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

Monday, 30 January 2017

Ringing the Changes

Bells stored in the Music store, as well as bells from Sharpe the PRM also have bell ringing holdings from other prominent  campanologists George Elphick and Ronald Clouston










For those of you unfamiliar with the term, campanology is the study of bells encompassing the technology of making and playing bells and the history, methods and traditions of bell ringing.  I was recently joined in the Museum’s music store by several bell ringing enthusiasts representing the Sharpe Trust.  Frederick Sharpe was one of the World’s leading authorities on the history, technology and music of bells. In his lifetime Sharpe collected a unique body of material relating to bell ringing including an extensive library, bells, hand bells, photographs, records of bell tower inspections in the UK, bell ringing music and gear. He founded the Launton hand-bell ringers in 1951, the ringers still play and perform to this day. On his death in 1976, in accordance with his will, the Sharpe Trustees were set up. The trust act to continue Fred’s legacy as an outstanding campanologist and bell historian.








It was  members of the Trust who arranged for Sharpe’s collection of bells, papers, manuscripts, photographs and books to be stored at the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) on loan after his death. An agreement was drawn up with Senior Museum staff and facilitated by the Museum’s ethnomusicologist and curator of the Bate collection of Musical Instruments, Hélène La Rue. In Hélène the Trust found a sympathetic ear, Hélène herself was a member of the Bell Committee. Hélène’s passion for all things musical made the loan to the PRM a good choice. Sadly after the unexpected death of Hélène La Rue in 2007 the specialist knowledge accompanying the music collections at the PRM was somewhat lost and the restricted access to Sharpe’s material was proving problematic.




The Museum has since worked closely with the Sharpe   Trustees to return Fred’s extensive holdings back to the Trust where they will be catalogued and made an accessible and important resource to those interested in all things bell related. It is hoped that the collection will eventually be kept at the Bell Foundry Museum at the John Taylor & Co foundry in Loughborough, where plans are in hand to create a national centre for the study of bells. In the meantime the Sharpe papers have been transferred to temporary archival storage, but the collection can now be accessed by prior arrangement with Tim Pett (The Sharpe Trust Collection Secretary). 

Boxes of Sharpe packed and ready to be loaded onto the van

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator