Monday, 3 August 2015

Signing off the Spencer papers

Spencer at the time he was studying at Oxford.
Pitt Rivers Museum 1998.267.89
There is one person who has been the thread that has linked most of my career at the Pitt Rivers Museum to date, and who will always interest me. That is Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929).
In the past I have
  • completed a two year project to transcribe and annotate the 194 letters he sent to his anthropological partner Francis James Gillen in the early 1990s, a project which culminated in an academic bestseller, My Dear Spencer
  • placed objects he had collected in displays in the Upper Gallery around the same time. 
  • found out about Spencer’s involvement in the transfer of the founding collection during the two research projects I have been involved with about Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers in the late 1990s and from 2009-2012. 
  • More recently I have examined his youthful correspondence with Howard Goulty to find out more about an Oxford education in the 1880s and how early anthropology developed at Oxford during the Invention of Museum Anthropology research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
  • I have also transcribed his correspondence with two other eminent Australian anthropologists, Lorimer Fison (Parts onetwo and three) and Alfred William Howitt.
So who was the person who has interested me for so many years?

Walter Baldwin Spencer was born in 1860 in Stretford in the north-west of England. He was the second son of a cotton manufacturer and grew up in a prosperous family. He was educated at Old Trafford School and later at the Manchester of Art. It was whilst learning to sketch from anatomical and botany specimens that he was drawn to a more scientific future. He studied first at Owens College which was later to become the University of Manchester where he intended to study medicine, but he was soon fascinated by evolutionary biology. This was one of the key areas of scientific endeavour in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1881 he moved to the University of Oxford to study the natural sciences under  Henry Nottidge Moseley. As his correspondence with his Manchester friend, Howard Goulty, shows Spencer took full advantage of his Oxford education reading widely, rowing and playing tennis and enjoying the companionship of men from many different backgrounds. He attended Edward Burnett Tylor's anthropological lectures and Ruskin's famous lectures on art as well as listening to sermons from famous preachers. Between June and July 1885 he helped to move the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum from London to Oxford, supervised by Moseley and by Tylor. You can find out more about his connections to Oxford and the Pitt Rivers Museum here. However, Oxford was not the last encounter he had with anthropology.

A photograph taken of one of their informants,
an Arrernte elder living in Alice Springs.
Photograph taken by Spencer or Gillen in 1896.
PRM 1998.249.21.1
The period of his life which most fascinates me is what happened next. Spencer left Oxford in 1887when he was appointed the first Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne, Australia. After serving as biologist with the Horn Scientific Expedition to central Australia in 1894 he met Francis James Gillen. They carried out two of the longest stretches of field-work carried out in Australia to that date in 1896 and 1901-2. They wrote two seminal books about their findings--The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) and The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904). Their anthropological partnership transformed the anthropology of Australia (and the rest of the world) in the early twentieth-century. After Gillen's death in 1912 Spencer continued to carry out short periods of fieldwork in northern Australia in Darwin, Tiwi Islands and environs.

Although Spencer spent his whole career being paid to teach biological sciences it is as an early anthropologist that he has achieved fame and it is with his down-to-earth partner Gillen that he figured out methodologies, carried out fieldwork and wrote publications which made the discipline of anthropology what it is today. He died in 1929 on his last fieldwork expedition to Tierra del Fuego (a new geographical departure).

The many facets of Spencer's work and life are amply illustrated in the voluminous correspondence he held with many people across the world. After his death his two daughters decided to split his manuscripts across the world, most are now in Oxford or in Australia. I have been lucky enough to transcribe and research the letters between Spencer and Gillen, Mounted Constable Cowle and Pado Byrne (the latter two published in From the Frontier), and the correspondence between Spencer and Goulty, Fison and Howitt in the last ten years. Over the last year I have been able to work on the remaining Spencer correspondence giving the public access not only to the digital scans of the original letters but also my transcriptions. These include letters with

Henry Balfour (1863-1939)
Gilbert Charles Bourne (1861-1933)
Patrick Michael (Pado) Byrne (1856-1932)
Patrick (Paddy) Cahill (1863-1923)
R.J. Cooper (dates unknown)
Charles Ernest Cowle (1863-1922)
James Field (dates unknown)
Lorimer Fison (1832-1907)
James George Frazer (1854-1941)
Francis James Gillen (1855-1912)
Howard Goulty (unknown dates)
Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940)
Sydney John Hickson (1859-1940)
William Austin Horn (1841-1929)
Thomas George Bond Howes (1853-1905)
Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908)
Andrew Lang (1844-1912)
Edwin Ray Lankester (1847-1929)
James Edge-Partington (1854-1930)
Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933)
Edward Charles Stirling (1848-1919)
Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)
Miscellaneous people Part one (including Charles Winnecke, John Lubbock, Arthur Thomson, Edward Sidney Hartland etc), Part two (Moseley, Mrs Kell, W.H.R. Rivers etc.

