Thursday, 20 October 2016

New techniques in soft-mount making at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Recently, in the conservation lab we have been busy preparing objects for a new display. Rank and Status in the Pacific is one of the new VERVE displays, which are being installed in the Lower Gallery. The case presents a range of items, including jewelry, clothing and ceremonial sticks, representing emblems of authority and status in the Pacific.

A large number of soft mounts, mostly consisting of padded MDF boards covered in Jersey fabric, were required to support the many neck ornaments, which feature in the display. However, two particular objects, a headband 1989.28.11 and a shell necklace 1990.22.3, offered us the opportunity to be more experimental with our mounts. We decided to create a head-and-neck 3D mount, which would display the objects as they would have been worn. This mount will be the centerpiece of the case.

To create a mount of this kind we would normally use a method called buckram, which consists of covering a mould, usually a mannequin, in layers of linen strips impregnated with starch paste which, once dry, create a cast of the mould.  Although this method is very efficient and very popular among conservators and mount makers, it can be very time-consuming, especially when many layers of linen strips are required to achieve the desired shape and strenght. Each layer in fact has to be completely dry before a new layer can be applied.

However, a new material, called Fosshape (Fosshape™), is becoming more and more popular among conservators and mount makers as an alternative to buckram for making soft mounts. Fosshape has been designed and used mostly in the millinery industry and it is a thermoplastic, non-woven, synthetic fabric, which can be molded into any desired shapes using vapour and heat. Earlier this year, I used the same material to create a hand-shaped mount for a leather glove 1911.29.85 used in the masonry industry, which is now on display in the Stonework display in the Lower Gallery.

Leather glove 1911.29.85 mounted on a hand-shaped mount made of Fosshape, front (left) and back (right) 
In April, Jeremy Uden, Deputy Head of Conservation, and I also attended a one-day training session at the textile conservation lab at the V&A with Textile Conservation Display Specialists Rachael Lee.  At the V&A, Fosshape is used extensively. Due to its versatility, ease and speed of use, it is an ideal material to adapt mannequins and create desired silhouettes for costumes. Our day at the V&A textile lab, gave us a chance to practice further with Fosshape and improve our skills under Rachael’s direction, and to observe how versatile this material can be and what great potential it has for use in conservation and mount making.

Although it is great fun to work with Fosshape, it must be said that creating complex mounts out of it can be tricky. For our first attempts, the hand-shaped mount mentioned above and the head-and neck mount, we set our goals pretty high.

The first step was to select a suitable mannequin’s head to use as a mould on which to shape the Fosshape. Given the size of the headband, which we were making the mount for, we needed a fairly small head. Finding a mannequin of a suitable size can be difficult when only a few are available in a small lab.  Fortunately, the mannequin available to us was perfect for the job. 

Our mannequin head is covered in calico fabric, which has been cut into eight sections and sewn together to create a perfect fit for the head. We decided to use a similar pattern to cut the Fosshape into eight pieces, which we then sewed together. We chose to use Fosshape 600 grs for this project, as it creates stronger mounts than the Fosshape 300 grs, which is more suitable for smaller, lighter mounts, like the hand-mount shown above.

Sewing patterns
Once ready, the Fosshape was turned inside-out and fitted onto the mannequin head again ready to be shrunk with heat and vapour from an iron. To ensure that the mount could be removed from the mannequin, the back of the mount was stitched by hand. 

Fosshape sections sewn together and fitted onto the mannequin, front (left) and back (right)
A wet piece of calico was used as a barrier between the mount and the iron, partly to generate more vapour and partly to protect the mount from potential burns. We shrunk the Fosshape to a point where we felt comfortable that it was still flexible enough to be removed from the mannequin, while still being able to retain its shape. Once removed from the mannequin, which required a significant amount of teamwork in order to plan, pull and remove it without causing any damage to the mount or the mannequin, the Fosshape mount was stitched back together.

Jeremy shrinking the Fosshape 
Fosshape mount shrunken and ready to be removed from the mannequin, front (left) and back (right)

Although our mount at this stage was already quite strong, following advice from Rachael, we decided to add a layer of buckram for additional strength. The mount was left to dry overnight and the next day was ready to be covered in fabric. We used the same pattern created for the Fosshape to make a black Jersey cover to fit the mount. At this stage, it is impossible to stitch through the Fosshape as it is completely hardened. This meant that the Jersey had to be stretched out gradually onto the mount, using pins. Whereas the majority of the cover was machine sewn, the back of the mount was hand-stitched. At the base of the neck, the fabric was tucked inside and hot-glued to the mount. 

Fosshape mount covered with a layer of buckram 
Miriam sewing the Jersey fabric cover (left) and Jersey cover nearly completed (right) 

Ultimately, the headband mounted on Polyfelt covered in black jersey, was attached to the head using Velcro, and the necklace was fixed onto the mount using nylon monofilament wire.

