Thursday, 5 March 2015

Crafternoon at Pitt Rivers

Crafternoon has recently come to an end at the Pitt Rivers Museum after a successful three-month stint as part of the Need / Make / Use project. The outcome of our congregations is a Pitt Rivers-inspired quilt, which has been donated to the Museum.

© Pitt Rivers Museum

What is Crafternoon?
Crafternoon began in Oxford in 2012. We are a group of parents/caregivers and young kids who meet once a week. Crafternoon combines childcare with co-working for parents and caregivers who have a creative practice or an interest in crafts. These crafts are undertaken at various levels from hobbyist to professional. This rich mix of experience and expertise has led to the transfer of skills and sharing of ideas. The aim of Crafternoon is to normalize the idea of having children present while adults are productive in another task, taking the popular idea of "co-working" to another level by including our children. 

Crafternoon and Pitt Rivers
Holding these sessions at the Pitt Rivers Museum couldn't have been a better fit. Not only do many of the objects in the Museum’s collection have a direct connection with parenting and childhood, many of the objects will have been produced by hand, in community settings, in the presence of children.  

For our residency at the Museum we worked on a group project - a quilt. The imagery depicted in the quilt was inspired by objects in the galleries which relate to parenthood, childhood and co-working. With the help of Maya Herbolzheimer, VERVE Activities and Outreach Officer, we were introduced to these objects through object handling and tours of the displays. We used a series of questions to think about the 'biography' of these objects and brainstormed some possible visual representations of these biographies.

With the help of our expert seamstress and quilter, Caroline King we depicted our chosen objects using appliqué and embroidery techniques. Each participant worked on an individual square which was then sewn into one large quilt. Some of us had experience sewing and some had none – we even had contributions from some of the kids themselves! 

Every Crafternoon session is an experiment. We are never sure what the dynamics of the group will be like. But the stars were well aligned for these sessions! As the adults worked, the children got on with playing or contributing to the creative process alongside the adults. It was a calm enjoyable atmosphere. 

Our quilt has thirteen individual squares depicting baby carriers, a wolf's tooth amulet, moccasins, and a Haida totem pole - to name a few. A wolf's tooth amulet was the first object we looked at and discussed. It originates from France and was worn by children to ward off febrile convulsions caused by high fevers that can occur during teething. One of the Crafternoon participants was very familiar with these seizures as both her children had them. She chose to depict the wolf's tooth in a very creative way: using coloured squares of fabric she represented the heat of fever contrasted with the coolness provided by the amulet, "The warm colours represent fever, which is spreading and taking over the body, until it comes up against the amulet - then it disappears and we're left with a tiny, calm, cool colour." 

A personal favourite is this 3D baby carrier. Here's the maker's account of her handiwork:

"My quilt piece was inspired by a small (15 cm) model of a Saami cradle made of wood covered with leather and cloth from Sweden. I was super happy to find it; it brought back happy memories of Sweden were Abel is born on the first day of snow during a cold but beautiful winter. We spent those days outside walking in the snow or skating on the ice, and Abel napped outside, tucked in a sheepskin blanket to keep him warm in the freezing cold (it sounds funny, but many mothers do this in Scandinavia). For me, the little cradle became a symbol of happy times carrying, nursing and caring for my newborn in nature, while being free to go anywhere."

This Pitt Rivers Crafternoon quilt is a tactile educational object as well as a testament to what can be achieved together in the presence of our kids! If you visit the Museum this spring, please do check it out!

Crafternoon is now back at home in the Jericho Community Centre on Tuesdays from 2–4pm. Check our website for information and updates.

Sarah Cullen, Crafternoon

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

We've Got Mail

We are selecting objects for a new permanent display of metalwork on the first floor (Lower Gallery). Whilst searching through the museum's reserve collections at our off-site storage facility  we found this wonderful board mounted with different types of mail armourMail is often referred to as 'chain mail' - terminology introduced by Sir Walter Scott in his 1822 novel "The Fortunes of Nigel".

