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

Monday, 16 January 2017

Percy Manning: the man who collected Oxfordshire

Percy Manning was an antiquarian and folklorist, who died one hundred years ago in 1917. He was particularly interested in collecting objects and information about popular folk customs, and donated over 200 objects to the Pitt Rivers Museum. We at the PRM are creating a small temporary display to celebrate this centenary. The display contains objects related to folklore customs in Oxfordshire including a Morris Dancers outfit (1895.46.1), whit horns (1902.16.7), objects collected by Percy Manning such as candlesticks (1911.29.24, 1911.29.25 and 1911.29.37) and lace makers pot (1911.29.45) and contemporary Morris dancers accessories loaned by Kirtlington Morris.

Mock up of the layout for the display case © Pitt Rivers Museum
Two lanterns collected by Percy Manning 1911.29.33 and 1911.29.34 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The PRM display is one of many exhibitions and events happening in and around Oxford in 2017 to celebrate the life and achievements of Percy Manning. For more information about them visit here 

Madeleine Ding
Curatorial Assistant

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Visit to South Africa the Art of a Nation at the British Museum

On Thursday 8th December, I visited the exhibition South Africa the Art of a Nation at the British Museum with members of the Museum Ethnographers Group. It is always interesting to get out of the office and visit other museums and exhibitions and I was particularly excited about seeing this exhibition given South Africa’s remarkable history. We were lucky enough to be given an insight into the curatorial process of creating the exhibition with one of its curator’s Chris Spring, curator of contemporary, sastern and southern Africa at the British Museum. The exhibition was very much a collaborative venture working closely with museums, art galleries and heritage centres in South Africa itself and contemporary South African artists.

The earliest item in the exhibition is a pebble found at Makapansgat with three circular indentations. The pebble did not originate in this location, with water-worn indentations suggesting that it was carried from water to Makapansgat by early humans. It has been suggested that the pebble is the first appreciation of art in that these early humans recognised a face in the weathered pebble and so showed an aesthetic appreciation of the pebble by collecting it. In contrast is the last room of the exhibition which display’s contemporary art pieces by the likes of Willie Bester and Lionel Davis acknowledging that South Africa’s history is not resolved by the end of apartheid but complexities still exist in the ‘New South Africa’ best demonstrated by white South African Candice Breitz video installation where she inserts herself as a passive presence in the Black South African soap opera Generations questioning her role in South African society as a white person. Most striking is the installation by Mary Sibande where the representation of her mother, her grandmother and her great grandmother through a mannequin dressed in Victorian costume alluding to the roles they had as maids in white South African households stands in juxtaposition to a second figure dressed in purple representing Sibande herself. The use of the colour purple is significant and refers to the purple dye used in the police water cannons during the anti-apartheid Purple Rain protests of 1989. In this installation Sibande is saying goodbye to her past and embracing or confronting her present and future. Overall the exhibition successfully displays the art of South Africa old and new in an interesting way, comparing and contrasting past and present and acknowledging the colourful and turbulent history of a nation.

Mary Sibande's installation, A Reversed Retrogress, Scene 1

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator

Thursday, 15 September 2016

A Gift from the New South Africa

Cruet sets. Right to left: Mandela and De Klerk (2016.44.1), Tutu and Terre Blanche (2016.44.2) and Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (2016.44.3) © Pitt Rivers Museum
I have recently accessioned an interesting new acquisition of Africana into the collections. At the time of the first free elections in South Africa in 1994 a local pottery in Bryanston, S. Africa, called Baker Street originals produced two salt and pepper sets, one depicting Nelson Mandela and F.W. Klerk and the other Archbishop Tutu and Eugene Terre Blanche; subsequently at the time of the Queen's state visit to South Africa a couple of years later they produced a third set representing the Queen and Prince Philip. Baker Street trading the manufacturers of the cruet sets was established in 1986 and through the years has manufactured various items for the home and garden including the now famous and collectable cruet sets of South African political figures. The company are still manufacturing goods but no longer produce the cruet sets, which were produced in small quantities. The Mandela and De Klerk and the Archbishop Tutu and Terre Blanche sets were donated with their original packing, a cardboard box illustrated by South African cartoonist Peter Mascher, who has worked for South African newspapers Beeld, Citizen and Daily Dispatch. The cruet sets are made from terracotta and have been hand painted, they are caricatures of the famous South African political figures and British monarch. Mandela and Tutu were famously anti-apartheid freedom fighters whilst the position of De Klerk is more complicated, he was Head of State under the apartheid era but helped to broker the end of apartheid and supported the transformation of South Africa into a non-racial democracy whilst Terre Blanche was a white supremacist, a major figure in the right-wing backlash against the collapse of apartheid.

