Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Female Collectors: Mother Bertha

Hawaiian Kahili
PRM 1887.1.158 
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Hawaiian pandanus fan PRM 1887.1.155 © Pitt Rivers Museum
There are many remarkable women connected with the Museum collections. One of these is Mother Bertha, who gave a collection of Hawaiian objects to the Natural History Museum that were transferred to the Pitt Rivers in 1886.

Of Scottish descent, Elizabeth Bertha Turnbull was an Anglican Nun who dedicated her life to caring for others. During the Crimean war she travelled to Turkey with Florence Nightingale to nurse the ill and injured soldiers.

Then known as Sister Bertha, she worked mainly in the General Hospital in Scutari, and then at the Castle Hospital in Balaclava. Unlike the civilian nurses, Bertha received no pay. She was given a railway rug before leaving England, which  served her at various times during the Crimea as a blanket, carpet, mattress, screen and shawl.

After the war, she continued working with the poor and the sick in England before travelling to Hawaii in 1864. In Lahaina, on the Island of Maui, Sister Bertha tended the sick during an outbreak of leprosy and helped establish St Cross School. Operating a free dispensary for the poor, she was popular with the local people and gained a reputation for her skill in doctoring to the sick.
Hawaiian gourd vessel PRM 1887.1.159© Pitt Rivers Museum

In 1867, along with Mother Sellon, Sister Beatrice and Sister Albertina she helped set up St. Andrew's Priory School. The three Sisters were the first teachers at this all girls school founded by Queen Emma Kaleleonalani. They had a close relationship with Queen Emma and regularly had tea with her in the grounds. In 1874, when there was a threat to Queen Emma's life, the Sisters hid her overnight in the Priory. Bertha and an Hawaiian Lady-in-Waiting kept watch over the Queen until the danger had passed.

Following Mother Sellon's death in 1876 Bertha became her successor. She returned to England in 1877 to take up the role of Mother Superior at Ascot Priory.  Her work caring for others continued until her death on 15 September 1890 at the age of 67. Florence Nightingale, when informed about her death, noted of Mother Bertha: "She was a kind of hero."

You can see the Hawaiian objects in the Museum from Mother Bertha using the online object database. Simply enter 'Mother Bertha' in 'Other Owners' and then perform your search to find the records for all 17 objects in this collection.

Hawaiian barkcloth, from right to left: PRM 1887.1.162, PRM 1887.1.165, and PRM 1887.1.164 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Suggested further reading:

Carol Helmstadter and Judith Godden, 2011, Nursing Before Nightingale, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Ellen Jordan, 1999, The Women's Movement and Women's Employment in Nineteenth Century Britain, England: Routledge.

Lynn McDonald (editor), 2010, Florence Nightingale: The Crimean War: Collected Works of Florence Nightingale Volume 14, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

John Field Mulholland, 1970, Hawaii's Religions, Rutland: C.E. Tuttle Co.

Henry Phillpotts, 1849, The Sisters of Mercy at Devonport, England: W. Wood.

Thomas Jay Williams, 1965, Priscilla Lydia Sellon, London: S.P.C.K.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

New Acquisitions: Pigeon Whistles

"Perched in three small vitrines, which themselves sit high above the other cases of the court, small, strange bamboo faces peer down upon the museum's visitors. Appearing almost like tiny masks, these objects are described as Pigeon Whistles from China" 

During 2012 - 2013 the Pitt Rivers Museum was lucky enough to benefit from the presence and creativity of artist, composer, performer and sound designer Nathaniel Mann. Nathaniel was appointed artist-in-residence at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Contemporary Music as part of Sound and Music's 'Embedded' programme. Nathaniel was a perfect match for the PRM. Performing solo as Animateddog and as one third of Dead Rat Orchestra, his work draws strongly on folk idioms whilst using unusual objects (including 2x4, ukulele, guitar, phonofiddle and meat cleaver!) and conventional instruments to create unique and playfully experimental music. The unique and varied collections of the PRM ensured that there was no shortage of inspiration for Nathaniel to draw on. With a large collection of musical instruments on display and in the Museum stores, both unusual and conventional, Nathaniel was able to come up with great ideas for new work and performances during his residency.