This assemblage was collected - and possibly arranged - by General Pitt-Rivers himself. Pitt-Rivers collected from many sites in London during the 1860s, often as part of early 'salvage archaeology' excavations during groundworks for civic construction projects such as the London Underground and the Victoria Embankment.

C17th-centruy mail with rounded jumped (butted) rings and f
lat, welded rings. 1884.31.41. 5 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The pieces of mail are described in an early catalogue of 1874 as "Twenty fragments of Chain armour. European and Oriental". The hand-written labels date some of them to the XVII (17th) century, and several are recorded as being recovered from the "Thames Embankment". The board has clearly been put together as an exhibit rather than a cataloguing or storage device. We have no record of whether it was ever displayed at the Pitt Rivers Museum but it may well have been displayed in Bethnal Green Museum (now the V&A Museum of Childhoodand South Kensington Museums (now the V&A) where the General's archaeological and ethnological collection was first shown to the public in London from 1874-1878 (Bethnal Green) and from 1878-1882 (South Kensington), before being donated to the University of Oxford in 1884.

The board was arranged to show a variety of different types and gauges of linkage variations within the single category of 'mail armour' - a neat demonstration of Pitt-Rivers's concept of 'typological' arrangements. Some samples are of butted or 'jumped' mail, arranged in alternating rows with solid welded rings. Butted rings were the cheapest type of mail to make and buy, though the most vulnerable to a well-placed thrust from a sword or spear. Each ring is linked to four others in the European '4-in-1' style.

There were also examples of what seemed to be imitation rivets - perhaps to give the illusion of quality or strength - plus large-gauge hooked mail with spiral links, which may have been worn by horses in conjunction with solid barding armour.

Mail with possible imitation rivets (left) and hooked mail, possibly for horses (right)
1884.31.41. 15 and 1884.31.41. 13 © Pitt Rivers Musuem

The different pieces of mail were fixed to the painted wooden board with metal staples. Many of the metal rings were suffering from corrosion and rust and some links were missing. When the items were sent to our Conservation lab, our conservator Andrew rearranged tangled links and cleaned the metal with a sponge and stiff brush.

Of the twenty small pieces, a handful demonstrating the different mail types were chosen for the new Metalwork display. One substantial piece of fine mail was arranged flat on the left side of the board, rather like a half-folded T-shirt, but in fact consisted of a tube that opened out into a flat piece. Perplexed, we consulted the experts. Staff at the Royal Armouries were very helpful and Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour and Oriental Collections, suggested it was part of C17th-century pajama zereh (mail trousers), worn by an Indian Mughal warrior.

Half riveted mail armour, identified as being part of Indian pajama zereh (mail trousers), India. 1884.31.41. 3
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Next, Andrew considered how to create a mount that would both support the mail for display and illustrate how it would be positioned on the body. Using a template from the armour, and based on his own leg, he made a liner out of calico, and filled it with polyester wadding. After padding it out to form a rough leg shape, he then tacked the mail to the calico with cotton thread. Research indicated this is not too dissimilar to how the armour would have been worn, as it would originally have been sewn to fabric trousers. Mail armour can adjust to many shapes and is very heavy, so this mount should support most of the weight and hopefully help visitors understand how it was worn.

Andrew at work in the Conservation lab making a new display mount for the pajama zereh leg armour
© Pitt Rivers Museum

You can see just how much work has to go into preparing just a few objects. You will be able to see the mail armour, alongside up to 200 other objects, in the new Metalwork display on the first floor this summer. In the meantime, you can still find examples of full mail shirts, plus various other armours (plate, lamellar, brigandine) upstairs on the Upper Gallery or here on our Arms and Armour site.

Helen Adams
VERVE Project Curator

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Sound of Northern Lights

Hi, I'm Ali Orr, Technician for the VERVE (Need Make Use) project at the Pitt Rivers Museum. My main role at the Museum is to design and make new exhibitions as well as assisting and providing technical support for VERVE's outreach and AfterHours programmes. Often this means getting involved with audio-visual side of things...