Pepper shaker depicting Nelson Mandela (2016.44.1 .1)  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Pair of salt and pepper shakers depicting Archbishop Tutu and Eugene Terre Blanche with souvenir cardboard box (2016.44.2) © Pitt Rivers Museum
Following a series of tense negotiations and years of liberation struggle, the first democratic election was held in South Africa on the 27th April, 1994. This election changed the history of South Africa. It paved the way towards a new democratic dispensation and a new constitution for the country. For the first time all races in the country were going to the polls to vote for a government of their choice. Nineteen political parties participated and twenty-two million people voted. The African National Congress (ANC) won the election, they formed the Government of National Unity and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. De Klerk was the last Head of State of South Africa under the apartheid era and acted as deputy president during the presidency of Mandela. Controversially, the Nobel Peace Prize 1993 was awarded jointly to Mandela and De Klerk "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa"

Pepper shaker depicting Queen Elizabeth II (2016.44.3 .1)  © Pitt Rivers Museum
Queen Elisabeth II visited Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Port Elisabeth between the 19 - 25th March 1995 on a state visit to South Africa. It was the first visit of a British monarch since 1947. Her trip marked the country's return to the Commonwealth following the election of its first multi-racial government. Her visit was as Head of State visiting an independent country and also as Head of the Commonwealth to mark South Africa's return to the organisation in July 1994.

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

One of my Favourite Objects

Detail of house pole 1901.39.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
One of my favourite objects in the Museum is a carved wooden bowl from British Columbia (1887.1.632). It is carved to represent a beaver with a human face carved in the top side of the bowl. The carving is very stylistically striking using a prominent feature of indigenous art of the Northwest Coast of North America called formline. Formline is the term used to describe the distinctive style comprising ‘continuous, flowing curvilinear lines that turn, swell and diminish in a prescribed manner. They are used for figure outlines, internal design elements and in abstract compositions’ (Marjorie M. Haplin. “Northwest Coast Native Art”). In 2009 I was lucky enough to be part of the project team recording information from a research visit of a delegation of Haida people. This object was viewed as part of that visit. During their time here I was able to learn a great deal about the collection of Haida objects that feature prominently in the Museum’s displays, not least the imposing house pole (1901.39.1) which is positioned centrally in the Museum Court.  

The bowl was donated by Reverend W. Warner Parry to the University Museum and was part of a large number of ethnographic objects transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1886. From the accession entry we do not know if the bowl was also collected by Parry or if it came to him through a third party. Parry was part of the British Royal Navy and so it is possible that he travelled to the Northwest coast of America and acquired the bowl in person. A label glued to the side of the object tells us that the bowl was ‘from an Indian burial ground. Maple Bank Esquimault, Vancouver Island’. The bowl is interesting as despite its provenance having been recorded it is unlikely to have originated at Esquimault. In fact, the Haida tribal members who visited in 2009 confirmed the bowl as Haida in origin. However, the style of the bowl is markedly different from all the other Haida grease bowls in the collection. The bowl is one of three bowls with carved with the beaver motif in the Museum collections, the other two coming from the original Pitt Rivers founding collection that came to the Museum in 1884.