Now all of the Pitt Rivers Museum's Spencer papers are available online both in the form of scans of the originals but also full transcriptions. I hope that these will prove to be an excellent resource both for interested members of the public and, more particularly to members of the communities with which Spencer and Gillen worked and any scholars working on them. Access to all these resources is available here.

Waramungu axe from the Tennant Creek, Northern Territory collected in 1901-2. 1903.39.53
During fieldwork Spencer (and Gillen) purchased many artefacts from their informants which are now in public collections all over the world. The Pitt Rivers Museum is lucky enough to have 186 objects from Spencer, 113 from central Australia. They include fire-sticks, stone and glass tools, knives, ornaments, and tywerrenge (sacred objects). The photograph shown here is of a stone headed axe, from the Waramungu people living near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. As Gillen explained in the time (in his field notebook intended for his family to read),
'August 3rd Camp No 39. [Tennants Creek]. ... It is not at all an easy matter to get hold of stone implements even here and in a few years stone tomahawks especially will be very valuable. Old knife blades, pieces of scrap iron, shear blades and even telegraph line wire are being used instead of stone by the natives who also make use of glass bottles for manufacturing spear heads, they chip the glass beautifully but it is too brittle to be of much service. Spear heads of opaline quartz are here and there met with but they are obtained by exchange with some of the Northern tribes and are only used in very serious quarrels when it is intended to fatally injure. These implements are supposed to be endowed with evil magic and the slightest superficial scratch from one is said to be fatal ...' [extract from Camp Jottings *]
In the book they published about the 1901-2 expedition's fieldwork they wrote:
'At the present day ground axes are much less common than flaked implements, which is to be associated with the fact that the material suitable for making them is only found in relatively few spots in the central area of the continent. ... Amongst northern tribes they are still made, but it will not be many years before they entirely disappear. We witnessed the complete operation on several occasions, as carried out by a member of the Warramunga tribe, who was supposed to be especially skilful in the art. In each case a large rounded diorite pebble was taken. By means of a small lump of hard quartzite the stone is first of all very roughly chipped down to approximately the required size and shape ... This process only occupies a comparatively short time, but during its performance the operator has to be very careful not to spoil the stone. A mistake in the cutting off of a flake might remove a part of the surface which is to form the edge and so render it useless or too hard a hit might result in breaking the stone in two. When the preliminary flaking which determines the shape of the axe is over, there follows the tedious operation of levelling the surface. For this purpose the operator takes a small rounded pebble of quartzite, and hour after hour, for a day or two in succession he will patiently hammer away or rather tap at the rough surface, each stroke removing a fragment of stone, until the whole surface is covered over with minute dents and all the irregularities are smoothed down. In a well-made axe this operation is performed so thoroughly that all traces of the first made, rough flaking are removed. ... When the hammering operation is completed to the satisfaction of the maker there follows the grinding-down process. For this purpose one of the ordinary flat blocks of sandstone used for grinding ochre or grass seeds is used. Sitting down on the ground with the stone between his knees, the operator takes a little fine sand, strews this over its surface and then sprinkling water over, rubs the axe-head backwards and forwards. Every now and then he scatters a little more sand over the ston, holding the axe-head carefully as he grinds so as to produce the two smooth surfaces which unite at the curved cutting edge, the exact shape of which has been previously determined by the preliminary flaking and chipping. When the stone has been thus prepared, there comes the hafting. For this purpose a withy is made, ... it is bent round the blunt end of the stone, so that usually a small portion of the latter projects beyond the level of the wood. The two halves of the withy are bound together with one or two bands of string. A lump of porcupine grass resin is softened by heat and pressed in between the withy and the stone, usually completely enclosing the head of the latter, and sometimes, but not often, enclosing also the part of the former which bends round the stone. The resin is finally smoothed down ... by means of a smouldering fire-stick which is passed backwards and forwards over it. The next and final operation merely consists in grinding down some red ochre and smearing this all over the handle, a pattern drawn in red, white and yellow being sometimes added to the stone by way of ornamentation. Ground axes of this kind are principally used for such purposes as cutting blocks of wood out of trees, chips out of the trunk of trees in aid of climbing, or for cutting branches open in search of animals or eggs or 'sugar-bag' [honey].'
A recent Australian-funded project has drawn together all the manuscript and artefactual collections together in one place: Spencer and Gillen: A journey through Aboriginal Australia.