Headband and necklace mounted onto the Fosshape mount, front (top center), side (bottom left), back (bottom right)

The results of our experimentation were highly pleasing. Aside from being a really useful, alternative, material for soft mounts, we were able to assess the huge potential that Fosshape has to aid the interpretation of objects in our displays. Rank and Status will be installed soon… Watch this space!

Miriam Orsini
VERVE Conservator

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Tales From a Student Placement

Dominic Persinger, Archaeology student from Cardiff University, undertook a summer placement at the PRM, here he shares his experiences. 

My First Day © Pitt Rivers Museum

Elation is the only word that can be used to describe my feeling upon receiving news that I would be undergoing a placement here at the Pitt Rivers Museum. With my favoured career path set firmly in the direction of museum work, opportunities do not come much greater than gaining vital experience at my long-standing favourite museum. With a varied and diverse schedule I would gain valuable insight into the inner workings of this most charismatic museum.

Education Department

During my time at the museum I was given the chance to participate in a number of the museum's summer family friendly activities. On my first day I was able to try my hand at construction as children were tasked with building a structure that could withstand a randomly chosen environmental condition. Some straws, lollypop sticks and a whole lot of creativity later, we were left with some structures that would challenge even the contents of the 'Building and Housing' case found on the court level. 

Audiences enjoying the pop-up puppet show © Pitt Rivers Museum
The following week I was lucky enough to sit in on the increasingly popular pop-up puppet show. I, like the rest of the audience, was blown away by the beauty and intricacy of the Indonesian shadow puppets. Manned by a pair of the museum's many enthusiastic volunteers that I would meet during my stay, the puppets played out the Ramayana, a traditional Hindu epic.

Projects and Popcorn

Over the course of my placement I would help out with the research, planning and organisation of the museum's forthcoming community and outreach projects. This swiftly became perhaps the most rewarding part of my experience. Having input into the upcoming LGBTQ+ museum-wide trail and the refugee and asylum seeker engagement project, I felt as though I was a part of something very special. One day we welcomed After 18 to the museum, a Leicester based group consisting of unaccompanied refugee and asylum seeking young people. While we hunted through the museum's dense displays to locate objects from their respective native countries, it was a privilege to observe the visitors interact and engage with the collections, as clearly beloved memories and stories were triggered throughout. Witnessing such engagement projects first hand reassured me how important the work carried out by the culture and heritage sector really is; after all, in my opinion, people should be at the heart of everything a museum does. Coming from an archaeological background it was particularly interesting to be able to oversee the complete process of an object being discovered, displayed and finally engaged with. 

Crowds lounging around watching Star Wars © Pitt Rivers Museum

In the time leading up to my placement I would never have guessed that at any point I would be sat watching Star Wars whilst the sun was setting over the picturesque museum lawn. But alas, deck chairs and beanbags were scattered across the grass as Cult Screens brought three days of outdoor cinema-viewing pleasure to the Oxford public. Hearing the imperial march echo through the 19th century grounds was a distinct highlight of mine.

Collections Department

As a part of the VERVE project, new archaeology displays are destined for the Upper Gallery and I was lucky enough to experience the processes involved with planning, selecting and organising these new display cases. Seeing up close and personal both the artefacts that made the cut and those that did not was a real treat. I will never look at a display the same again now that I know of the precision and patience that goes into getting the contents and aesthetics just right.

The very same day we visited the museum's Osney store. Upon meeting the team conducting a two and a half year project packaging the store's contents ready for transportation to a new location, the extreme scale of their task became apparent. The store is currently home to around 100,000 objects, so naturally I jumped at the chance to be granted this behind-the-scenes access and experience some of them for myself. If you too would like to explore some of the store's many items, do check out the recent Pitt Rivers Stores twitter account (@Pitt_Stores) for frequent updates on the newest discoveries.

Front of House 

One Monday I spent the day with the museum's front of house staff, it was my chance to adorn the red tie. I soon realised that I would spend most of the day answering one infamous question- "where are the shrunken heads?". When talking with the front of house guys, I was incredibly impressed by the whole team's extensive knowledge of the collections - they really did know the museum inside out.  I relished at the chance to spend some time with the displays myself, forever discovering something new as I strolled through the galleries.

Making fire the good ol' fashioned way © Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Fest

The focal point of my placement would be preparing for the museum's fourth annual Pitt Fest. Fittingly the theme for this year's fest was archaeology, giving me the opportunity to really sink my teeth into the event's organisation. After weeks of long and hard preparation, the big day came along and greeted us with substantial rain and blistering winds. However, the weather conditions did not dampen the spirits of the crowds who descended onto the museum lawn. Visitors explored the world of archaeology through free drop-in demonstrations, workshops, object handling, activities, performances and talks. I spent the first half of my day dissecting ancient poo (that's right, I said poo!); many a laugh was shared as festival goers dismembered fake coprolites in order to determine what part of history they would have came from, be it Roman, Viking or Tudor.

