the old mount (left) and after treatment
(right), canoe ornament PRM 1902.80.2
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Members of staff from the Collections, Conservation, and Technical Services Departments are continuing to work together preparing a new display dedicated to the art of Maori wood carving

Work is progressing well. 

Conservation have finished checking over all of the carvings selected for display. This necessary and important work has involved stabilising any damage on the carvings, cleaning where required, and if necessary removing old mounts. 

Technicians are currently busy creating a mock-up of the display to finalise the design and make all the necessary display mounts.

The case mock-up in the design area © Pitt Rivers Museum

The designated display case has been emptied and is now ready for Technicians to panel out and paint. After painting the case will need to be left for about three weeks. This will allow any volatile organic compounds in the paint to off-gas so no harm is caused to the objects going on display.

I have been busy finding out about Maori wood carving and researching the objects. I am currently drafting the introductory text and individual object labels. I intend to circulate these to members of the Maori community, as well as subject specialists, to ensure the text in the display is accurate and informative. 

Heather, Head of Conservation
emptying the case ready for the
new display © Pitt Rivers Museum

Keep an eye on this blog site and I will let you know when the display is finished.
I am making sure any new information about the carvings is added to the appropriate records. Plus we are taking, and adding, up-to-date images of these carvings.

This will ensure, even if it is difficult to visit, you will still be able to see and read all about these carvings on the Museum website using the online object database.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Pest Management: A Bag Full Of Trouble!

Signs of moth © Pitt Rivers Museum
Although the three galleries in the Museum have many display cases filled with objects, there are another 57,500 objects not currently on display. These reserve collections are homed in storage in and around the galleries. It is the job of the Conservation Department to care for and monitor the collections both on display and in storage.

Over the past few years, museums across the UK have seen an alarming increase in the number of common clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) amongst their collections. This increase could be attributed to a rise in temperature, the decline of pesticides used within museums and an increase in visitor numbers. Much of the collection at the Pitt Rivers is made from natural fibres such as textiles, skins, hair, fur, feathers and foodstuff. Unfortunately these are the materials that the larvae of the clothes moth consume. If a moth infestation goes unnoticed it can devastate an object leaving it unrecognisable. It is therefore vital that the Conservation Team have an ongoing integrated pest management (IPM) program in place.

The IPM program at the Pitt Rivers involves weekly checks of a number of moth pheromone traps located throughout the Museum. The pheromone traps are designed to attract the male moth, which get stuck on the traps sticky surface. Capturing the male moth reduces the potential for reproduction and the number of moth caught indicate if there is an increase in moth activity within a case. As a Department we also train the other museum staff, including the Collections Department and Front of House Staff, to be vigilant and report any moth seen within the Museum. Even with these safeguards moth infestations can unfortunately still occur.

Removing debris © PRM
During October 2014 one of the Collection Team retrieved a number of textile bags from storage under a case in the Lower Gallery ready for a Visiting Researcher. The member of staff noticed a moth in the polythene wrapping of one bag. Conservation was notified and went to investigate. 32 textile and fur bags were fond to have moth within their polythene wrapping. As a precaution all 32 bags were removed and placed in a freezer at minus 31 degrees for one week. Freezing at such a low temperature kills the eggs, larvae and adult moth.

The saddlebag after conservation,
PRM 1947.1.13 © PRM
Once removed from the freezer the bags were checked over in Conservation. 8 of the bags were found to have an active infestation, whereas the remaining bags showed no sign of moth. Unfortunately 3 of the 8 bags had been adversely affected.

One of these was a section from a woollen saddlebag thought to be from Turkey. The polythene wrapping was not quite big enough for the saddlebag and where the wool was exposed along one edge the moth had gathered. Thankfully once the moth and larvae was removed there was relatively little damage.

Below you can see a woollen shoulder bag from Greece. This bag had a large number of moth within its folds and again along an exposed edge. There are patches of yellowed staining thought to be ethnographic food deposits from use. The stained areas had attracted the moth and were the places most affected by the infestation. The staining is part of the object's history and can tell the story of its use therefore we would never try to remove it. Once the moth debris was removed there was some loss of fibres.

