Monday, 13 June 2016

Picking pots: an archaeology display layout

One of the first in the run of display cases of archaeology will focus on objects made of pottery from a variety of different cultures and historical periods.

The 80 or so longlisted objects, many retrieved from an off-site store, are catalogued by myself and Sian. We use a Filemaker collections database to add new information such as descriptions, measurements and photographs, and we physically assign accession numbers to objects where necessary.

Example of a database entry page for an object. Here, a Roman votive hand PRM 1896.15.28

Having photographs and measurements of objects is great, but the physical selection and layout process is crucial for helping to determine the organising schema of a display and to see if certain combinations of objects 'work' together - intellectually and visually. We brought around 80 objects to the session that included Project Curator Helen Adams, Curator for Archaeology Prof Dan Hicks, Curator for Americas Prof Laura Peers, and Heather Richardson, Head of Conservation, who checked that the objects were in a stable enough condition for display.

Museum staff select objects for the new pottery display © Pitt Rivers Museum

A mock-up of the display case measuring 100 cm x 50cm with a maximum height of 10 cm was created. Once all the pieces were discussed and the final pieces chosen, we positioned the pottery within the case to look at meaningful groupings and optimum positioning.

A mock-up case frame to help us think about layouts and groupings © Pitt Rivers Museum

It could be easy for archaeology displays to be, dare we say it, a little dull but we are really enthused by the variety of colour, shapes, cultures and techniques demonstrated in this selection. Prioritising complete objects over sherds and shards will hopefully enable the objects to speak for themselves and visitors will be able to appreciate both their form and function. Since the collections are concerned with world archaeology, not just European classical archaeology, we hope to be able to tell some new and unfamiliar stories, such as that of the Moche or Mochica civilisation of Peru (AD 100 - 800). Here is a Moche stirrup-spout jar in the form of a skeleton playing panpipes.

Ceramic stirrup-spout jar in form of a skeleton playing panpipes; 1947.7.14 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Now the Conservation team will work on the 36 pottery pieces to clean, stabilise and conserve them. Finally the Technical team will look at the pieces to see how they should be displayed in the case and create mounts to support them. Look out for the new display in the Upper Gallery later this year.

Helen Adams (VERVE Project Curator) and Madeleine Ding (VERVE Curatorial Assistant)

Monday, 30 May 2016

A Visit to the Store, the Museum's own 'Pottery Barn'

Sian and I recently visited the Museum's off-site store to identify objects for the new world archaeology displays. We had a longlist of interesting objects to search for since the run of cases will most likely be displayed by type of material, rather than by chronology or geography to maintain the Museum's typological approach to arrangements.

We started looking for pottery objects first as most of our pottery reserve collections are in the store, which will soon be undergoing a major move.

Retrieving boxes of archaeology from the Museum store
© Pitt Rivers Museum

'Angel Inn' mug, 1887.1.409
© Pitt Rivers Museum
The Museum's pottery collections (objects made from fired clay) include Egyptian faience ushabti figures, pottery tiles from India, Japanese wheel-turned stoneware, and – from closer to home – a glazed beer tankard from the Angel Inn on Oxford's High Street, now the University of Oxford's Examination Schools (left). 

Below is a terracotta 'plank' figurine, one of four such figurines from the excavations of Dr Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) at Mycenae, Greece in the 1870s. It is thought to date to the Archaic period during the Iron Age (700-600 BC). You can read more about the Schliemann collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum here (Chapter 15.2.4).

Staff holding an Iron Age 'plank' figurine from Mycaene, Greece
'Plank' figurine, Mycenae, Greece PRM 1887.20.57 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The selected objects will be transported back to the Museum for inspection by the project team including Project Curator Helen Adams, Curator for Archaeology Prof Dan Hicks, and Interim Director and Curator for Americas Prof Laura Peers.

three trays of archaeological pottery
Packed 'bakers' trays ready for transporting © Pitt Rivers Museum

Madeleine Ding
VERVE Curatorial Assistant

Monday, 9 May 2016

Moving upstairs: archaeology

The VERVE: Need / Make / Use project has entered its third and final phase with new displays focusing on the world archaeology collections at the Museum. 

Ten desktop cases in the Upper Gallery of the Museum, currently filled with images of recent research projects, will be reutilised to demonstrate the variety and and richness of our archaeology collections. 