The museum roof bathed in green and blue 'Northern Lights' © Pitt Rivers Museum 

In November 2014, the Museum was once again a key fixture of Oxford's annual 'Christmas Light Festival'. Our theme, in keeping with the winter season, was everything Arctic. The night was titled 'Northern Lights' to tie into both the famous book by Philip Pullman (which draws on the Museum), and the aurora light phenomena in the skies that occur at high, polar latitudes. We planned a torchlight experience that has proved so popular in the past, with the lights turned low and coloured effects. However, sound would be also be crucial to the overall experience. I am passionate about music from a wide variety of genres including branches of Electronica, Reggae, Hip Hop, Classical, Folk and World music. I have picked up on the latter a great deal since working at the Museum and being exposed to the music of other cultures that I might never have otherwise come across. I also have a bit of experience with sound production as a hobby. With all this in mind, I volunteered to put together a soundscape for the event in my own time.

We already had recordings of museum staff speaking about Arctic items in the collection (part of our standard audioguide). We were thrilled when Philip Pullman, patron of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, agreed to some specially commissioned recordings of him reading favourite exerpts from his book Northern Lights. These included Lyra's first visit to the 'other' Pitt Rivers in the 'other' Oxford, her Arctic journey with the armoured bear Iorek Byrinson, and her encounter with the witch queen. My challenge was to weave these vocal parts together into a single atmospheric piece.

Together with help and inspiration from another volunteer and experienced podcaster Alison Cooper, we found a number of ambient samples to evoke feelings of being at the North Pole such as wind, water and animal sounds. Alison also gave me the idea of layering some samples over the narration to add depth and context to the words. I then decided to hunt down as much music from the Arctic region as I could find, which was a challenge, but it would be a good representation of indigenous peoples such as the Inuit, Evenki, and Sami. A distinctive style of music from northern regions is 'throat singing' - in the Tuvan version from Mongolia it is a type of overtone singing employing harmonies, but among the Inuit, it is more of a duelling duet of sound produced when inhaling and exhaling!

Exploring carved ivory © Pitt Rivers Museum
There are some great websites where we found Creative Commons Licensed sounds (such as Freesound) and we also bought or licensed tracks; a fantastic source for ethnographic field recordings is Smithsonian Folkways, a non-profit record label that promotes cultural diversity through the documentation, preservation and dissemination of sound. 

Once I had all the material, it was just a matter of putting it together using Ableton Live software. This meant several hours of deciding on a running order, adjusting each section to similar levels, adding in a few effects, and just generally playing around with it until it sounded good! Audio equipment and speakers were provided by Oxford firm startech for professional sound delivery.

The event was incredibly popular, and 1200+ visitors entered the museum with a torch in controlled numbers throughout the night. The soundtrack looped about three times, allowing the different visitors to enjoy it. I ended with a 40-minute mix of Electronica drawing on music from all around the world. This also seemed to go down very well - I even saw a few people dancing!

You can check out photos from the event on our Facebook album plus listen to the full Arctic mix (46 minutes) and Ethnic Electronica mix (42 minutes) below. Full tracklists are available on our SoundCloud playlist.

I am proud of the end result, especially as I have never attempted anything like this before and I have since heard some good feedback. Staff and volunteers did a great job to help make the event a success too. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience - I learned a lot and discovered some great new music for my own growing collection. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to do something similar for future events - next I'm putting together a soundtrack of European folk music for our AfterHours: Folklore and Storytelling event on Thursday 4th December - see you there!

Alistair Orr
VERVE Technician

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Tanning Tales

Over the coming weeks, the first redisplay of objects on the Museum’s first floor will appear. This case will display objects chosen to illustrate leatherworking and will show some of the wide applications for leather from clothing, headwear, shoes and bags to drinking vessels, buckets, saddles and writing materials, plus some of the specialist tools used in their manufacture.