From left to right: Section of the bag showing staining with moth damage before and after treatment, the complete bag after being treated in conservation; PRM 1965.11.4B © Pitt Rivers Museum

The next one was a bag from the Miju Mishmi peoples of the Lohit Valley, Tibet. At first this decorative cotton bag appeared to only have a small number of moth on its handle. However the inside of the bag had plant debris remaining from when the bag was in use. This debris had attracted a large number of moth. Thankfully although the moth appeared plentiful there was no physical damage to the textile.

Left and centre: the damage found inside the bag, right: the bag after conservation treatment:
cotton bag from Tibet PRM 1948.7.49 © Pitt Rivers Museum

All the bags that had been removed for freezing have now been placed in sealed polythene bags for storage. The affected storage drawers, along with a number of other 'high risk' cases containing natural fibres, have been highlighted and marked with a sparkly moth sticker. These stickers are designed to indicate to all staff to be extra vigilant and take the time to check through the contents for any sign of moth.

Kate Jackson

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Trench Art Collection

Model military cap PRM 1999.45.2
© Pitt Rivers Museum
This year is the start of the First World War Centenary, which seems an opportune moment to show you this collection of objects made from artillery shells and bullet casings.
Letter opener PRM 1999.45.3
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Professor Nicholas Saunders, a trench art specialist, purchased these for the Museum in 1999.

Part of the collection is on permanent display. If you visit the Museum, look at the 'Recycling' display on the first floor and the '20th Century Firearms' on the top floor. If you visit on a Wednesday afternoon, up to the 12th November,  you could join the free First World War tour, which starts at 3.15.

Ashtray PRM 1999.45.1
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Model coal scuttle PRM 1999.45.4
and vases PRM 1999.45.7 and
PRM 1999.45.8 © Pitt Rivers Museum
You can also explore this collection online using the Museum object database. Where you are asked for an accession number, enter '1999.45.', which is the museum identification number for this collection.

Or to discover the wide variety of objects in the Museum collection made from recycled bullets, select 'bullet' from keywords and 'recycled' for process, then search. Simply click on the individual records to see the full details about each one.

Vases left to right: PRM 1999.45.6,
PRM 1999.45.9, PRM 1999.45.10
© Pitt Rivers Museum

I encourage you to take the time to explore these interesting objects. I really like the way these show the creativity of human beings in taking something designed to cause destruction and transforming it into something decorative.
Vase PRM 1999.45.5
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

If you are interested in reading more about trench art see:

Kimball, Jane A. (2004), Trench Art: An Illustrated History, Silverpenny Press.
Sanders, Nicolas J. (2003), Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War, Oxford: Berg.
Sanders, Nicolas J. (2002), Trench Art, Princes Risborough: Shire.
Sanders, Nicolas J. (2001), Trench Art: A Brief History and Guide, 1914-1939, London: Leo Cooper. 

Part of this collection was included in the temporary exhibition Transformations: The Art of RecyclingHeld at the Museum from 2000 until 2002 this celebrated the human creativity in recycling and re-using objects.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Installing 'Myanmar - The Golden Land' at Linden Museum, Stuttgart, Germany

On Tuesday 14th October, setting off at 6.30am, I embarked on a journey by truck across Europe to deliver a crate of eight objects from the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) collections from Myanmar (Burma) to Linden Museum, Stuttgart for the exhibition 'Myanmar - The Golden Land'. I travelled all day to arrive in Frankfurt late Tuesday evening. After an overnight stop my journey resumed at 9.00am the next morning, arriving in Stuttgart a few hours later. 

The front of Linden Museum, Stuttgart

The exhibition has been two years in the planning by the exhibition curator and head of Asian and South East Asian collections at Linden Museum, Dr Georg Noack. Dr Noack visited Oxford last year to make a selection from the PRM collections. The chosen objects included a zither in the form of a crocodile (1938.34.581) which is displayed in the exhibition with a similar more contemporary zither in the same style. Dr Noack explained to me that whilst contemporary versions of the zither are made and played in Myanmar today the older version makes a more pleasing sound as the wood is carved thinner and the resonator is a better shape.