View of the cases along the Pitt Rivers Museum's Upper Gallery
Upper Gallery © Pitt Rivers Museum

Since 2009, when an old display of archaeological material was removed from the west end of the Upper Gallery to make space for a new permanent display of firearms, the majority of the Museum's archaeological collections have been held in on- and off-site storage. So this presents an exciting opportunity to make them available to visitors, including many items that have never been on public display before.

To aid our selection process we have made a Correx® 'mock-up' of a desktop case, which we will take to our offsite store. This will enable us to quickly check if an object will physically fit within the case's dimensions and so prevent the unnecessary transportation of objects to the Museum that are too big.

Mock-up display case made of Correx
A Correx® mock-up of a desktop case © Pitt Rivers Museum

With so many amazing objects to choose from we hope to make some great discoveries. One tool to help us and the curator in the search will be the recent publication, World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: A Characterisation by Dan Hicks and Alice Stevenson (2013), which has sought to scope and analyse the breadth and diversity of the collection, exploring more than 135,000 artefacts from 145 countries from the Stone Age to modern times. The book is available in open access form here

World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum (2013) 

We will keep you updated on our progress!

Sian Mundell and Madeleine Ding
VERVE Curatorial Assistants

Monday, 25 April 2016

Shrivelled hearts and public engagement: a VERVE student placement

Hannah Duckworth, MA Fine Arts from Oxford Brookes University, undertook a work placement at the Museum for 8 days in December 2015 and February 2016. Here are Hannah's thoughts on her time here:

Poster for the LoveAnthro student takeover event
LoveAnthro poster @ Pitt Rivers Museum
"I was so excited, happy and humbled to learn that I would be taking part in a placement at the Pitt Rivers Museum. I didn’t know what to expect, but I did know that it would be extremely beneficial both for me and my art. My time spent working at the museum and being part of the team was incredible. I have gained new skills and confidence in myself.

"Throughout the placement I was involved in a variety of different tasks, including working with the museum database, helping move objects, and helping with events.

"Personally, I liked helping at the LoveAnthro takeover event run by the Oxford University Anthropology Society. It really helped me build my confidence. On the night of the event, I helped with object handling and conducted an object talk. I found the event extremely interesting and the topic well suited to the time of the year, just after Valentine’s Day. Whilst helping with the object handling, I learnt about different cultures from India, Africa to Indonesia. I learnt how each culture represents the themes of love, kinship and marriage in different ways through different objects, such as a brass bowl, shadow puppets and a drum. It was also nice to witness the public’s reaction to holding and learning about these objects in a new and more personal way.

"After the handling, I spoke about a human heart in a lead casket. I felt it suited the theme of the event as it related to the heart and love. I found the heart very interesting and I loved researching about its origin and the story of how it became part of the Pitt Rivers founding collection in 1884. I was very nervous to speak in front of people at first but felt calmer knowing they were interested in what I had to say. At the end of my talk I was extremely pleased with the crowd’s reaction to both the museum and the heart, and was happy to answer any questions they had.

Image showing shrivelled human heart in an open lead casket
Heart in a lead casket, Ireland. PRM 1884.57.18 © Pitt Rivers Museum

"All in all I really loved helping with the event and being able to see a different side to the Pitt Rivers as well as seeing such a beautiful museum lit up at night. Having the ability to interact with such interesting objects allows both the crowd and the staff of the event to connect more closely with different cultures and their past."

Friday, 1 April 2016

Noh to Noah: Highlights from the new Woodworking display

If you've visited the Museum this year and made it up to the first floor (Lower Gallery), you might have seen our new display of Woodworking, part of Phase 2 of VERVE's redisplay plan. Here we take a closer look at some of the objects featured in the display.

Selecting objects wasn't easy. There are literally thousands of objects in the Museum's collections made of wood. We decided that the case would follow themes established in the previous Metalwork display comprising tools, raw materials and finished products to showcase some of the shaping and decorating techniques associated with wood from across the world.

We eventually whittled a long list of 650+ objects down to 190. Using a large table we created a 'mock-up' outlining how the material might be arranged (and to ascertain that it would all fit!)

Pitt Rivers Museum woodwork objects laid out for new display
Woodwork layout © Pitt Rivers Museum

The main sections are concerned with carpentry (including joinery), carving, natural form, pyroengraving, fretwork, and veneer/marquetry.

You can see on the centre-right we've left a space called 'NOH'. This was for the inclusion of three new Noh masks from Japan, specially commissioned by the project from a master craftsman in Tokyo. Hideta Kitazawa's series and notes documented the process of making such a mask, from the selection of 300-year-old Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) wood, to the use of hammers and chisels, urushi lacquer and 30 coats of white oyster-shell paint. The finished mask is a ko-omote mask, depicting a beautiful teenage girl.

