Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Sensing Culture at the Pitt Rivers Museum, October 2017

In October Jamie Cameron (Research Assistant, Oxford Internet Institute) came to the Pitt Rivers Museum to 3D scan an object in the museum’s collection; a model of a totem pole (also known as a crest pole) made by the Northwest Coast Haida (1891.49.13 .1 - .2). The scan will be 3D printed and used for Sensing Culture, a Heritage Lottery funded project, led by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). One of the aims at the project is to develop and produce ways in which the visitor experience for blind and partially sighted people can be improved. Other museums within the University of Oxford GLAM (Gardens, Libraries, Archives and Museums) are also involved.

 Jamie Cameron '3D scanning' the model Crest Pole © Pitt Rivers Museum

Our colleague Laura Peers (Curator of the Americans and Professor of Museum Anthropology) recommended the wooden model of a Haida totem pole for 3D printing. The pole was made in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, most likely by artist Charles Edenshaw. Our documentation tells us that the model pole was collected by resident missionary Charles Harrison (who published accounts of the Haida) at the end of the 19th Century. The pole itself is carved with ‘crest figures’ that relate to lineages, aspects of status and property rights. To the Haida of the Northwest Coast, the act of looking up at these representations shown on the sides of giant crest poles would have triggered a visual reminder of the stories of how ancestral beings bestowed certain rights on a family. The figures on this particular model pole include an eagle, bears and their cubs in human or ancestral form, frogs and humans.

Unfortunately we don’t yet have insight into why this particular model totem pole was made. Could it have been a prototype for a much larger pole that was never carved? Was it a commercial product for Europeans, or could it have been made to order by European collectors to illustrate the types of narratives on totems that the Haida produced?

 © Pitt Rivers Museum (1891.49.13 .1 - .2) 
In 2009 the museum received a Haida delegation as part of the project “Haida Material Culture in British Museums: Generating New Forms of Knowledge”. The delegates, when looking at the model crest pole, observed that some of the original museum labelling is incorrect, and that the bear at the bottom of the pole was holding in its mouth a prawn or shrimp, and not a crayfish as had been labelled. They also added that this pole might be depicting the bear mother story, a popular Haida narrative. These observations were added to our online database, a living document which reflects the multi-vocality and dynamism of the museum’s collection. Visits like these highlight the importance of retaining relationships between museums and the living communities from which material culture was taken from, often under very difficult and problematic circumstances. The Pitt Rivers Museum always aims to be at the forefront in repairing relationships damaged in the past by European colonial collecting practices. We continue to generate positive outputs such as material repatriation, loans to source communities, access for originating communities to engage with and reconnect with the collection both physically and digitally, and collaborative work, such as the Great Box Project in 2014

Jamie used 3D imaging technologies, including photogrammetry, to create a ‘scan’ of the totem pole. This will be 3D printed, and such prints will allow visitors who are blind or partially sighted to ‘read’ the object through touch. Haida art uses a structured formline design, where different coloured paints highlight certain features, and on carvings such as the model pole, formline appears in incisions in shallow and deep relief. Visitors will be able to feel the incised lines on the 3D print to help understand the layout and proportions of the totem pole. Many museums are using 3D printing to engage their visitors, and it is just one of the ways that the Pitt Rivers Museum works to enable access to its collections.

Nicholas Crowe 
Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Interning with Object Collections: Researching Model Houses and the Cultures Behind Them, Then and Today

As an intern in Object Collections (see my introductory blog post), something I’ve been researching is model houses from Asia. These objects are being redisplayed and when this happens research needs to be done. While the descriptions on the object database, which can be searched online, gives some information about these collections, like the materials they are made of and some background information, it can often be sparse or outdated.  The case text from the pre-existing display gave additional detail but was centred around a theme that enabled the objects to be compared. For example, several of the model houses I’ve been researching were grouped together under a common theme of thatched roofs.