Alison Petch, August 2015.

Bibliography of papers and books written or co-authored by Petch relating to Spencer and Gillen:
1996. 'Anthropological Partners: Selected letters from F.J. Gillen to W. Baldwin Spencer' Journal of Museum Ethnography 5: pp. 65 84. [co-author with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
1997. My Dear Spencer. Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.[co-editor with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
1997. 'Gillen's Scientific Correspondence: Selected letters from F.J. Gillen to W. Baldwin Spencer' Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford XXVI no. 2 1995 pp. 163 – 196 [co-author with H. Morphy and D.J. Mulvaney]
2000. From the Frontier: Outback letters to Baldwin Spencer. Allen and Unwin, NSW [co-editor with D.J. Mulvaney and H. Morphy]
2000. 'Spencer and Gillen's collaborative fieldwork in Central Australia and its legacy' Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 31/3 (2000) pp. 309-328 [finally published in 2005]
2001. My Dear Spencer [paperback edition] Hyland House, Melbourne, Australia [joint editor with D.J. Mulvaney and H. Morphy]
2003. 'Spencer and Gillen's work in Australia - The interpretation of power and collecting in the past' Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 15 pp. 82-93
2004. John Mulvaney.  Paddy Cahill of Oenpelli. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. [transcription of letter for]
2006. 'Life in the Outback - Gillen's groundbreaking anthropology in Alice Springs' PRM Friends Newsletter Issue 55 March 2006
2006. 'Walter Baldwin Spencer's life as an anthropologist' PRM Friends Newsletter Issue 56 June 2006
2006. 'Paddy Cahill of Oenpelli', Friends of the PRM, Oxford Newsletter Issue 57 November 2006
2007. 'Upholding the law - Central Australian Style', Friends of the PRM, Oxford Newsletter Issue 59 July 2007
2009. 'Walter Baldwin Spencer and the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography 21 pp. 254-265
2013. ''The Ablest Australian Anthropologists': two early Australian anthropologists and Oxford' JASO Online 5/1 (2013) pp. 60-85.[About Fison and Howitt]
Gillen's Diary: The Camp Jottings of F. J. Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition Across Australia, 1901-1902 Libraries Board of South Australia, 1968. Note that a new edition of Camp Jottings is due to be published in South Australia in the near future (Philip Jones will be the editor).

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Research Visit: Archaeology from Skhul Cave, Israel

Dr Ravid Ekshtain studying the collection
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Part of our work in the Collections Department is to provide researchers with access to the collections. In June I met Dr Ravid Ekshtain, from Harvard University in the USA, who spent a week at the Museum researching the archaeological collections from Mugharet-es-Skhul.

This is a cave on Mount Carmel in Israel that was excavated extensively during the 1930s. The finds included what are still thought to be the oldest fossilised human remains discovered outside of Africa. So this continues to be one of the most important archaeological sites for studying the prehistoric human past.

The cave itself was completely excavated and the findings dispersed to a number of museums, including the Pitt Rivers. So the collections in the Museum from those original excavations are really important for any current, or future, research about this site.

Skhul Cave, 1931, the man is thought to be Theodor McCown who directed the excavations at this site.
Taken by Dorothy Garrod and now in the Photo Collections PRM 1998.294.189 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Illustration of flints from Skhul Cave.
 From image in the Photo Collections
PRM 1998.294.451
© 
Pitt Rivers Museum
I always feel privileged to work with such significant collections and to continue to see these being used for research. I really enjoyed meeting Dr Ravid Ekshtain and thought you might also be interested in knowing about her research. She was busy all week analysing the stone tools from Skhul Cave to gain more understanding about the evolution of human behaviour.

You can explore this collection yourself via the Museum online object database. If you enter 'Skhul' under region and then search this will find all 337 objects (museum identification numbers 1931.70.701 through to 1931.70.1037). This material from Skhul Cave is part of the Museum's Dorothy Garrod collection - comprising objects, photographs, and manuscripts.

Keep an eye on this site for other blogs about research on the collections.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator


Monday, 20 July 2015

Research Visitors at the Pitt Rivers

As a new member of the Collections Department, I will be facilitating research visits to the museum. We receive on average around 300 research visits per year. Researchers from all over the world come to the museum to get a closer look at the objects in the collection. It is a great opportunity for researchers to further their knowledge about particular objects or collections through the use of many different methods of enquiry; whether that is understanding how an object is made, the collecting practices of a particular individual, or undertaking a comparative study of a group of objects.