Before preparing objects for the new display, our project conservator Andrew attended a week-long course ‘Understanding Leather - From Tannery to Collection’ hosted by the Leather Conservation Centre (LCC) and Northampton University‘s Institute of Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT):

"The course gave me a hands-on opportunity to follow the vegetable tanning process of a hide - transforming a salted animal skin into a beautiful finished piece of leather. Seeing the processes first-hand, and smelling and touching the hides, helped me to appreciate the skill of the tanner - how many steps are involved in the process and how many chances there are for things to go wrong along the way.

Partially-tanned deer and calf skin © Pitt Rivers Museum
"Very simply, tanning is a chemical process whereby skins are treated with chemicals known as tanning agents. These bind to the collagen proteins in the skin and prevent the skin from putrefying.
Tanning agents come in many types – Vegetable (or Bark), Mineral and Aldehyde. Different tanning agents produce different qualities in the leather – softer or harder, better tensile strength, different colours, etc.
Mineral tanning using chrome-based compounds takes just a few hours whilst vegetable tanning with oak bark traditionally takes 12 months and 1 day!
At the ICLT I followed a (much shorter) process of vegetable tanning using a number of different tanning agents:  
Some raw materials used in vegetable tanning © Pitt Rivers Museum
Traditionally, people of different areas of the world used tanning agents local to them and in good supply – in the UK this was oak bark; in Italy, the ground-up heartwood of the chestnut tree. 

Although the steps involved in tanning have probably changed little since ancient times, the machinery used today certainly has! In medieval England, tanning was carried out in pits where skins were hung or layered in a liquor containing ground up oak bark. Modern tanning is carried out in drums, something like an industrial washing machine:

Tanning drum with goatskin covered in vegetable tanning 
liquor © Pitt Rivers Museum

Today, skins are removed of excess flesh and fat by machine, de-haired by placing them in a drum in an alkaline mixture of lime, and then treated with enzymes in a process called 'bating'. This removes unwanted proteins and opens up the structure of the skin to allow the penetration of the tanning agent.

I was prepared for some bad smells along the way, but other than the smell of the salted skins and maybe a hint of ammonia, the tannery was a very clean place. Tight restrictions on waste disposal means that today's tanneries produce very little waste. Surprisingly, the ‘waste’ produced from the de-hairing contains many proteins useful in the cosmetic industry.

Kangaroo tail © Pitt Rivers Museum
The modern tanning process involves the prepared skins being gently turned in the drum along with a mixture of water, a purified extract of the raw tanning agent and added chemicals to produce the optimum acidic pH all at a controlled temperature. As the skins absorb and react with the tannins they are less susceptible to damage. The temperature is gradually increased and the drums turned more vigorously all of which contribute to speeding up the process from weeks and months to a number of hours.

Any animal skin and can be tanned from the common cow, goat and pig to the more unusual such as crocodile, salmon, seal and, on rare grizzly occasions, human.

The LCC has a large collection of different reference samples that are invaluable when trying to identify what an object has been made from.

The patterns of the hair follicles on the surface of mammalian skin can help in identification but often on museum objects they have been worn away, or obscured by surface treatments, paints or dirt, so you have to look for other clues. 

What animal do you think this bag is made from?

© Pitt Rivers Museum

© Pitt Rivers Museum

Yes, eel! Eelskin leather is highly prized. It is very smooth and exceptionally strong. Oddly however, it does not come from eels but the Pacific hagfish, a jawless fish also known as the 'slime eel'.

Today, there is just one remaining tannery in the UK manufacturing traditional oak bark leather - J&FJ Baker, based in Colyton, Devon. Watch this video to find out more about their process:

The new hide and leatherwork display at the Museum will reflect some of the processes and variety outlined above by including, not just calf and goat skins, but also items made from monkey, lizard, and fish, plus differently processed examples from vegetable tanned to brain tanned to alum tawed leather."