Japanese craftsman Hideta Kitazawa chiseling a wooden mask
Hideta Kitazawa making a ko-omote Noh mask for the Museum's displays © Pitt Rivers Museum

This video shows Hideta demonstrating Noh mask carving in Australia in 2015:

Another highlight in the display is a fantastic Noah's ark, known to date to before 1860. Originally thought to have been made in Worcester, comparison with other existing examples indicated that it was more likely made in the town of Seiffen in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) region of eastern Germany. Seiffen has been renowned for its wooden toy industry since the 18th century, and more than half the town's population is still employed in the woodworking trade.

Image of 19th-century German Noah's ark toy with colourful wooden animals
Noah's Ark, Grühainichen, Germany, 19th century PRM 1956.9.70

We included this object to illustrate two separate processes - straw marquetry and tyre-turning. The sides of the ark have been painstakingly covered with glued strips of straw, which have been soaked in water for different lengths of time to produce varying shades of gold and brown. Its 255 animals and birds have been produced using an ingenious method called Reifendrehen ('tyre turning') which enabled the cheap and efficient production of lots of wooden animals. A large disc of fir wood is put on a lathe to create a tyre-like 'Seiffen ring' of 30-50cm diameter,  the cross-section of which takes the form of the desired animal. Small slices are taken from the ring, which are finished and painted by hand. Many of the makers had never seen exotic animals and so used their imaginations to create green hyenas and red camels. We've deliberately placed this object low down in the case so that children can see it.

Museum staff selecting from trays of wooden toy animals
Choosing a selection from the 255 toy animals to display with the ark © Pitt Rivers Museum

Image of a small wooden toy unicorn
This unicorn was not part of a pair. Might it not have made it on to ark, thus explaining its 'extinction'?!

From a series entitled Reifendreher by Johannes Geyer, 2014. Reproduced under the CC BY-NC 4.0 licence

Another example in the 'Marquetry and Inlay' section is this beautiful Qur’an stand from Iran that folds out to an 'X' shape. Folding lecterns, or rahla, are among the oldest and most valuable furnishings in a mosque. Designed to support a large Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, early rahla were often made of luxury woods such as walnut or teak, and decorated with sumptuous inlay or openwork carving. This example is inlaid with wood and gold stars in a geometric pattern.

Detail of the decorative inlay pattern of gold stars on an Iranian Qur'an book stand
Qur'an stand, Iran. PRM 1965.12.46 A © Pitt Rivers Museum

My other favourite object in this case is neither beautiful nor remarkable, but it has a vernacular and rustic charm that is hard to resist. It is a large disc, around 33cm in diameter, carved with concentric circles of Icelandic script. It is a bread stamp, the inscription carved back-to-front so that it would appear the right way around when stamped into the bread dough prior to baking.

Image showing a circular wooden bread stamp from Iceland with inscription, dated 1876
Bread stamp, Iceland. PRM 1900.13.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Original view (left) and reversed (right) to enable the inscription to be read 

One of the huge advantages of being part of Oxford University is that it is home to experts in many academic fields. We were thankful to Dr Carolyne Larrington from the Faculty of English, who teaches Icelandic, for her translation of the inscription, which turned out to be a prayer:

“Iceland, year 1876 JD; May the Lord bless this bread on our table in order to diminish the sore pain of hunger; this every single man should say.”

As you can see, there is a lot of variety in this display. I hope that next time you visit, you have time to head to the Lower Gallery to have a look at these intriguing objects in the flesh.

Helen Adams
Project Curator & Engagement Officer


Monday, 29 February 2016

Pitt Rivers Museum needs your help!

Call out for Archaeology Focus Group 

The Museum is developing new displays of world archaeology and we would like to ensure these displays are informative and engaging for all ages. As part of our families evaluation, we are looking for adults to join a small focus group taking place at the Museum on:

Tuesday 15 March 2016, 17.00-19.00

We are interested in talking to local parents, guardians or teachers of children aged between 6-11 who are occasional or regular museum-goers.

The evening will be an informal discussion with an external evaluator (so you can be as open and honest as you wish)!

The session will discuss:

  • is world archaeology of interest to you and/or your children? 
  • is knowledge of world archaeology useful for your child at school? 
  • what do you think of existing Pitt Rivers displays and labels? 
  • what would make for an interesting archaeology family-friendly activity programme?