The PRM zither (1938.34.581) is displayed on the plinth
at the front © Pitt Rivers Museum

Tiles packed at bottom of PRM crate
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Also included in the exhibition from the PRM are four large, and very heavy, ceramic tiles and a carved stone Buddha from the Shwegugyi Temple complex. The temple was built in 1473 by King Dhammazedi as a replica to the temple in India where Buddha attained enlightenment. The temple complex had seven stations around it with paths leading to the centre. The tiles are displayed with other tiles from the same Temple which are ordinarily dispersed among Museum collections all over Europe. 

The weight of the tiles (between 15 - 17 kg each) made the crate which they had to travel in very heavy! Usually the PRM conditions of loan stipulate that the PRM courier should be the only person to handle the PRM collections during installation and de-installation at the loan venue. However, on this occasion given the weight and cumbersome nature of the tiles an exception was made and the Linden conservator kindly helped me to remove the tiles from the crate and into the display cases.  

Tile with glazed green figures with human 
bodies and mouse-like heads, 1892.41.481
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Tiles on display in the gallery © Pitt Rivers Museum

Tile prepared for condition reporting © Pitt Rivers Museum

On a smaller scale we also loaned an ebony box (1890.13.9) used to contain tattooing pigment and tattooing apparatus (1894.27.41). Tattooing was important in Myanmar culture and Myanmar men used to be tattooed from waist to knees. Having tattoos was a sign of manhood. You can read more here.

Box and tattooing apparatus on display © Pitt Rivers Museum
The exhibition design is indeed very golden, the walls of the galleries being covered in gold foil reflecting the gilded temple rooftops of Myanmar. Installation ran very smoothly with the help of the Linden Museum conservation team to condition check the objects with me before installing them in the display cases. The exhibition opened on Friday 18th October and will close on 17th May 2015.

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Flying High In The Conservation Lab

Recently through the doors of the conservation laboratory has been a set of three kites from China and Japan. These objects had been on display for many years but, as they have been flying high on the ceiling of the first floor gallery, you probably have not had a close look at them.

A beautiful butterfly kite that winged its way into the lab, PRM 1898.79.2 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

When the kites arrived in the lab, immediately apparent was the wonderful use of pigments to decorate the extremely thin paper bodies of the kites. All had beautifully hand-painted designs in pinks, oranges, blues, blacks, greens and even gold. You could readily imagine them lining the walls of a shop or floating delicately and colourfully through the sky before they came to live here at the Pitt Rivers.
Butterfly kite,PRM 1899.22.6
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Exactly who collected the kites is a little unclear, but documents tucked away in the Museum manuscripts collection hint at a possible exchange between Leonard Arthur Lyall and Edward Burnett Tylor, both collectors active in the late 19th century.

In one document, dated 21 February 1898, Lyall informs Tylor:

"I am now sending you a few specimens of Chinese kites, which I hope will arrive safely and prove what you wished for."

Tylor owed him 8 shillings for the kites.

"It seems hardly worth remitting so small a sum, but as you ask I tell you the amount. Can I at any future time be of any service to you, I hope you will make use of me."

What a great bit of history to come across whilst looking into the background of the kites.

We suspect the kites were framed when they were acquired by the Museum between 1898 and 1899, and as such they were not mounted in an ideal way.

A dragonfly kite in its original frame and degraded backing board,
PRM 1898.79.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The original mounting method with metal 
pins hammered through the delicate paper 
and bamboo © Pitt Rivers Museum

The boards the kites were attached to were degrading and likely to cause damage, plus the poor kites had been hammered onto their mounts with metal pins and hooks that were a little corroded and had punctured holes in the delicate paper and bamboo.