Toda model house, PRM 1900.78.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum

I started my research by having a look at the model houses and the current information the museum has on them. Several were from the Toda people (a small indigenous group in the Nilgiri Hills in India); many brass models were from Sumatra in Indonesia (at least some being from the Minangkabau people); a few models were from the Ainu people in Hokkaido, Japan; and finally one model – which reminded me of a North American tipi in appearance – was from the Khanty people (who are also referred to by several other names in texts about them), living in Siberia.

As not all of the database entries for the models had reference photographs, I also got to experience how these were taken – the objects were carefully positioned against a plain light-grey background with a scale in centimetres placed in front of them to indicate how large the objects are. Taking the photographs, I had to aim to not distort this scale with the angle of the camera. Once these photographs are linked to the appropriate record, you will be able to see what the models look like, as well as read about them, using the online database.

Khanty model house photographed with scale bar,
PRM 1915.50.73 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Looking for books on houses from around the world, myself and my supervisor, Zena, had a browse of the Pitt Rivers’ Balfour Library, and with the help of the librarian tracked down a couple of books. These only had small sections of relevant information, however, so I used the internet (particularly JSTOR and Google Scholar) to find academic journal articles on the groups the model houses were from. I also browsed Google Images and Wikipedia to find recent photographs of the homes to see if the styles still existed unchanged today or had changed or disappeared over time (all of the models were donated between 1900-1924, so were all at least 93 years old, some at least 117).

I found myself drawn to aspects of the research which discussed the impact of tourism and interactions with other groups – for the Ainu, Japanese tourism had greatly impacted their lifestyle, with tourist villages being a primary source of income for some Ainu people and even – some felt – a way to maintain traditional aspects of their culture, but reductive portrayals in some of these villages and in mainstream Japanese media have had a large effect on how the Ainu are perceived. According to these articles, many Japanese citizens view the Ainu as ‘primitive’ and at one with nature, living exactly the same as they did centuries ago, rather than using modern transport vehicles, for example, among other things.

Ainu model house, PRM 1900.78.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum

I think there is a tendency to view indigenous peoples as wholly separated from other societies, living uninterrupted by country’s governments. Or, alternatively, gone – semi-mythical people of the past who are no longer in existence today. Researching these groups in the present day and in relation to others in their countries helps to disperse these distorted views and myths, and shed light particularly on how energy consumption often has a disproportionate impact on indigenous groups despite these groups gaining the least from this consumption.

For example, in one of the articles I read there was a recent photograph of a traditional Toda temple, which included a sign in English ‘NO ADMISSION (TEMPLE)’. This suggests regular interaction with English-speaking tourists. Government policy can also have a dramatic impact on the lives of indigenous minorities. For example, the lives of Khanty people has been greatly impacted by Soviet policy. There have been various projects to try and assimilate the Khanty into mainstream Soviet culture and most of their land from the 1960s onwards seized for a petroleum deposit.

Minangkabau model house, PRM 1960.5.22 .1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

In other areas of my research I read about construction and materials used, and the significance of certain elements of the dwellings and their locations, usually having both practical and religious reasons. For example, traditionally Ainu houses have only one window which is used for sacred purposes only – weapons are passed through it to be blessed for a hunt, and food caught during this hunt is then passed back through the window. The window is always positioned facing upstream as this is believed to be where the Gods reside. For the Khanty, river systems also have religious importance, believed to be created by divine ancestors who protect family hunting areas.

I would like to see the model houses placed alongside contemporary photos if the Museum is able to secure the copyright for these images (or find photographs without copyright).

Miranda Reilly
Museum Intern


Lisa Hiwasaki, ‘Ethnic Tourism in Hokkaido and the Shaping of Ainu Identity’ in Pacific Affairs, 2000 (on JSTOR)

Peter Jordan, Material Culture and Sacred Landscape: The Anthropology of the Siberian Khanty

Contemporary photographs of the Khanty (more can be found by searching ‘Khanty’ or ‘chum’ – the Russian name for the Khanty tent – on Google Images): Click this link and this one for two examples.

