Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Hides and Heels: work starts on new leatherwork display

With the new displays of masks and carvings in the ground floor Court now finished, we are turning our attention upstairs to the middle floor of the Museum - the Lower Gallery. The project's target area, on the left wall as you enter the gallery, is home to some rather dilapidated, fifty-year-old displays of traditional crafts. Our plan is to retain these themes but give the whole area a facelift with new displays featuring more objects - better mounted, better lit, and better labelled.

The first case we are working on will contain artefacts made of skin, hide and leather. We have decanted a large case full of headrests (these will be displayed elsewhere) to free up this much larger space for the new display. This will allow us to unite the various shoe- and saddlery-working tools that were in a smaller, previous leatherworking display with a diverse range of objects from storage, many never before displayed. 

Left: the old leatherworking case dating to the 1950s (some items were
nailed directly on to the backboard!) and the existing display of headrests,
now emptied to make way for the new Skin, Hide and Leather display. 

The VERVE team spent many hours trawling the Museum's collections database and visiting the off-site stores to identify suitable material. More than 200 objects have been carefully selected, retrieved and catalogued to show the diversity of uses, animal sources and methods of manufacture, and are now being worked on by our Conservation Department.

Boxes of leather and hide shoes (right: North American moccasins) in storage

Currently there is no special display in the Museum dedicated to footwear and it was always envisaged that the new display would provide the perfect opportunity to showcase some of the Museum's fantastic shoe collections (some of these were recently loaned to the Oxfordshire County Museums Service for an exhibition entitled 'Head Over Heels'). However, working on this case led us all to appreciate a much larger range of objects in this category; our original conception of a 'leather' display has quickly grown to incorporate membrane, skin and hide too - to tell a more complete story about human beings have worked and utilised animal skin products. We have found everything from a leather drinking tankard to Japanese shoes made from salmon skin to an English leather violin.

Leather violin 1938. 34 648 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Salmon skin shoes 1900.78.35 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The violin is full size and resembles a normal wooden one, but the body is entirely made of leather. We have been trying to find others, so far with no success, so please get in touch if have ever seen anything like this before. 

The salmon skin shoes are called Chep-kere which literally means “fish boot”. They are from Hokkaido in Japan and were used by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. The shoes were soaked in water before wearing to mould them to the wearer’s foot. The salmon skin was cut and used in one piece with sewing at the toe and heel. The skin has a scaly texture, providing a good non-slip surface. This type would have only been worn in winter on the snow and may have been stuffed with grass or worn with a sock for insulation.

We also came across this fantastic pair of boots!

Gambadoes 1888.12.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Each foot is more than 30cm long and after an initial reaction of "giant's boots!", it became clear that these are gambadoes. They are open boots or gaiters worn whilst riding to protect their legs and trousers from mud and bushes, popular from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The buckles at the top attached to the saddle and they doubled as stirrups. This particular pair were worn by farmers in the West of England. They are made from very thick, strong leather and look very functional at first glance, but upon closer inspection they are actually decoratively stitched around the top, with moulding near the side opening and brass furniture tacks around the base.

We were fortunate and delighted to coordinate this stage of the project with a visit from the Archaeological Leather Group (ALG) to the Museum. Their group included scholars, curators, conservators, archaeologists and leather-workers and they spent several hours examining the material, helping us understand various aspects of leather-working, advising on techniques and provenance, and suggesting intepretive themes. For ALG members, it was a rare opportunity to get up close to museum collections and have personal input into the project. We had a very informative and enjoyable day and swapped several contacts to take the discussions further.

Members of the ALG examine a selection of boots, from Inuit sealskin
'wellies' to Chinese boots for bound feet, to a pair of women's boots
from Poland c. 1900 with bright pink laces © Pitt Rivers Museum

ALG members discuss an 'alum tawed' saddle and cushion from India
1966.1.1316 © Pitt Rivers Museum
We have focused on a 17th-century leather shoe-boot as our Object of the Month for June. Work will begin on designing and installing this case this summer so if you visit the Museum in the autumn, do keep an eye out for it!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Inventions for Living

Image courtesy of Oxford Brookes University
The case in the south-east corner of the first floor (Lower Gallery) plays host to a varied and imaginative series of changing displays by external partners. These displays all take an aspect of the Museum's collections as their starting point but throughout the VERVE: Need / Make / Use project, we're particularly interested in work that explores considered design, ingenuity, craftsmanship, and functionality. Currently the case is hosting 'Inventions for Living' by Oxford Brookes University Art Foundation students - a joint exhibition with Oxford's Museum of the History of Science - exploring why humanity has created design solutions for certain everyday needs. 