The first task was to get the kites out of the frames, a challenge in itself as they were heavily nailed shut. Once out though, the pins holding the kites down could be gently removed and it was a chance to have a good look at the kites out of the frames for possibly the first time in over a century.

Turning the kites over was a real treat, as you can see so much more of how the kite frames were made, different sections of flexible bamboo tied together to make the light structural frame that the thin tissue was then carefully glued to. Looking at the back you are able to see the much brighter colour of the original painted decoration, which was so vivid and almost fluorescent in places.

You can see the bright colours of the painted
decoration on the reverse of this kite,
PRM 1898.79.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Often colours in objects fade due to light, especially if they have been displayed for a long time - it is one of the problems museums battle with and is why they are often quite dark places!

One of the kites had become quite heavily soiled with particulate dust so this was cleaned using a porous sponge that traps dirt when pressed against the surface of dirty things. Some of the kites were also a little torn and broken, so some careful work to repair and back tears took place using a Japanese tissue paper which was matched in thickness and colour to the original kite paper or bamboo, depending on where the damage was and held in place with a starch paste adhesive (sodium alginate arrowroot starch paste).

The kites have been re-mounted on safer archival card backings and have been flipped so you can see the wonderful bamboo structure, as well as the colourful pigments. They will soon be re-displayed in the Museum in their safely cleaned original frames. In the meantime, you can see other examples of similar kites on display in the Lower Gallery on the first floor of the Museum.

A tear before (left) and after repair (right) PRM 1898.79.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum

If you are not able to visit the Museum you can still explore the Chinese and Japanese kites in the collection via the online Museum database. Just select kite under 'keyword' and select either China or Japan under 'country' and then search.

Sophie Louise Rowe
Conservation Intern

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Japanese Amulets: Uncovering the mystery of what is inside?

A contemporary shrine souvenir shop, Japan © Fusa McLynn
O-mamori and o-fuda (Japanese amulets) are quite popular even today. The majority of contemporary Japanese no longer follow religious practices, all the same, they still like to buy amulets for themselves, or for family and friends, when they visit temples and shrines. 

In such souvenir shops, they sell amulets which are not very different from those which B. H. Chamberlain collected in Japan and sent to the Pitt Rivers Museum about 100 years ago.

Amulet envelope containing a Sanskrit letter and image
of Kannon PRM 1908.82.309 © Pitt Rivers Museum
When I was a small child I was very curious about what were inside, although I knew to open the amulets to have a look was a taboo. 

Children were made to believe that something awful would happen if they did such a thing. But some bolder friends of mine ignored the warning. They told me that there was only a strip of paper with a phrase of a Buddhism sutra (and nothing bad happened to them after all).

Since I started to work on the Japanese texts written on the amulets in the Pitt Rivers Museum, I have seen many different things inside them. They are not only thin strips of paper with a bit of sutra as my childhood friends discovered. Quite a wide variety can be seen. Some bear the names of gods or their images, and others have the Sanskrit symbols representing the different aspects of Buddha.

More unusual ones contain leaves, grains of rice, fake gold coins, or small pills. 

PRM 1908.82.306 and PRM 1908.82.307
© Pitt Rivers Museum
For example, on the left you can see an amulet for those seeking a happy marriage, which is from Yaegaki Jinja (shrine) in Shimane prefecture and contains something which looks like a leaf. It is, in fact, a camellia leaf. Why? 

According to a legend, Princess Kushinada, the wife of Susano (brother of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess), planted two camellia trees. These two grew into one, and became a symbol of eternal love. Even now there are three intertwined camellia trees in the shrine precinct. 

LafcadioHearn (1850-1904), who was a good friend of Chamberlain (although they would fall out later), possibly got this very amulet for him to send to the museum. Hearn lived in Shimane, and wrote about Yaegaki shrine in his book, “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan”. Besides the camellia amulet, some of the other items he mentions in this book can be identified in the Chamberlain Collection. Follow this link to read the relevant section of his book about the camellia amulet.  

Fusa McLynn
Collections Volunteer