George Lugosi, ‘Mathematical Tourism in Siberia’ in The Mathematical Tourist, ed. Dirk Huylebrouck

Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, ‘Ethnicity without Power: The Siberian Khanty in Soviet Society,’ in Slavic Review, 1983 (on JSTOR)

William A. Noble, ‘Toda Dwellings and Temples’ in Anthropos, 1966 (on JSTOR)

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Interning with Object Collections

On my desk is a stack of papers and books on housing from around the world, a drawer full of little cards labelled ‘CLOTHING COATS – E,’ and a heavily-annotated list of disability-related objects from the Pitt Rivers Museum Objects database. These are some of the tasks that I’ve been working on as part of a four-week funded internship with Object Collections under the Oxford University Internship Programme (OUIP).

OUIP allows University of Oxford students to apply to a few internships based in the UK and abroad: all of the UK-based placements are either paid or have grants attached to them, while quite a few of the internships in other countries also have funding available. For this internship, I received a £1,000 Oxford University Recruiters’ Group Research Bursary: this more than covered all of my living costs for the month, working out at the equivalent of around £10 per hour, and I stayed in college-owned accommodation in Summertown.

The Pitt Rivers took on two interns this summer: I had originally applied to what had been the only internship on offer, working with Photo Collections (for more on that internship, you can read the Photos blog). After not being shortlisted for this, I received an email stating that the Pitt Rivers was now offering a second internship, with Object Collections on the floor above, and that my original application could be forwarded on. This new internship sounded far more suited to my skills and interests than the initial internship I had applied to, so I was excited to hear about this. I attended a casual interview with Zena McGreevy – who is now supervising my internship – where we discussed what it would involve and what I was interested in doing. I mentioned that I particularly wanted to work on creating a disability trail for the museum similar to the Out in Oxford LGBTQ+ trail the museum was part of for LGBTQ+ History Month earlier this year, ideally to debut in UK Disability History Month (22nd November – 22nd December). Zena was interested in accommodating this into my work, and, as it stands, this, along with a display, will hopefully be ready by the end of 2018.

Outside of my academic work as a second-year English undergraduate at Hertford College, I’m currently the president of the Oxford Students’ Disability Community (OSDC), which is the Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU) disabled students campaign. We’re in the middle of undergoing a name change this summer, as we’re merging with Mind Your Head, the OUSU’s mental health awareness campaign, but we can be found under our new name at the student union’s website from 17th August 2017. I got involved with OSDC myself primarily due to my own experiences with mental health – social anxiety disorder – but also close second-hand experience of other conditions including my mum’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and her strong sensitivity to fragrances, such as scented laundry detergents and cleaning products. Since then, I’ve made many friends in the campaign and the Staff Disability Network with a wide variety of conditions, who will hopefully be getting involved in the disability trail over the course of the year. In our campaign, we work to raise awareness of disability and issues affecting disabled students, as well as hosting weekly accessible social events during term time and trying to improve accessibility across the university.

In my blog posts over the coming weeks, I’ll be going into more detail about some of the projects I’ve been working on at the Pitt Rivers. Some of the tasks, such as audience research (reviewing the effectiveness of a new display by surveying and tracking visitors) are also carried out by volunteers, so an internship isn’t the only way to gain experience with the Pitt Rivers if you have a few hours spare per week.

I’ve really enjoyed being involved with the museum behind the scenes and contributing to a variety of areas, and all of the staff have been very welcoming. The insight into anthropology this internship has given me has been exciting, especially being able to see how it overlaps with and differs from what I do as an English student, and how disability can be approached through it. I hope to continue my relationship with the museum as we develop the disability trail and am definitely interested in studying anthropology more in the future.

Pitt Rivers Museum Photo Blog:
Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU):