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Oxfordshire Travellers' Stories Project

"Socks", belonging to the Collins family at the Redbridge site.
Over the last six months, the Museums Outreach Office and VERVE have been working alongside Oxfordshire County Council's Family Learning team (Oxfordshire Skills and Learning Service) and the Museum of Oxford with four of Oxfordshire’s Traveller communities: Redbridge, Middle Ground, East Challow and Bloxham.

The collaboration aims to capture something of the lives of these different local Traveller communities - encouraging them to tell their own stories, relate their families’ cultural tales and represent themselves through objects, pictures and oral history. All these things are integral to their values, history and lifestyle. 

Traveller groups are under-represented museum visitors, so this ASPIRE-funded project aims to raise awareness of the local museums among these communities, and encourage further engagement and visits in the future.

Diana makes blankets for any new babies
born at East Challow, Wantage (her
grandmother taught her how to make them
Initially, each of the four groups spent some time with the Family Learning team discussing which objects reflected their Traveller community and history. Now the groups are developing work for display in an exhibition this winter to be held jointly at the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of Oxford. While each of the four groups have chosen to represent themselves through different objects - taking photographs, writing and telling stories, making model wagons, knitting blankets and decorating 'Crown Derby' papier mache plates - they have also been working on their literacy and computer skills. As the exhibition takes shape, Family Learning will continue to work with the groups by creating trails, captioning work and presenting their story. 

The Oxford University Museum’s Outreach team have been busy visiting the four sites, joining the local Children Centres and Mobile Children’s Centre bus, taking museum handling objects out, and meeting different members of each community. They have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Traveller culture and lifestyle, which in turn has highlighted how many misconceptions exist with regards to education, jobs, lifestyle and sites.

Chantelle collects porcelain dolls and displays
them on her trailer at Middle Ground site, Wheatley
During the Easter holidays, the Redbridge and Middle Ground groups visited the Pitt Rivers Museum to have a guided tour, handle objects from the collections, and take part in craft activities such as drum and mask-making. The majority of the group had never visited either museum before, so it was an eye-opener to many!

Several weeks later during the summer holidays, one of the Middle Ground families visited the Museum of Oxford and took a tour behind the scenes. They spent time exploring Oxford’s stories through a wide range of objects. Some of these were surprisingly familiar like the Victorian stove from West Oxford, which reminded a group member of her mother’s old stove:

“It’s amazing, everything here has a story. We used to have a stove just like that. It was my Mum’s when we were travelling. I love stoves like that.” (Chantelle, visit to the Museum of Oxford).

Other objects were less familiar and even a little spooky, including 'Giles the Skeleton' and one of the Museum’s old wax dummies! The youngest member of the group was particularly interested in the Museum’s Civil War collection and was inspired to paint himself dressed up as a Cavalier soldier (see photo). The group enjoyed exploring the gallery space where their work will be displayed later this year and the Museum is looking forward to welcoming other families from the project once the exhibition is in place. Do come and visit us then!

Work with the four groups will continue in the autumn in preparation for the exhibition at:

  • Museum of Oxford                                                   21 November 2014 – 10 January 2015
  • Pitt Rivers Museum                                                   5 December 2014 – 18 January 2015 

Maya Herbolzheimer (Pitt Rivers Museum)
Antonia Harland-Lang (Museum of Oxford)
Nicola Bird (Oxford University Museums)

Sarah Levete (Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire Skills and Learning Service, Family Learning Tutor Coordinator)

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Lion, The Princess and The Samurai: carnival board captures flavour of Pitt Rivers

The latest - and most popular - addition to the VERVE: Need / Make / Use outreach events this summer has been our colourful 'carnival board'. These colourful 'peep-through-boards' or 'head-in-the-hole' boards are a staple of the seaside and funfairs. The Museum is full of wonderful characters and objects with faces, so we thought we'd have a go at creating our own. It's fun but also acts as a great 'advert' for the Museum, encouraging photographs and sharing on social media, and reinforcing the identity of the Museum in peoples' minds.