"Being given the opportunity to exhibit our work in this amazing museum has been a very exciting experience for all of us and has given us a taster of life as a practising artist. Personally, I have never been to a museum full of such a variety of artifacts displayed in such tightly packed vitrines. These cabinets of curiosity make the museum feel like something out of Harry Potter and you can't help but expect half of the objects to come alive. What also makes this place so magical is the story allied with many of the artifacts, some of which are more poignant than others. In particular, a lot of us found the idea behind the shrunken heads extremely shocking. Tales of voodoo dolls and black magic also resonated with many of us. One of the interesting aspects of our exhibition ‘Inventions for Living’ is the variety of responses to the title: ‘Need, Make, Use’. Such a range of avenues have been explored, from video installations to objects of extraordinary craftsmanship. This is clearly a reminder of the ever-changing artistic domain that we live in. It is great to see the exploration of 21st-century media, yet also classically built sculpture, which in my opinion will cease to lose credibility, even in our era of Modern art."

Image courtesy of Oxford Brookes University

"On behalf of all of the Oxford Brookes art foundation students, I would like to thank Pitt Rivers for providing us with this fantastic opportunity and also all of our tutors for spending hours of their time discussing the ideas and concepts behind our work. The title of the exhibition hints at the fallible nature of 21st-century materialism, as although we believe we ‘need’ something, it seems apparent that as soon as we acquire our desired object we ‘use’ it at our disposal. The growth of consumerism and excessive consumption is something we should all be made to think about and I hope this exhibition can be appreciated for its ability to make us consider the true meaning of what it is to ‘need’."

Hannah Marshall, Fine Art Foundation student, 2014

Inventions for Living is FREE on the Lower Gallery, until 23 March

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Redisplaying Naga baskets

Our work creating new displays along the upper tier of the Museum's ground floor (Court) continues. Currently we are turning our attention to the north side, focussing on Naga material, including a large number of Naga baskets. The Naga comprise several tribal groups living in northeastern India and northwestern Burma. The Museum has rich Naga collections, largely due to substantial donations by John Henry Hutton and James Philip Mills in the 1920s. 

The old display of Naga baskets (with new lighting) © Pitt Rivers Museum

Watercolour of Naga man with dao, 
shield and basket. 1893.7.14 
As part of the project, our plan is to significantly improve the Naga baskets display, which has been unchanged for many years. Such baskets were made and used by men, associated with the Naga tradition of head-taking, which is no longer practised. They are varied in construction and appearance, decorated with carved wooden heads, monkey skulls, boars'  tusks, goat hair, grass and palm tassels and even whole birds. We want to improve how these objects are mounted and reduce the number of items in the case to create more space for them to be seen and appreciated individually, rather than just as a collection.

The old display contained 32 baskets, tightly packed into two display cases. They all have long handles but being so tightly packed meant that many of the handles had been folded inside the basket, plus many of the attached tassels overhung other baskets or were squashed against the bottom of the case making access difficult. In addition, many of these tied-on decorations have become detached.

Now, all the baskets have been removed from their cases to be carefully catalogued and photographed. They are undergoing conservation treatment which involves being cleaned of any surface dust acquired whilst on display, and securing any damaged basketry or detached decoration back in place.

Most of the baskets were previously displayed by tying a short length of string to the rim and hanging them from a nail in the back of the case. Being positioned like this for many years has caused damage to the fragile woven cane structure so the new display will have individually-made mounts to provide much more support for each basket.

The new display will be designed to make it easier to see each individual basket and also show some of the elaborately woven straps, previously hidden inside each basket. This new layout incorporates 22 of the original baskets, meaning we have had to decide which baskets to remove and put into storage.

1929.22.15  © Pitt Rivers Museum

The decision on which baskets to remove (or 'deselect') was made jointly by members of the curatorial, conservation, technical teams based on various criteria - if it was too fragile to return to display, how likely it would be for the fur, bird skins and hair to be attacked by moths, the style of basketry and decorations used, and whether these demonstrated a suitable variety of techniques and materials within the theme of the case.

For example, this basket was not included in the new display for two reasons: we were concerned that it was vulnerable to pest damage (moths love fur and hair tassels!). Also it lacks any carved figures or skulls so it did not fit with the faces and figures that have so far informed the theme in the Court phase of redisplay - “the world is watching: performance and ceremony”.

As well as allowing the carrying straps to be visible for the first time, the new display will allow the outline of each basket to be clearly visible, whist new lighting will help draw visitors' eyes upwards, illuminating the baskets' shapes and colours.

The technicians' planned layout for the new Naga baskets display © Pitt Rivers Museum

The baskets that did not make the final selection have been stored in bespoke boxes since their unusual dimensions meant they would not fit any standard sized ones. This is a relatively common problem at Pitt Rivers, so many of us are very good at producing boxes made from corrugated plastic.

It is envisaged that the project's redisplay work in the Court will be completed by Spring 2014 so do come take a look at these lively arrangements of masks, figurative sculpture and re-lit boats from around the well as this fascinating collection of Naga baskets.