Band heddle with partly woven ankle band PRM 1918.16.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

When a researcher contacts the museum, I ensure that the objects are retrieved in good time, so that, if needed, I can mark the objects with their accession number, and check that the measurements on the database are correct. If there isn’t a good quality photograph of the object, I will take a new reference shot and upload it onto the database and the museum’s online database. We are always keen to enhance the quality of information that we have on the collections, and we always encourage our research visitors to contribute any new information that they may have.

It has only been my fourth week here, and I have already seen some amazing objects in the collection. Firstly, I assisted a visitor who was investigating the weaving techniques of the Sami people, looking in particular at woven belts and weaving equipment. We also had a group visit, who were looking at Tongan material from Captain James Cook’s second voyage. Particular highlights included a very large tapa, made from barkcloth which has been stencilled with a dye. It was really something to see the tapa up close, and to hear about the lengthy and involved process in making such a large piece. It is a great opportunity to listen and discuss ideas about the objects in the museum’s collection, with experts. It is also very satisfying to be able to share this knowledge through the museum’s online database. It is one of the many ways that the museum produces new understandings of the collections, and it enables us to diversify how the collections are used. By enhancing the database with the information provided by researchers, we are able to ensure that the highest quality of information on the collection is delivered to people from all over the world.

A Tongan barkcloth PRM 1886.1.1238 © Pitt Rivers Museum


Useful Links



Nicholas Crowe
Assistant Curator

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Temporary Exhibition: Preserving What is Valued - A World of Repairs - Part 2

One of two ceramics on loan from private collectors
demonstrating repairs made using the kintsugi technique
with lacquer and gold © Pitt Rivers Museum
Back in May we posted a blog about preparations for a temporary exhibition curated by the Conservation Department demonstrating original repairs made to objects when they were still in use. This is an update on the earlier blog now that the exhibition has just been installed into the display case on the Lower Gallery.

Despite the last minute addition of an excellent gourd, discovered by Jem and Faye while working to improve storage of the reserve collections, we managed to have everything ready for mount making on Monday 1st June as planned. We also borrowed from private collectors two ceramics demonstrating the kintsugi repair technique, the starting point for our exhibition plans.

Most labels were designed to include a detailed image of the repaired area on each object to help focus the visitor's attention on the part they should be looking at. We were keen however, to not put too much information on each label but leave it for visitors to think about  what significance the repair might have, after reading the introductory panel text.

Mock-up of the display once mounts were complete
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Display Technicians Chris Wilkinson and Alan Cooke had produced a scale mock-up of the final display case and were ready to go immediately. We were surprised to find that it took them about a week to complete the mock-up, which I think was also a relief to them given the complexities of working on the re-display of the Cook Voyages Collections, from which they were taking a therapeutic break.

At this stage the previous exhibition in the case was deinstalled, allowing Chris and Alan to prepare the case by filling and sanding holes and re-painting. It is important to do this a few weeks before the objects are installed to allow the paint to dry properly and any fumes from the paint to dissipate as they could cause adverse chemical reactions with the materials used on the objects. This is why you may see display case doors left open when you visit the Museum. At this stage they also painted and prepared the panels and plinth to be used in the display.

Chris and Alan mount the final copies
of labels and text © Pitt Rivers Museum


The next task before installation was to prepare the final labels and text. Katherine Clough, who has volunteered in the Conservation Department for a few years in many capacities, had accepted the challenge of producing a poster for the exhibition. The key element of the design uses several detailed images of the repairs fitted together to look like the world. We had added the strap-line 'A World of Repairs' to the exhibition title to be more explanatory on the poster. We used Katherine's 'world of repairs' motif in a semi-translucent way on the panel text to give it a bit of a lift and tie it into the poster.

On Thursday 25th June, a little ahead of schedule, Chris and Alan installed the objects in the case where they had already added the pre-painted panels earlier in the week. They started early to have the case closed and locked when the Museum opened at 10.00 a.m. On Friday 26th we adjusted the lighting in the case slightly to prevent too much light hitting the textiles, the materials in this display most prone to light damage.

Left: Installation of the objects, right: Alan and Chris take a moment to appreciate their labours © Pitt Rivers Museum
When we set out to produce the exhibition we were keen to write a gallery trail to enable visitors to see more repaired objects that are permanently on display. Having narrowed down the list, Andrew (with a little help from Madeleine) has produced a colour trail, which is available beside the display case. This again uses Katherine's 'world of repairs' motif on the cover. There are lots of trails available in the Museum but they are aimed at children and we wanted to see what interest there would be from adults. Hopefully the Gallery Assistants will be able to observe how many people use the trail over the coming months.

