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 stipulates 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.  


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. 


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 the 18th October and will close on the 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 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Huipil of San Antonio Aguas Calientes

Anyone traveling today through the Mayan villages and towns of highland Guatemala and observing the riot of colour expressed in the clothing that women create and wear would find it difficult to believe it was not always so.

A prime example of the profound change that has, in fact, taken place is the huipil worn by women in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Today the women of San Antonio are noted throughout Guatemala for both their weaving skill, their design sense and their use of colour. However a traveler in 1900 would have noted that their huipil was an exceedingly dull affair. The ground fabric was a natural pale brown handspun and hand woven cotton with narrow warp stripes. Onto this simple background were brocaded a few doubled-faced supplementary weft motifs.



Woman with jug, San Antonio Aguas Calientes. CIRMA, Yas Collection, late 19th Century.
How did this rapid and radical change occur? Margot Blum Schevill believes that one impetus was the fact the San Antonio women increasingly came into contact with women from other villages where the design of the huipil was more complex and colourful. Other researchers point to the influence of needlepoint pattern books to which weavers began to have access. With these graphic aids the weaver could begin to reimagine the design the huipil.








Another important factor must have been increasing availability to commercial threads and to synthetic dyes. Women would travel to the nearby town of Antigua with the vegetables or textiles they had to sell and use part of their profits to buy threads and dyes from local merchants or from traders who came from Guatemala City on market days.

It is also important to note that fashion is not static even in a culture as economically impoverished as the Maya. Especially over the last 50 years the aesthetic expressed in all aspects of the woman’s traje (outfit), including the huipil, has continued to change in almost every village. As in San Antonio these changes extend even to the colour of the ground fabric. In the remote village of Chajul, for example, it had long been white. Today it is often red or blue.


Hupil from San Antonio with velvet trim notably missing, Sam Noble Museum, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK


There is a hint as to the role of fashion in a fine example of a huipil from San Antonio in the collection of The Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. If you compare it with a close comparable in the Pitt Rivers’ collection (2012.104.37) you’ll note that the velvet trim that was once applied to the neck and arm openings has been removed. Only a shadow remains. One wonders why the owner decided to remove the trim before disposing of the huipil?


Hupil from San Antonio in the Pitt Rivers Museum (2012.104.37) with velvet trim around neck © Pitt Rivers Museum. 


The answer may have been related to fashion. As far as the owner (or her daughter or granddaughter) was concerned the huipil was no longer in fashion. Thus the trim was removed to be recycled in a new huipil that expressed the weaver’s newly acquired taste and aspirations.

Dai Williams
Independent researcher.


In 2012 Dai Williams generously donated a portion of his collection of Guatemalan textiles to the Pitt Rivers Museum. To look more closely at this specific collection please search for it on the Museum’s online catalogue via the Pitt Rivers Museum website.