So far it has travelled with us to Florence Park fete, Cowley Road Carnival (where it was the flagship image of the Oxford Mail's coverage), Larmer Tree Festival near Salisbury, and on Thursday this week, you can find it at Marriotts Walk shopping centre in Witney. Hundreds of people of all ages have given it a go...even other species, the lowest hole proving tempting for dogs!

Dogs and babies enjoy the carnival board's first outing at Florence Park Fete, June 2014 © Pitt Rivers Museum

To make the board we needed an expert helping hand or two. Charlotte Orr is a freelance illustrator based in Oxford, graduating from Falmouth University in 2013. Sukie Trowles is a recent History graduate from Edinburgh University with an interest in museum studies. Here Charlotte talks us through her inspiration for, and production of, the carnival board...

Charlotte with the Snoopy-esque
blank board. Image: Charlotte Orr 
I was asked by the Pitt Rivers Museum's VERVE project to paint a carnival board for their Need Make Use outreach events. It took a few weeks to shape up with the help of my friend Sukie, but it's now finished!

We wanted it to be colourful and stand out so we chose to depict outfits or costumes that were bright and bold, yet also iconic objects in the museum. For the rest of the design, I took inspiration from the architecture of the museum itself such as the beautiful beams and pillars which I used to frame the board along with the lettering in the archway of the entrance to the museum. I also decided to paint an impression of the museum's pillars and cases in the background to put the artefacts in context and add more depth to the piece. 

Sketches to test design and colours. Images: Charlotte Orr

When it came to painting, it turned out Sukie and I coincidently dressed in the colours we were painting in! On the left is a woman wearing a Hawaiian cloak displayed in the Court area of the museum. These 'Ahu-ula' were worn by high ranking individuals and this one was probably one of the last to be made in about 1840.  The cloak is made from bird feathers - the red feathers come from the 'i'wii bird and the yellow and black come from the (now extinct) 'Ō'ō bird. The woman wearing the cloak is based on a painting of the Hawaiian Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena. She is holding a Royal Kāhili which signifies power granted from the divinities. 

Hawaiian feather cloak PRM 1951.10.61 Images: Charlotte Orr

The figure on the right of the board is the samurai general from the collection of Japanese armour in the Upper Gallery. This suit of armour dates from around AD 1750 during the peaceful years of the Edo period when armours became more decorative than functional, and were often adorned with sacred and cultural symbols. 

Samurai armour PRM 1901.46.1 Images: © Pitt Rivers Museum and Charlotte Orr

Lastly, in the middle of the board, is a Chinese carnival lion mask from the Education department's handling collection, which I thoroughly enjoyed painting because of its expressive face! This type of mask formed part of Chinese New Year celebrations, and is believed to bring good luck to the places it visits. In Chinese culture the lion looks fearsome and scares other animals, but is kind and tame at heart. Two skilled acrobats wear the lion mask and mimic the lion’s movements using martial arts techniques and agility - one wearing the head, and the other the tail.

Chinese New Year mask. Images: Charlotte Orr

Image: Charlotte Orr
This year I have worked on numerous commissions and exhibitions, and have recently been shortlisted for the AOI Illustration Awards 2014 for my book cover design for 'The Dynasties of China' (The Folio Society). I was happy to take the opportunity to do work for the Pitt Rivers as I have always been inspired by the collection; when I was studying Foundation in Art and Design at Oxford Brookes, I based my final major project on the museum. I decided to do an illustrated map of the galleries, picking out specific artefacts, some well known and others less so, and positioned them where they can be found in the museum. The idea was that people could follow the map to find each artefact. Here is a photograph of the piece.

It was great to paint a large scale piece such as the Need / Make / Use carnival board. This project has helped to broaden my portfolio, and I hope it brings people lots of pleasure!