Beaver bowl 1884.68.48 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Beaver bowl 1884.68.58 © Pitt Rivers Museum 
The symbol of the beaver in Northwest coast tradition represents the values of productivity, creativity, creation, cooperation, persistence and harmony. The beaver is also serious and hardworking. We have a number of objects with the beaver totem from Haida Gwaii, an archipelago on the North coast of British Columbia formally known as the Queen Charlotte islands. Many are associated with rank, status and prestige. Indeed, the beaver bowl is on display in the Museum in a display case of the same title (case 58.A), such beautifully carved and handmade objects belonged to significant Haida families.

It is the exquisite carving and anthropomorphic nature of the beaver which appeals to me so much in the design of the bowl. The Haida I met in 2009 were warm and animated people, it is through them that the objects I had spent time passively observing came alive and spoke of the people who made them and used them in their former life before they became a part of a Museum collection.

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Collections Care: Boxing Clever

The Pitt Rivers Museum is currently in the process of packing over 100,000 objects in the reserve collections to move them to a new storage facility. Many of these objects have not been stored in suitable conditions during their lifetimes in the Museum. The project team are endeavouring to improve these conditions for the future. This work includes packing into chemically inert boxes, so either physical movement or pollutants do not damage the objects. To achieve this, large numbers of acid-free cardboard boxes in a range of standardised sizes are purchased from G. Ryder & Co. Ltd, based in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire. Founded in 1914, Ryder's specialise in hand-made boxes for museums and galleries. They also produce the boxes used to hold the scrolls given when receiving an honour from the Queen, hence holding a Royal Warrant since 1988.

In an effort to understand the box making process, and to discuss future requirements for the project, some of the OPS move team visited Ryder's on 26 May 2016.

OPS move team at Ryder's. From left to right: Andrew, Ashleigh, Meghan and Marina
Firstly, we were amazed at how small the premises were considering the quantity and size of boxes they produce for us, let alone all of their other customers. The second thing that stood out was how labour intensive the process is, with lots of people - each one working on one particular element of a box's production throughout the day.

Monique using the machine that creates the crease line in the card to enable folding
Tania using the machine that cuts slots in the card before the box can be folded

Janice using the machine that wire-stitches the boxes together at the end of the process

Each of these processes seemed quite manageable for the boxes they were working on that day. We realised their tasks would become infinitely more difficult with some of the large boxes we have ordered, which are over a metre long and nearly half a metre wide.

Another thing that our host, manager Rob Honour, explained was how many of the machines they are still using are upwards of 50-100 years old. This makes servicing and repairs a nightmare, with replacement parts needing to be specially made. It also limits the size of the flat sheet material that can be used to make a box. Considering these constraints, we are now working with Rob to design a box that is 1.5 metres long to be able to pack wooden clubs largely from the Pacific Islands. Rob is worried about a revolt from the ladies on the shop floor given how complicated this will be!

To see updates on how the team are using the boxes, and for news on the project, keep an eye on this blog or follow us on twitter

Heather Richardson
Head of Conservation

Friday, 3 June 2016

On the Move

The Pitt Rivers Museum is home to more than 300,000 ethnographic and archaeological objects from around the world.

The Museum is known for its dense displays and has more than 30,000 objects on display in the galleries. However, the vast majority of the collection is stored at several off-site facilities.

Over the next two years, the collections housed at the largest of these facilities will be moving to a new location in Oxford closer to the Museum. This will involve packing and transporting more than 100,000 objects, ranging from beads, baskets, and barkcloth to shields, stools, and spears. This is a daunting prospect but also a wonderful opportunity to improve access to the collections. Each object will be photographed and enhancements made to its documentation. This will facilitate future object retrieval for research, exhibitions, loans, conservation and teaching, and will enable the Museum to provide researchers with improved information about the objects in its collections.

This is the biggest project that any member of the Museum’s staff has ever worked on. The stores house some of the Museum’s most valued and fragile objects. Work has already started on this ambitious project, which will present some difficult challenges but will also uncover many amazing finds. A team of highly skilled and dedicated museum professionals has been employed, aided by members of existing staff from all departments of the Museum.

These ‘hidden’ collections will be available to the Museum’s visitors and source communities around the world both digitally, via the online database (, and physically through the Museum’s visiting researchers program.

Follow progress on this blog and our dedicated twitter feed