Cover of the Gallery Trail
linked to the exhibition
Finally, this is a good opportunity to mention some of the other tie-in events that will be coming up over the 6-month run of the exhibition. On the 18th and 19th September Tom van Deijnen will be running darning masterclasses in the Museum's annexe. Tom is best known for his visible mending program where a 'beautiful darn is worn as a badge of honour'. Follow this link to book a place on one of Tom's workshops.

In November traditional lacquerware artists Muneaki Shimode and Takahiko Sato from Kyoto will be artists in residence at the Museum for 10 days, demonstrating the kintsugi technique of repairing ceramics. The residency will include gallery demonstrations, an evening event and half-day practical workshops. There will be information on how to book a place on a workshop appearing on the the Museum website very soon - so keep watching this space.

Heather Richardson
Head of Conservation

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Museum Ethnographers Group 2015 Conference Review

MEG Conference – Powell-Cotton Museum, Kent, 20/21 April Nature and Culture in Museums

Every year the Museum Ethnographers Group holds a two-day conference to explore an important theme within the discipline of museum ethnography. As web officer for the Museum Ethnographers group I was lucky enough to attend the 2015 conference. This year’s conference theme was aptly chosen to suit the unique setting of the conference host, the Powell-Cotton Museum.




The Powell-Cotton Museum has long embraced in its displays the duality of nature and culture, natural and man-made, animals and objects. This was emphasised during conference organiser and Head of Collections at the Powell-Cotton Museum Inbal Livne’s welcoming speech. The first day of the conference was held in Gallery 1, an inspiring gallery, finished in 1939 with wall-to-wall dioramas displaying the animals of north and west African and India, speakers had a hard job competing with the visual stimulus of the gallery but often what was being spoken was directly being reinforced by the displays. This was particularly useful for Jude Philips (Macleay Museum, Sydney University Museums) talk on the Macleay Museum’s recent exhibition Stuffed, stitched and studied. When Jude’s power point presentation struggled to get working Jude was able to use the displays as her visual prompts to illustrate her talk. After a stirling effort of Powell-Cotton Museum staff the power point was up and running and Jude was able to share images of the exhibition with the group including quirky artist photographic portraits of taxidermed specimens emphasising taxidermy as a human endeavour and the anthropomorphical attributes we assign to them.


Our first speaker, Paolo Viscardi (Horniman Museum) was the first of other speakers to talk of the role of collaboration between anthropologists and natural historians, referencing the early cabinets of curiosities or ‘wunderkammer’, encyclopaedic collections where categorical distinctions and boundaries between disciplines; art, geology, archaeology, ethnology and natural history were yet to be made. This was also alluded to by Alison Clark (Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) in her presentation ‘All the World for Sale: Nature and Culture at Gerrard and Sons’, taxidermist and art dealer whose sales room often included zoology specimens alongside ethnographic collections. Alison also reminded us that ethnographic collections are made up from composite objects, made up from animal parts as well as other organic materials. Collecting practices during the 19th century reflected in publications such as ‘hints to travellers’ encouraged this multidisciplinary approach and resulted in collections including a diverse range of objects exploring the natural and man made world, nature and culture. Jenny Walklate was the third speaker to reference ‘wunderkammer’ in her presentation ‘Swifts in the Tower of the House of God: The Reciprocal Framing of Nature and Culture in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’ and the complex relationship the building reflects between science and faith. Jenny finished her presentation with an insightful auto-ethnography of her personal reflections on how the Victorian aesthetic of the museum impacts upon contemporary personal interpretations of the natural world.

A long and very tasty lunch gave delegates the first opportunity to look around the Museum galleries and gardens including the much anticipated newly opened Gallery 6. The subject of an ACE funded project ‘Securing the Future of Our Past’ the gallery has been re-designed to encourage every visitor to be a researcher, introducing Percy Powell-Cotton's expeditions on which he amassed his collections. The gallery also puts the Museum’s handling collection at its centre, a combination of natural history and ethnographic objects for visitors to experience first hand. The modern design of Gallery 6 contrasted with the more traditional displays in the rest of the Museum but highlighted the Museum’s potential.


The end of day one saw interesting presentations from Caroline Cornish (Royal Holloway) and Mark Nesbitt (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) on ‘Seeds of Industry and Empire: Revitalising Economic Botany Collections’. I was not overly familiar with the concept of ‘economic botany’ defined by Caroline and Mark simply as ‘plants transformed into items of use to human beings’ These collections were established and displayed in colonised countries, modelled on the oldest such collection, the Kew Museum of Economic Botany. The end of empire marked the end of these collections and many were dispersed and put into storage. Caroline and Mark, through the course of their project on the subject have been re-discovering these collections and exploring their relevance today.