Pigeon whistle on (1921.36.14) display in the Museum 
attached to a stuffed pigeon
Pigeon whistle (2014.44.5) made and 
used for 'Audible Forces' 

One group of objects that caught his attention quite early on in his residency was a collection of pigeon whistles on display in the Museum's Court. There are 78 pigeon whistles in the PRM collections, all from China and Indonesia. In China there has been a long tradition of attaching these light whistles - often made from gourd and bamboo - to the tail feathers of a flock of pigeons so that when the birds fly, the wind blowing through the whistles sets them vibrating, and this produces an open air concert for the instruments in the same flock are all different. According to the Chinese these whistles are intended to keep the flock together and to protect the pigeons from attacks of birds of prey. 

Pigeon whistles donated by Nathaniel Mann 
(2014.44.1, 2014.44.2, 2014.44.3, 2014.44.4, 2014.44.5)
Nathaniel decided that he would design his own pigeon whistles and fly a flock of pigeons wearing them. The ‘Audible Forces’ project toured the UK and proved to be a huge success. To read more about the development of the project and to see and hear video and audio of the whistles in action visit the PRM’s 'Embedded’ blog. 

After Nathaniel’s residency in 2014, he was kind enough to donate a number of Indonesian pigeon whistles, contemporary and traditional in style from his own personal collection as well as one of his home made pigeon whistles designed for the project. The whistles complement the historical whistles that already existed in the collections. It is interesting to compare and contrast the shapes and materials of old and new. The pigeon whistle designed for the purpose of the project is made from recycled materials; a 35 mm film pot, a piece of a Chris de Burgh record and lolly pop sticks! The lightness of the material meant that the pigeons were comfortable wearing them and it did not hurt them or worry them too much. Nathaniel also kindly donated a fabulous book on pigeon whistles to the Balfour library; Beijing Pigeon Whistles by Wang Shixiang is a beautifully illustrated volume with detailed descriptions of the different styles of Chinese pigeon whistles, how they are made and how they are carried by the birds.

As well as the pigeon whistles the PRM also acquired a custom-made tuned meat cleaver, which featured in Nathaniel’s residency finale ‘Rough Music’, which incorporated his Dead Rat Orchestra colleagues and a piece featuring the pigeon whistles.

Nathaniel Mann playing his meat cleaver in the Museum

Tuned meat cleaver (2014.44.7) used for 'Rough Music' performance 

Faye Belsey

Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Maori Wood Carving Tools

In the Museum collection is a whalebone mallet and a number of stone chisels from New Zealand. Maori carvers still use mallets like the one you can see below to drive chisels into wood.

Wood carver's whalebone mallet showing wear from use on the surface area © Pitt Rivers Museum 
The mallets are made from either wood or whalebone, this particular one is made from the bone of a sperm-whale. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the wear and tear on the surface where the mallet has been used to strike chisels.

Today a Maori carver's toolkit will contain a wide range of metal chisels but early carvings were made using stone tools. Chisels made from greenstone nephrite (pounamu) were particularly popular for fine work. When examining old carvings it is difficult to tell whether nephrite or metal tools were used, as both produce similar cuts.

Stone chisels including one of greenstone nephrite (top).
From top to bottom PRM 1923.87.45, 1921.93.233 and 1927.73.5 © Pitt Rivers Museum 
If you visit the Museum you can see a number of Maori stone woodworking tools on the first floor (Lower Gallery) in case L.83.A Tools for Building and Carpentry. Staff are also working on a forthcoming display highlighting woodwork techniques from around the world, which may include the whalebone mallet. You can also explore the entire collection online using the object database on the Museum website.

If you want to find out more about Maori wood carving I have suggested some reading material below. You can also read about the history of wood carving, plus see the work of contemporary carvers, on the website of the Te Puia Maori Wood Carving School.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Suggested Further Reading:

Neich, Roger, 2001, Carved Histories, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

Neich, Roger, 1996, 'Wood Carving' in Maori Art and Culture, D.C. Starzecka (editor), London: British Museum Press.

