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)

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