Thursday, 7 May 2015

Crafts in the Ethnographic Film Archive

There is a small but important ethnographic film archive at the Pitt Rivers Museum. These films either accompanied donations of artefacts or photographs, or else were acquired for teaching and research purposes. Much of the material, especially that of the early 20th century, is unique and of significant historical importance. You can find all those films that have been digitised to date here.

Some of the historical footage relates to local crafts - some of which have survived and others that have not - so this is of interest to the Need, Make, Use project.

Below is a playlist of some of these films including Wanga and Isukha blacksmiths from Kenya; Kamba men from Kenya making a drum; Kwali, the remarkable potter from Nigeria; and two films shot by Ursula Graham Bower in 1939 capturing the culture and crafts in Manipur, northeast India - featuring extended sequences of weaving, brass casting and pottery, as well as dance.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Bridging Volunteers and Collections

Hi, I’m Madeleine, the new VERVE Volunteers Officer and part-time VERVE Curatorial Assistant. I have worked at the Pitt Rivers Museum for almost seven years doing various jobs in the Collections department.

I’m looking forward to supporting volunteers delivering VERVE events, working alongside the Oxford University Museums Volunteer Service. I’m also eager to develop new volunteer-led opportunities and activities.

I will be spending half my time working alongside Siân, as a Curatorial Assistant. We will be exploring the Museum stores and database to identify objects for the new displays, many of which will have never been on public display before. I am excited to start investigating objects for the next craft display case of stonework on the Lower Gallery.

I hope to combine my two roles by consulting volunteers engaged in the VERVE project for feedback on display content and interpretation.

Volunteering can be a great way of sharing your passion for the collections, doing something to benefit the museum and the communities we serve, developing specific skills and boosting your CV, or simply doing something a bit different in a friendly, social environment. If you are interested in getting involved with the VERVE project email us.

Madeleine Ding
VERVE Volunteers Officer / Curatorial Assistant

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Forging ahead with new Metalwork display

The VERVE team is currently working on a new display of metalwork on the Museum's Lower Gallery. The previous display devoted to this subject was more than fifty years old, thinly and unimaginatively arranged and labelled, and unsuitable mounting materials posed conservation risks to objects.

The old display of metalworking tools
The old display also only contained tools - items which, divorced from the materials they are used to shape and create, are perhaps less able to speak for themselves, except to experts.

The new display will feature around 200 objects including tools, raw materials and finished products, demonstrating various processes associated with pre-industrial metal manufacturing. Objects from the old display will be incorporated with items identified and retrieved from reserve collections, many of which have never been on display before. We are focusing in particular on three elements:
  • Extraction
  • Forming
  • Decoration

The 'Extraction' section presents an opportunity to explore ores, bellows and furnaces. The stages needed to get from rock to workable metal are many and ingenious, entering into the worlds of alchemy and chemistry. Whilst selecting objects for display it was interesting to learn about the different types of bellows used around the world, from the piston bellows of the Far East, the bag bellows of India, accordion bellows in Europe and the bowl bellows of eastern and southern Africa. Bellows create oxygen to fuel furnaces either for smelting ore or for heating the forge during metalworking.

Left: Man working piston bellows, Khiamniungan Naga people, northeast India, 1965;
Right: Piston bellows with exhausts and furnace bowl used in brass casting, Burma; 1888.39.30

Iron ores come in the form of iron oxide minerals that vary in chemical make-up and also in colour, from dark grey to bright yellow, deep purple to rusty red. The two principal iron ores are haematite and limonite, both mined for the production of iron since at least 2500 BCE. Among the Nyoro people of Western Uganda, a soft ‘female’ ore galimuzika is smelted together with a harder ‘male’ ore nyaitume  – both named after the local hills from which they were mined – to produce a softer, more workable iron.

Soft 'female' ore (top) is smelted with harder 'male' ore (below), Nyoro people, Uganda.
Collected by John Roscoe during the Mackie Ethnological Expedition; 1921.9.57-.58

Mock-up display with sections for tools, bellows and casting
The 'Forming' section will focus on three techniques evidenced by the collections  - casting, forging and wire-making.

Casting is a complex process, one most easily demonstrated visually rather than described. We hope that placing tools, apparatus and objects together will help illustrate the various stages of the lost-wax ('cire-perdue') method and give some sense of the time and skill involved in creating a cast object. The casting section includes wax moulds from Benin, aluminium jewellery from Sudan, a complete set showing how to cast with cuttlefish bone, and this wonderful set of heads from Togo (below).

Three stages of casting a brass head, Yoruba people, Togo; 1910.48.1-.3   
1. Inner clay core; 2. Wax model covering core; 3. Outer clay mould broken to reveal cast brass face

The 'Decoration' section will feature several items illustrating surface ornamentation through hammering from the reverse side to create low-relief design (repoussé) and its opposite - punching or hammering from the front side (chasing).

This treasure-box on a detachable wheeled tray is decorated with repoussé proverb figures, symbols and repeating designs. Like copper, gold, silver and lead, brass is a malleable metal and, in thin sheets, is well-suited to repoussé work. The treasure box was probably used to store personal items of value. It is associated with the Asante (Ashanti) Empire, which thrived from 1750 onwards, in what is modern-day Ghana. Natural gold resources in the dense forests of southern Ghana brought wealth and influence to the Asante, enabling the production and trade of beautiful items like this. 

Brass repoussé treasure box, Asante, Ghana; 1935.56.12

The treasure box was collected by one F. W. Ensor and donated after his death to the Museum by his wife in 1935. According to outgoing passenger lists leaving the UK 1890-1960, F. W. Ensor sailed from Liverpool to Accra in Ghana three times from 1900 to 1903. These dates would tie in with Britain's incorporation of the Asante kingdom into the Gold Cost colony as a protectorate in 1901. 

Adjacent in the display you will find two remarkable items of headwear known as 'tantour' or 'tantur'. Worn by high status women from the Druze community in Lebanon - the taller the tantour, the richer you were - these head ornaments were attached to the head by hooking on to a cloth cap. They are not dissimilar to the 'hennin' (conical hats) worn by noblewomen of medieval Europe, which were also usually worn with a veil. A tantour was traditionally presented by a husband to his wife on their wedding day, but the fashion for wearing them died out by the 1880s.

This particular tantour is a remarkable piece of workmanship, made of a single sheet of silvered copper, decorated with repoussé designs of cypress trees, flowering branches, birds and deer (the animals represent a particular true or caste), and inlaid with red and glass paste beads at the base. The sheet has then been wrapped into a cone, the castellated edges hammered together to create a flush join.

Left: Tantour of silvered copper, Lebanon, collected by George Davis Hornblower, c. 1902; 1920.37.3
Right: Druze woman, Shouf Mountains, wearing a tantour. Photo by Félix Bonfils, ca. 1870. Source: 
Wikimedia Commons

From these taster objects you can see that, far from being a dull tale of hammers and anvils, this metalwork display is bursting with stories relating to individuals, communities, traditions, cultures and empires. We are aiming to install in late Spring 2015 so watch this space...

For more information about the Togolese cast heads and other African metal artefacts, download our African Metalworking Introductory Guide.

Helen Adams
VERVE Project Curator/Engagement Officer

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."