Lastly, the day was finished on an entertaining note with a look at the role of animals and Museum displays and marketing campaigns in Antonia Lovelace’s presentation ‘Comparing the meerkat and falling for ‘Digital’ monkey – How trending animal totems playfully impact on our relationship with real animals and Museum displays’ Antonia has had to present a case for acquiring some of these popular characters into the collections at Leeds City Museum, a collection that already includes toys. Her paper asked ‘is there a place for these objects in contemporary collecting?

The day’s sessions finished at 5.00pm allowing more time for exploration of the galleries, a drinks reception and a short talk from Chris Spring of the British Museum on the temporary touring exhibition Social Fabric: African Textiles Today. Delegates enjoyed top-notch catering of a delicious three-course meal provided by the Powell-Cotton’s in house caterers.


Day two of the conference was opened by Anita Herle (Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), Tony Eccles (Royal AlbertMemorial Museum Exeter) and Alison Brown (University of Aberdeen) and their paper ‘Storied Landscapes: Enlivening Blackfoot Collections in UK Museums’ and the work all three are doing through their respective institutions extending networks between Blackfoot people and UK collections and how for Blackfoot people landscape and sites of encounter contribute to a fuller understanding of Blackfoot historic collections.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the conference theme ‘Nature and Culture’ was metamorphasied by interventionist artist Alana Jelinek by cleverly using the science of ecology as a metaphor for the art world. Alana reinstated and emphasised the reoccurring themes of the conference; that the dichotomy between nature and culture may not exist, there is no clear divide between what is human and what is not human. Alana proposed using the science of ecology to understand the complex interactions between the range of cultural practices at play in the art world.


As well as the more thematic papers on ‘Nature and Culture’, the conference as usual offered a plethora of interesting ‘work in progress’ papers for colleagues to share and up-date members on current projects in the sector often reflecting current trends and practice in ethnography more generally. Included in this was an update from Len Pole on the ‘Uniques’project: getting to know more about ethnographic collections in Kent and Sussex’, Alison Petch on progress being made on researching Spencer and Gillen collections outside of Australia, Heather Donoghue on cataloguing the Cooke Daniels collections at the British Museum before she embarks on fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Clare Wintle’s potential project exploring ethnographic museums at the end of empire, 1945-1980, a period often thought of as the ‘dark ages of museum ethnography’, but how far is this theory true, in what ways were museums in the UK contributing to wider political, economic and social change during the middle years of the twentieth century? Catherine Harvey spoke about a recent significant acquisition for Hasting’s Museum of North American material from Colin Taylor and the challenges faced by small local museums during difficult economic times in advocating world culture collections. Alison Brown concluded the work on progress papers having just returned from Russia having, through an AHRC funded project facilitated the loan of a mammoth ivory model of ysyakh from the British Museum to the National Museum of the Arts, Yakutiia.


A selection of papers from the conference will be available in the next issue of the Journal of Museum Ethnography (JME) (available from April 2016).

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Conservation of a 19th Century Tahitian 'Poncho'

As part of the final year of my MSc in Conservation for Museums and Archaeology at UCL, I am undertaking a five-month internship in the Conservation Department of the Pitt Rivers Museum. I have been lucky enough to spend some of my time here researching and conserving a fascinating object. Although it was "found unentered" (that is, found without an accession number or other identifying information) in the Museum store in 1984, more has since been discovered about the object's provenance. More recently, it came to the attention of Conservation staff, who blogged about it here - which is how it ended up as my internship project.

Based on analogies with objects at the Royal Economic Botany Collection at Kew Gardens (42977, 73328 and 73329) and at the British Museum (Oc1960,11.22, Oc1960,11.24 and Oc1960,11.25), the object can be identified as a traditional Tahitian poncho-like garment called a tiputa. It consists of a rectangular piece of barkcloth with a central opening to pass over the wearer's head. It is elaborately decorated with rosettes made of folded monocot leaf strips or stems and long fringes of extremely delicate plant leaf epidermis.

PRM 1984.3.1, front shown after conservation treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

Given the lack of information about how the poncho came to be in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections, it is not implausible to suggest that - like the comparable objects from Kew and the British Museum - it may have been collected by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, during a visit to Tahiti in 1869.