Paama-Pengelly, 2010, Maori Art and Design, New Zealand: New Holland Publishers.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Caring for the Collections

Work at the Museum stores continued throughout the cold and gloomy winter months. Collections and conservation staff are systematically improving the storage of vulnerable collections and those things considered difficult to move and access in their current storage. We replace old boxes with new conservation grade materials. To this end we have completed the arrows project, re-storing and locating all arrows in storage, adzes and axes have been moved to larger shelves and we are now working on mats and fibre clothing.

Mats retrieved from storage in the conservation lab for humidification
© Pitt Rivers Museum 
Tubing cut to size to roll mats onto © Pitt Rivers Museum

The Museum has a good collection of mats from all over the world, which are currently stored rolled on shelves on movable racking. When the racking is moved to access collections behind or in front of the mats the mats are at risk of falling off the shelving or being squashed. The solution to this is to store the mats rolled on tubing which can be easily removed from brackets on the shelves. We have been taking the mats back to the Museum so that Senior Conservator, Jeremy Uden can humidify the mats, check their condition and eventually roll them onto the tubing once the tubes have been cut to size.

Unwrapping a Malaysian mat; 1940.3.028 (above and below) 
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Sometimes at the store we come across objects wrapped in brown paper packaging, often the packaging that the object came to the Museum in the first instance in. Unwrapping the brown paper is exciting for us. Last week we unwrapped a fabulous mat and pillow from Malaysia. The mat is richly embroidered with silk and sequins and belonged to the Sultan Idris.

Detail of embroidery on Malay mat © Pitt Rivers Museum

Plant fibre fringed skirt in new box
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Whilst or technical team work on constructing the new storage unit for the mats we have been working through the fibre clothing including many grass skirts from Polynesia, Japanese fibre rain capes and African masquerade costume. The fibre clothing is made from grasses, palm leaves, bark and other plant material. This material gets very brittle over time and becomes delicate and fragile. These items of clothing were often worn and danced and used, they were not supposed to last forever by their very nature. Given the age of the some of the pieces and the distances they have travelled to be in the collections they are in remarkably good condition. The re-storage project will involve moving the clothing to larger custom made Corex boxes. We have already discovered an important fibre skirt from Captain Cook's voyages to the Pacific which had been previously un-located.

Plant fibre skirt from Tahiti, Forster 36, 1886.1.1179 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Custom made Corex boxes filled with plant fibre clothing 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Conservation grade standard sized boxes for 
smaller garments © Pitt Rivers Museum 

Fibre clothing laid out on the table at store for cataloguing (above and below) 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Custom Corex boxes on store shelves © Pitt Rivers Museum 

Faye Belsey & Jeremy Uden
Assistant Curator & Senior Conservator

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

New Acquisitions: Native American Interests

Turner collection on my desk ready for cataloguing © Pitt Rivers Museum
I recently had the pleasure of accessioning a delightful collection of Native American material kindly donated to the Museum by Jessica Turner. The collection was amassed by her father Geoffrey Eric Slade Turner, a keen Native American enthusiast. Geoffrey Turner was very familiar with the Museum having worked in an administrative position in the secretary's office at the Pitt Rivers neighbour, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for over 50 years. His passion for the Americas and service to the Pitt Rivers Museum was recognised with the title ‘Honorary Assistant Curator (later Consultant) in North American Indian ethnology. 

child's slippers; 2014.43.17 .1 & .2  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Moose hair workbox; 2014.43.10 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Despite his interest in the culture and fauna and floral of North America remarkably in his lifetime he never made the journey across the pond. Despite this, his knowledge and interests ensured that he had a healthy correspondence with North American experts. The recent donation also included an extensive collection of photographs, postcards and letters, which having had a brief perusal indicate Turner established a warm friendship with his American counterparts. The photographs included scenes of ‘cowboy’s and Indians’ and postcards featuring notable figures from the Mexican Revolution of 1910, further showing his interest in Native American history. 