All comments will be anonymous and confidential, recorded for internal museum use only. There will be wine (hurrah!) and we are happy to reimburse travel expenses where appropriate.

If you are interested in taking part, or have any questions, please contact Helen Adams as soon as possible.

Thank you.

Helen Adams
VERVE Project Curator & Engagement
Officer Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Friday, 26 February 2016


Each year the VERVE project hosts a Visiting Maker (a micro Artist in Residence scheme). In the autumn of 2015, Muneaki Shimode and Takahiko Sato came to Oxford, all the way from Kyoto, to demonstrate and teach the Japanese method of ceramic repair known as Kintsugi.

Muneaki Shimode and Takahiko Sato © Pitt Rivers Museum

Kintsugi can be roughly translated as 'Gold Joinery' and involves the repair of broken ceramics with Urushi lacquer, and then applying gold powder to the surface before the lacquer dries. Rather than disguise or hide the damage, the cracks and chips are accentuated with raised gold lines, celebrating cherished or valuable ceramics, and allowing them to be used once more.

This approach to repairing ceramics is very different from the usual European methods where any signs of damage are hidden away and disguised with near-invisible joins.

Although only here for 10 days in November 2015, Muneaki and Takahiko managed to pack in a huge amount including an evening event looking at Japanese Ceramics in Oxford (Fired Works Night), staff and public talks, and three taught workshops for 60 people to learn hands-on kintsugi repair techniques.

Muneaki and Takahiko also carried out kintsugi repairs in the museum galleries using damaged ceramics kindly donated from the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum. This allowed members of the public to see the process up close and allowed Muneaki and Takahiko to share their expert knowledge and answer questions.

Kintsugi public workshop © Pitt Rivers Museum

Due to the materials and chemicals used in kintsugi, the workshops were restricted to adults, however a Children’s activity – ‘Marvelous Mending’ - explained the ideas behind the technique to a younger audience. A small case display was also installed to document the residency and showcase some of the work. All in all, no part of the museum was left kintsugi free!

So a little more about the artists: Muneaki Shimode works as a Maki-e artist, using various Urushi lacquers, pigments and gold powders to decorate Buddhist temples and altars. He does not describe himself as a professional kintsugi artist as there is no such profession in Japan. However it is common for Maki-e to carry out kintsugi as a sideline to their main work as they have the skills of using Urushi, extremely precise brush-work and handling gold powders.

Takahiko Sato is president of a family business producing the various forms of Urushi lacquer. Urushi lacquer is the refined sap of the Urushi tree, a tree native to SE Asia and a member of the poison ivy family. In its raw state, the sap is a translucent brown colour and can cause painful burns if it comes in contact with the skin. However, in the presence of oxygen and high humidity, the sap slowly hardens after which it can be handled safely.

Although Muneaki and Takahiko have now returned to Kyoto, they have not entirely left the museum.  Two of the ceramics they worked on and samples of the materials they used have been accessioned into the museum collection. These are very interesting pieces, as they both come from the first firing of the ‘Dragon Kiln’ built as part of the Oxford Anagama project at Wytham Woods. This is a special type of traditional wood fired Japanese kiln originally from the Bizen area of Japan, which has been built by a team of Japanese and UK master potters.

A repaired plate will also join the Museum’s handling collection where it will be used in future education and outreach activities to allow visitors to pick up and handle the plate and see how the repairs look and feel.

Having these objects in the collection, repaired in this traditional way, gives the museum a very unique link between traditional crafts in both Oxford and Japan and the craftspeople themselves.

Watch our short film where Muneaki and Takahiko explain the philosophy and skill behind the craft, whilst following the journey of a single broken dish - and its owner - through the repair process:

Kintsugi at Pitt Rivers Museum from Pitt Rivers Museum on Vimeo.

Our many thanks go to everyone who volunteered their time and helped with planning and organizing events, activities, workshops, breaking plates, donating ceramics and all the visitors who came and made the project a success.

Thanks also must go to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the principle supporter of the VERVE project, and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, who provided funding to bring Muneaki and Takahiko over from Japan. The greatest thanks of all must go to Muneaki and Takahiko themselves, who were so willing to share their knowledge.

If you missed their visit and would like to see the repaired ceramics, they are currently on display on the Museum’s Lower Gallery until 24 April 2016.

Display of Kintsigi repair on the Museum's Lower Gallery 

Andrew Hughes
VERVE Conservator