Miranda Reilly

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

New Acquisition: Iraqw skirt

Iraqw skirt collected by Elizabeth Porter 2017.139.1
I recently accessioned a beautiful beaded skirt from Tanzania. The skirt was donated to the Museum back in 2015 by Elizabeth Porter. Elizabeth lived in Karatu in the Arusha region of Tanzania in the 1990’s. Having watched young girls wearing such skirts during an initiation ceremony an Iraqw woman offered to make Elizabeth a skirt to buy. This is now one of two Iraqw skirts in the Museum’s collections. The other skirt is older, acquired by Samuel P. Powell when he was in Tanzania and loaned to the Pitt Rivers in 1940. The earlier skirt is more richly decorated however, despite the initiation rituals associated with the skirt being rarely practiced today the tradition of making these skirts prevail and whilst the handmade nature of the skirts ensure that no two skirts are the same similarities can be found. Prominent colours of beading in both skirts are red, white and blue, though the colour palette has expanded in the later skirt. This is most likely because seed beads of different colours became more available. The skirts, given the skill and time required to make them, anywhere between 6 months to a year during seclusion as part of the Marmo ritual, were traditionally saved for special occasions and ceremonial wear. Young girls took great pride in the making of their skirts and the finished product displayed the individuals high level of skill and artistic design, it also acted as a sign of wealth. Some skirts were so heavily beaded that they could weigh up to 40 pounds or more.

Iraqw skirt collected by Samuel P. Powell 1940.7.0114
Iraqw skirts are rare in Museum collections and to have two at the PRM is a real privilege. It is a great opportunity for comparison and demonstrates the importance of contemporary collecting. The tradition of embroidering hide skirts among the Iraqw has continued, whilst the original context for making them has disappeared. The symbolic meanings behind the shapes and patterns embroidered on the skirts are largely unknown however, they remain important material culture for understanding Iraqw society.

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator 

Monday, 15 May 2017

Learning to make armour from coconut - a tradition from Kiribati

On the 3rd April I was invited to Cambridge to attend a workshop on Coconut fibre armour from Kiribati. The Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) is currently displaying the exhibition ‘The Island Warrior’ one of the many outcomes of the Pacific Presences research project. The coconut fibre armour from Kiribati has always held a fascination with me and the weapons that accompany it. I am inspired by the use of local materials, coconut fibre, shark’s teeth, ray skin and porcupine fish skin to make these fearsome objects. I think that the armour and weaponry of Kiribati epitomises the resourcefulness of an island nation. The Republic of Kiribati consists of thirty-three coral atolls isolated in the Pacific Ocean. The coconut fibre armour is unique to Kiribati and the Pitt Rivers Museum has the second largest collection of this armour in the UK after the British Museum. The armour consists of many component parts the most significant being the cuirass, which covers the torso, tunics, dungarees, trousers, forearm guards, waistbands and helmets. Today, the armoured warrior is a symbol of power and strength which appears on t-shirts and sarongs in Kiribati.

The ‘Island Warrior’ is exhibited in two show cases. One case displays the historic suit of armour from MAA’s collections and the other displays a contemporary suit made by artists Lizzy Leckie, Kaetaeta Watson and Chris Charteris. Also inspired by the use of local resources, Lizzy, Chris and Kaetaeta experimented with materials readily available to them from their home in New Zealand. They made the cuirass from twisted polyethylene twine used for fishing trawl nets. This material was successful after having discovered that the knotting technique used to make the original armour was indeed a similar technique used in making fishing nets. The overalls were made from sisal bailing twine. Other man made materials were used for the construction of the armour due to their availability, firmness and strength. As part of the workshop I was able to have a go at plying coconut fibre and the knotting and weaving techniques employed by the artists to make the contemporary suit. This opportunity gave me an insight into the specialist skills required, the time, effort and teamwork necessary to make a complete suit. I wasn’t very good at it and in attempting the weaving appreciated the whalebone needles Chris had made especially for the process, metal needles were extremely unforgiving on the hands! feel that the interdisciplinary approach embraced by the exhibition made me really examine the object and should be an approach adopted more often. The conservation element reminded me of the approach we recently applied at the PRM to reinterpret the Tahitian mourners costume from Captain Cook’s voyages now on display in the Cook case on the Lower Gallery. I was lucky enough the be able to stay for the exhibition opening where we were treated to Kiribati dancing from members of Kiribati community members living in the UK and working with the British Museum as part of their ‘object journeys’ project. We have on display in the Upper Gallery of the Museum a suit of coconut fibre Kiribati armour, do go and have a look when you are next visiting the Museum.

Faye Belsey

Assistant Curator