There are 37 artifacts in Jessica Turner’s donation which include a model totem pole, moose hair embroidered pieces, moccasins and skin pouches to name a few. Among the objects were letters and itemized listings of most of the objects detailing where they came from, approximate dates and other provenance information. The collection includes beautiful examples of moose hair embroidery including this satin and bark workbox and card case. My favorite item from the collection are these child’s slippers made from Caribou skin with white fur cuffs.

Embroidery techniques and a selection of moccasin vamps © Pitt Rivers Museum

Catalogued and traded up ready for photography © Pitt Rivers Museum
The collection is an interesting array highlighting Turner’s personal interests, eye for the aesthetically pleasing and scholarly interests such as the index cards with white cotton woven braid illustrating hair embroidery techniques. These techniques feature in the publication written by Turner as a Pitt Rivers Museum Occasional Paper titled ‘Hair Embroidery in Siberia and North America’, 1955. Again, emphasizing his scholarly interests are a collection of Moccasin vamps showing straight edges, scalloped edges and seal-fur.

Page 31 of Turner, 'Hair Embroidery' © Pitt Rivers Museum
Catalogued and traded up ready for photography
The collection has now been catalogued, photographed and put in storage. Given that most of the collection was organic it was frozen for a period before accessioning. The collection includes some early pieces and was mostly in good condition. I spent time making a soft mount for two beadwork necklaces, which would otherwise get tangled in storage.

Beaded necklace on soft mount for storage; 2014.43.24 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

New Displays: Maori Wood Carving

New to display this
canoe baler
© Pitt Rivers Museum
I have been busy working on a new Museum display highlighting the art of Maori wood carving. I am pleased to let you know this display is now complete thanks to the effective teamwork of staff from the Collections, Conservation, and Technical Services Departments.

Most of the carvings, which are  are a selection of architectural carvings, canoe parts, paddles and treasure boxes, are from the reserve collections (26 of the 36 objects in the case).  So, if you can visit, this really is an opportunity to see objects new to display.

In Maori mythology the knowledge of wood carving was obtained from Tangaroa the god of the sea. Carving is a prestigious activity and the carvings regarded as prized possessions or taonga. If you do visit I encourage you to spend time looking at these cultural treasures.
New to display this
model sternpost
© Pitt Rivers Museum

This new display can be found on the ground floor of the Museum in the Court Gallery in case C.13.A.

If you are not able to visit in person you can still see the Maori carvings on the website using the online object database. To search for all the Maori wood carvings in the Museum just select 'Maori' for cultural group, 'carved' for process, and 'wood plant' for material.

Enjoy exploring this amazing collection!

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

New to display this paddle © Pitt Rivers Museum

The new display of Maori Wood Carving © Pitt Rivers Museum

Friday, 9 January 2015

Bellarmine Jars

In the Pitt Rivers Museum we have seven Bellarmine bottles.  The bottles are also known as Bartmann jugs or ‘greybeards’. 

The vessels were originally used to transport wine from Northern Germany to England in the 16th and 17th century.  The name Bartmann means ‘man with a beard’ in German.  This type of vessel was made at a pottery in Frechen near Cologne.

The vessels are stoneware and salt glazed.  The bearded face is a mould added to the neck of the vessel.  Later 17th-century vessels also had moulded medallions on the body of jug.

The jugs in the Pitt Rivers Museum were recently studied by a researcher interested in witch bottles and concealed objects. Two of the Pitt Rivers Museum bottles have contents and could have been used as witch bottles.    

The bottles contain nails, pins and hair.  One bottle contains a cloth heart. 

Top right: PRM accession number 1893.81.4
Left: PRM accession number 1910.18.1 with its contents pictured below.

Jugs from the PRM collections for inspection in the visiting researchers' room 

Witch bottles are said to offer protection and counteract spells cast by witches. The Museum of Soho has a bellarmine bottle that was found concealed in a wall. 

Madeleine Ding
Assistant Curator