The Duke of Edinburgh is shown in this carte-de-visite photograph surrounded by Tahitian royal women in 1869 (image taken from the web page 'Ahoy - Mac's Web Log', where a now defunct commercial website 'oceania-ethnographica.com' is credited as the original source of the image). 

Prince Alfred's visit took place almost exactly a century after Captain Cook's first voyage, by which time there had already been extensive contact between Tahitians and Europeans. In fact, contemporary travellers' and missionaries' accounts describe islanders wearing a combination of barkcloth and Western woven textile clothing. It is interesting to note that by the mid-19th century, barkcloth production had probably ceased on Tahiti, so the material may have been imported from another Polynesian island. The highly decorated style of the poncho, moreover, does not fit in the traditional category of Tahitian high-status barkcloth, which was white and undecorated. All of this points to the poncho being the product of a period marked by dynamic, creative use of material culture to define colonial identities.

PRM 1984.3.1 as found in storage, before conservation treatment © Pitt Rivers Museum

From a conservation point of view, the poncho presented several problems, many of which resulted from inappropriate storage conditions in the past. The garment had been folded in half twice, and was then tightly packed into a wooden crate. This led to distortion and creases in the barkcloth material itself, as well as extensive damage and material loss to the fragile decorations. The decorative fringes which remained on the object were tangled, creased and damaged. The object was also rather dirty.

Bag of detached fragments. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Thick covering of dirt on one of the rosettes. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Tangled, creased and damaged edge fringes. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Besides providing an opportunity to revisit some research into the poncho's cultural and historical significance, the main aim of the conservation treatment was to improve the structural stability of the poncho, while also improving its visual appearance. I used a Preservation Pencil to humidify the fringes one by one, straightened and untangled them, and repaired damaged areas with small patches of Japanese tissue paper adhered with starch paste. I cleaned the rosettes with a fine brush and vacuum tweezers and then misted them with a consolidant coating to strengthen the material. Finally, integral to the conservation treatment was devising a more appropriate storage solution, which would allow the object to be stored more comfortably and accessed more safely and conveniently in the future.

Humidifying and straightening the edge fringes, in progress. PRM 1984.3.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The scale of a conservation project like this cannot be underestimated. I spent 110 hours in total on the treatment and used around £78 worth of archival-grade materials (corrugated polypropylene board, Plastazote foam, cotton calico and polyester wadding) for the repacking. The volume of the new storage box is approximately 540 litres - nearly eight times the volume of the old crate. This clearly has implications for space availability inside the Museum store, an increasingly precious resource.

PRM 1984.3.1 in its new storage box, with the old crate pictured alongside © Pitt Rivers Museum
Finally, the treatment has provided me with an opportunity to collect already detached samples of the various plant materials present, with a view to carrying out more detailed identification using scanning electron microscopy and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy at UCL's Institute of Archaeology. This analysis will be done over the next few months and I hope to be able to share the results in a follow-up blog post then.

Naomi Bergmans
Conservation Student

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

'Object Lives' visit

On the 13th April Professor Laura Peers, Lecturer and Curator of the Americas at the Pitt Rivers Museum hosted a visit of a delegation of twelve academics, curators, researchers and students from various Museums and Universities across Canada as part of the ‘Object Lives’ project headed up by Beverly Lemire, Professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

‘Object Lives and Global Histories in Northern North America’ is a collaborative research project with Edmonton and Montreal as the geographic hubs for its enquiry. The project will explore the histories of material culture within these regions, linked to wider global flows of influence that arise from trade, colonialism and migration. The object histories will be developed through the project’s multi-disciplinary partnership, generating essential new knowledge about people and object interactions. The stories of the selected objects will be presented on the 'Object Lives' website, detailing the biographies of goods that acted as surrogates of early globalization and cross-cultural exchange.

Laura Peers and delegates in the PRM research room © Pitt Rivers Museum
As part of this project, delegates are visiting object collections in Canada and more globally to develop object histories. During the groups visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum staff from collections and conservation facilitated the visit by retrieving and cataloguing those objects selected for research and being present during the visit to take notes and provide information on handling and the histories of how the objects came to be in the Pitt Rivers collections.

Wampum belt, 1952.5.08 © Pitt Rivers Museum 

The objects selected included garments, wampum belts, moccasins, horse gear and fishing equipment all from North America and the Canadian Great Lakes areas; Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and some arctic regions. Indeed, in the case of some of the objects the group were building on knowledge from previous researchers when the objects were studied by the Great Lakes Research Alliance for theStudy of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures (GRASAC) research team in 2007. An example of such an object is the wampum belt (1952.5.08) retrieved for both visits. In 2007 the GRASAC team noted that the warp threads on this particular belt were unusually wide. An expert on wampum belts, Jonathan Lainey, an archivist at the Canadian Library and Archives, Ottawa, Ontario made the same observation.