Fancy a story? © Pitt Rivers Museum

My nerves grew throughout the day as I was due to close the new soapbox talk series. Sharing a platform with experienced museum professionals and Oxford University professors was a daunting thought. As a result of the relentless rain my audience was confined to those who could cram into the soapbox tent, making for an easing and intimate atmosphere. I delivered the talk on one of my particular areas of interest, the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Europe. I discussed the debates that surround how the transition from from a hunter-gatherer way of life to a farming one played out, with particular focus on the recent developments of exciting scientific methods that we can use within archaeology, such as strontium isotope analysis and aDNA studies. In all I was pleased with how my talk went and with the interest it sparked with those listening. It was however nice to unwind afterwards by eating some gorgeous world street food and dancing around to the infectious sounds of the Seby Ntege Band.

The Seby Ntege Band closing the day's festivities © Pitt Rivers Museum

To conclude I would like to say a huge thank you to all of the staff at the Pitt Rivers Museum, in particular the VERVE team, for making me feel so welcome and a part of the group. The work you do is truly inspiring and Im sure I will be seeing you all again very soon.

Dominic Persinger
University of Cardiff Placement Student

Monday, 15 August 2016

#OutInOxford: A new cross-museums LGBTQ+ community project

On Saturday 13th August, LGBTQ+ individuals and allies came together with staff from the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of Natural History to take part in a workshop to develop what will be the University of Oxford's first cross-museums trail celebrating LGBTQ+ life. The trail will be written by the LGBTQ+ community responding to collections that form the University of Oxford museums. As an ice-breaker (any excuse for staff to bring out their favourite handling objects) staff chose items from the object handling collections to pass around and facilitate discussion. Challenges such as 'smell the gourd, guess what it held' (cow’s milk, cow’s blood and ash if you were wondering) and 'look at the pickled specimen, tell me how many tentacles an octopus has' (none, who knew?) ensued...

Pitt Rivers Museum handling objects: Maasai milk bottle (Kenya,, Brass fattening bowl (Nigeria,, Carved wooden mask (Kenya, and Finger Woven bag or bilum (Papua New Guinea,

Specimens from the Natural History Museum's handling collection: OUMNH.ZC. Loligo forbesii Veined squid preserved in fluid, OUMNH.ZC.2981 Hyaena cranium and mandible

The cross-museums trail will explore objects with 'Queer stories' or objects that have a resonance with the LGBTQ+ community. Objects we'll explore come from collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Ashmolean, the Museum of the History of Science, the Bate Collection and the Bodleian Libraries. The interpretation for the trail - which will be available for free, both digitally and in hardcopy - will be written by volunteers from the LGBTQ+ community. Having non-curators write the interpretation is an exciting aspect of the project as we'll hand the curatorial 'controls' over to experts from the LQBTQ+ community. Volunteers will pick an object that means something to them, using it as a starting point to communicate their own feelings and thoughts on LGBTQ+ history and experiences in Oxford and beyond. 

As well as handing objects, the workshop focused on discussions of how to approach the trail: who is the trail for; what terminology are we comfortable with; why are we doing it; how do we make it relevant, accessible, powerful? After a lot of thought, it was decided that the trail will be used as an engaging tool for the LGBTQ+ volunteers to communicate Queer histories with 'straight' as well as wider LGBTQ+ audiences. Volunteers debated on the terminology that the trail should use and agreed upon LGBTQ+ as the acronym that people felt most comfortable using. Queer was also a term that people felt it was important for the project to own. Finally, workshoppers agreed upon a title for the trail, #OutInOxford...we're looking forward to taking over Twitter with the hashtag once the trail is ready to launch! 

Stonewall Glossary of Terms aided discussion on terminology 

We also asked big questions like 'do Queer spaces currently exist in Museums' (answered with a resounding 'NO'), and explored whether museums should run more Queer projects and the potential benefits to the LGBTQ+ community and wider society. 

It was fantastic to meet so many volunteers with fascinating perspectives on the collections and with much to say about LGBTQ+ history. People who had never met before bonded over cake, smelly gourds and non-existent octopus tentacles, discovering shared experiences and learning about individual differences. It was also inspiring to see staff from all different departments working together with real excitement. We welcomed 21 volunteers in person (with some coming from as far as Hull!) and will be working with another 20 people remotely. We learnt a lot from the day, meeting brilliant people, making new connections and developing new ideas: there was a genuine buzz in the room and we're looking forward to running with the momentum to create something truly collaborative and unique! Through this project we hope to spark collaborations that will continue long beyond the trail launch. Look out for the launch event and other activities, also to be curated by LGBTQ+ volunteers and organisations, in February 2017.  

The trail project has been funded by the Oxford University Museums Partnership thanks to an application conceived and submitted by Beth Asbury, Assistant to the Director at the Pitt Rivers Museum. February 2017 spin-off events, curated by the local LGBTQ+ community, will be funded by VERVE, a Pitt Rivers Museum project funded largely by the Heritage Lottery Fund

Jozie Kettle (VERVE Programming & Communications Officer)