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)