Saddle and crupper, 1884.51.14 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The ‘Object Lives’ delegates visited over three days, spending time in the research room to study in detail the twenty-five objects selected for the visit. Several of the objects promoted animated discussion and interest among the group. I was particularly excited to hear the group’s thoughts on a padded saddle and crupper decorated with quillwork (1884.51.14). The crupper consists of a loop (the crupper itself) and an adjustable strap (crupper strap or back strap) that connects the crupper to back of a riding saddle or the other parts of a harness. The strap runs from the horse's dock, over the croup, to the saddle or to the back band (sometimes called the saddle) of a harness. The saddle had been buried away at the Museum stores and not seen by Museum staff since 2007 when it was last retrieved for cataloguing. The saddle came to the Museum as part of Pitt Rivers founding collection in 1884. It is not possible to know how Pitt Rivers acquired the saddle, most likely from his circle of antiquarian friends or network of dealers. The saddle has the label “NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN SADDLE. Ornamented with porcupine quills in the finest quality of embroidery now no longer employed. The form of stirrup has a long history. It was originally Arab having been derived from the east. It was untouched by the Moors into Spain and by the Spaniards into America, from there it was copied by the Americans of both North and South America.” The group were excited by the saddle, commenting that it was rare to see the saddle and crupper together. Of special interest was the exemplary quillwork showing a range of skill and technique; loom woven, braided edging, quill wrapped beads suggesting the work of more than one woman demonstrating their ability in quillwork. What was also interesting about the saddle was that it was made using only indigenous materials, nothing imported. Retrieving the saddle for the purpose of this visit gave us the opportunity to improve the enhance it's database entry and replace the existing old black and white photograph with a colour photograph. All the objects retrieved for this visit also went through our conservation department and had their condition assessed and improved.

Conservation intern Naomi using the dinoxcope to examine dog harness, 1954.9.26 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Garments in the research room ready for day 2 of visit © Pitt Rivers Museum 
Delegates examining deer skin coat, 1906.83.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Wool suit, 1896.21.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Other objects, which captured the imagination of the group, were the various garments, of which, a striking blue felted wool coat and leggings became a good talking point (1896.21.1). Donated to the Museum in 1896 by Mrs. L. A. Tollemache, the outfit has been attributed to NE Woodlands, Wendat. The coat, in contrast to the saddle is made from a combination of indigenous and imported materials made in blue blanket cloth, lined with wool tartan material and decorated with moose hair applique floral design it is easy to see the global influences in the tailored construction of the coat and floral design of the embroidery. The European tailoring was also seen in a painted deerskin coat viewed by the group on the same day (1906.83.1). The group were particularly interested to hear Cynthia Cooper's thoughts, Head of Collections and Research and Curator of Costume and Textiles at the McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec. With the use of a Dinoxcope digital microscope facilitated by PRM conservation intern Naomi Bergmans, the group were able to examine the textiles in detail. Cynthia was able to talk about their construction with her expert knowledge and using the Internet find similar examples in other collections. The blue wool hat, leggings and coat can be seen on display in the Museum Court, case C.10.A – North American clothing. Interestingly the outfit is mounted on a carved wooden mannequin complete with fig leaf donated to Museum in 1953 intended to display a suit of Japanese Samurai armour! (1953.5.1 .23).

Cynthia with the rest of the group, object research in action! © Pitt Rivers Museum 
One group member, Judy Half, Aboriginal Liaison Officer at the Royal Alberta Museum, was interested to take a closer look at a pouch made from the hide of a white-tailed deer and decorated with quillwork, brass thimbles, jingles and dewclaws (1954.9.22). Judy is making a dewclaw bag herself and so wanted to see how the historic one was made. Judy spoke of the ritual life of the bag, used in ceremonial dances by men. The fragility of the claws and jingles suggest that the bag was worn for slow moving dances, where there are pauses to hear and appreciate the gentle tinkle of jingles. The variety in the size and shape of the thimbles and the use of metal jingles again demonstrate the flow of global influences in Canada and Northern USA at the time that these objects were made and collected.

Dewclaw bag, 1954.9.22 © Pitt Rivers Museum
It was a real pleasure to be part of the ‘Object Lives’ visit and to be present during the lively and stimulating discussions around the interesting histories and stories of these objects. I look forward to following the progress of the project through the ‘Object Lives’ website.

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator