Monday, 23 September 2013

Collections Care and Careers Day: lifting the lid on museum work

The Museum held its first 'Collections Care and Careers' Day on Saturday 14 September. Held in collaboration with Oxford Open Doors, this is a new type of event, envisioned by the VERVE project to help open up the way the Museum works and offer members of the public the chance to talk with behind-the-scenes staff, helping to foster a shared sense of why caring for collections is important. 

The event was primarily aimed at teenagers and young adults who might interested in a career in the museums and heritage sector, although anyone was welcome to come along and in the end we had a lovely variety of ages attending, from 6 to 60!

The day was a great opportunity for project staff to show the often-unseen aspects of Museum life. Small groups went on tours around the Collections, Conservation and Technical Services areas - ostensibly following the path of an object as it travels through the Museum departments - and here their various roles and duties were explained; from cataloguing and labelling, to pest management, packing items for loan and dealing with hazardous materials. This approach meant we finished up in the galleries with the 'final' stage being the display, making it easier for visitors to digest the various processes and understand the level of work involved. As one said, it was a "brilliantly enlightening tour of lots of areas of the Museum – especially great to go on the same journey as a newly accessioned object." Another said, "Great tour, really enjoyed meeting all the people involved,"  so we hope made the point about the kind of people who work in museums - passionate, friendly and appreciative of the unique environment in which they work.

Meanwhile, downstairs, staff were on hand throughout the day with some of the tools of their trade (such as gloves, journals, databases and scale models) to answer questions from the public. Joining us from the Oxford University Careers Service was Lucy Hawkins who was able to provide advice on volunteering, relevant university courses, internships and professional publications such as Museums Journal. With thanks to the University of Manchester, the University of Leicester, the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, and the University of Leeds for providing course brochures. 

Tours of the Conservation and Collections Departments © Pitt Rivers Museum

VERVE's Collections Care and Career events will run twice a year. Next year we are likely to hold it in the spring to coincide with university term time. We hope to involve staff from a number of different departments within the Museum with the aim of informing and inspiring children and young people to consider the importance of their heritage, as well as the possibility of working within the sector. 

John Simmons, Head of Technical Services, talks to a visitor
about his team's work © Pitt Rivers Museum

The day was well-attended by around 100 people, ranging of people from those just beginning to consider working in areas such as conservation, archives and anthropology, to those interested in perhaps a change in career, to those who were just, well, interested! As staff, we all enjoyed the chance to demonstrate just some of the range of jobs available in museums - did you know, there are more than 50 distinct roles at the Pitt Rivers? - as well as answer some interesting and occasionally tricky questions about both the PRM and museums in general.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Museums Go Wild!

The Oxford University Museums joined forces at this year’s Wilderness Festival (7-10 August), encouraging festival-going families to get creative with craft activities and explore objects from the Museums’ handling collections. The sun shone down on our lovely green yurt as we welcomed some 500 visitors over the course of the weekend.

Fitting perfectly with our Need /Make / Use themes of performance, music and crafts, Wilderness Festival describes itself as ‘a celebration of the arts and outdoors in the wilds of England’ (although the gentle rolling hills of the Cornbury Estate where the festival is held seemed very green and pleasant and not at all wild!). From headline music acts to French trapeze troops, masked balls by lantern light to debates on the future of the planet – there really is something for everyone at Wilderness!

Our yurt was based in the family-friendly area alongside traditional fairground rides, children’s entertainers and circus skills tents. Our visitors let their imaginations run wild to create beautiful hats, taking inspiration from examples in the Pitt Rivers’ collection – oh, and some staff had a go too! 

Visitors to our yurt also enjoyed making planispheres from the Museum of the History of Science (useful to spot and name star constellations if they were going to camp over that night), peacock headdresses from the Natural History Museum and their own replica Alfred Jewel from the Ashmolean. The handling table proved popular, giving families the chance to stroke a zebra hide, get up close to a five-metre long snake skin and perform a dance with the Pitt Rivers’ own Chinese lion mask.

Children performing with the Chinese new year lion mask
And just to prove that museums are cool and do have a place a music festival, here are some great comments from our visitor’s book…We know how to let our hair down and go a bit wild!

Brilliant information and exhibits for the kids to enjoy and learn something at the festival!

My three children were enthralled for ages with the exhibits and activities. Staff were really engaging and enthusiastic.

Perfect! History and craft make great partners! My children loved this and spent loads of time here creating as well as gaining an understanding of history. 

Getting to grips with how a 200-year-old slide microscope worked

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

#askacurator day

Tomorrow afternoon (Wednesday 18th September) the Pitt Rivers Museum is taking part in the Ask A Curator Day event on Twitter.

Begun in 2010, the event has grown and this year record number of museums across the world are taking part (525 in 34 countries at time of writing). This includes big names such as Centre Pompidou (Paris), Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), Museum of Islamic Art Qatar (Doha), Prado (Madrid), Tate (UK) and the Met (New York). It has even caught the attention of the national press - you can read about it in the Guardian newspaper.

Wandering around a museum can often lead to spontaneous questions you wish a curator was there to answer but often they can be difficult people to get hold of. Given that typically less than 10% of a museum’s collections are on display, curators are often behind doors undertaking research, developing interpretation or cataloguing and caring for the other 90%! Even when a member of staff is available, it can sometimes be a bit intimidating to approach someone you don't know. By taking part in Ask A Curator, we hope we can help improve the accessibility of our collections and working practices to anyone, anywhere.

So how does it work? All you need is access to a Twitter account, then just tweet your question using the #askacurator hashtag. General questions can be answered by any of the institutions. If you have a specific question for the Pitt Rivers Museum then tweet us directly by putting @Pitt_Rivers at the start of your message. We'll do our best to answer you straight away but if your question requires a little more thought and fact-finding, or should be answered by a member of staff who’s not around, we may send you a holding message so that we can back to you in a day or two. 

On board tomorrow from 12.00 - 17.00 will be myself - Helen Adams - VERVE Project Curator & Engagement Officer; Julia Nicholson, Joint Head of Collections; and Andrew Hughes, Conservator. You can ask us anything you want (e.g. What's it like to be a curator? How do you decide what to display? What's your favourite object in the Museum? Do you all wear corduroy?) but remember to be brief - you only have 140 characters!

Happy tweeting...

Friday, 6 September 2013

Learning from the Experts: Nigerian Masks and Masquerade

David Pratten examining Nigerian masks
© Pitt Rivers Museum

In July, social anthropologist David Pratten visited the Pitt Rivers Museum to examine the African masks associated with the Annang and Ibibio peoples of Nigeria. David has spent a significant period of time in south-eastern Nigeria working with Annang villagers and kindly brought along his video clips and photographs to show me how they use masks in the present day. David has written extensively about Nigeria and other subjects and you can find a list of his published works here.

David explained that each mask is unique as they are individually hand-carved, although common characteristics are often incorporated; he pointed out the number of blackened masks in the collection, which, like those below, often have bulging cheeks, horns and distorted features (said to depict gangosa, a facial disease). 

Masks donated to the Museum by W. E. Aston-Smith in 1936 
PRM 1936.5.2PRM 1936.5.6PRM 1936.5.7 © Pitt Rivers Museum

PRM 1914.26.15 © Pitt Rivers Museum
David told me this style of mask is associated with the Ekpo Secret Society, whose membership is restricted to Annang and Ibibio men. Men are accepted into this Society by an initiation process. Ekpo is based on belief in the afterlife; indeed the word Ekpo means 'ancestor'. Members wear masks at the funerals of fellow members and during the Ekpo masquerade season, which usually occurs annually at the end of the harvest in October. 

When we turned the masks over to look at the reverse side, we could see a series of holes around the edge of each and David pointed out that these are used to string raffia through before the mask is worn. The only one in the collection with raffia attached is this one, which is one of the oldest Ibibio masks in the collection, given to the Museum by Percy Amaury Talbot in 1914.

David then showed me his photographs of masks in use by Ekpo masqueraders - each person wearing a mask and raffia costume, along with charcoal and oil rubbed into the skin to give a shiny black appearance.

Ekpo masqueraders © David Pratten

Before the British colonized the area that came to be known as Nigeria, Ekpo is said to have acted as a form of government, serving a political, legislative, judicial and religious function in Annang and Ibibio village life. The Museum collection includes masks given by Percy Amaury Talbot in 1914 and Gwilym Iwan Jones in 1938. Both worked for the Colonial Service in Nigeria. Fortunately both Talbot and Jones published books, which include their experiences of Ekpo during their time there. Talbot in particular describes court cases where it would seem that the activities of members of the Ekpo Society - notably with regard to regulating society - often came into conflict with the Nigerian Colonial Administration as well as missionary and church congregations. Ekpo continues to perform, but over many decades the masquerade has been criminalized by the government and demonized by the churches.

To their proponents, Ekpo masquerades are regarded as a means through which the ancestors communicate with the living. When a man wears an Ekpo mask he becomes a masked spirit, who still often performs a reprimanding role, for instance by naming and shaming those who have done wrong in the community. 

Ekpo masquerades © David Pratten

© David Pratten
During the Ekpo season, masqueraders are seen around the villages and performing in market places. The blackened masks are intended to look fierce and dangerous to onlookers. Wearing the mask transforms the masquerader into a spirit who may need to be physically restrained if the spirit is particularly malevolent, and such control over a malevolent spirit may be achieved through the sound of accompanying drumming.

The masquerade costume can include a bow and arrows and David described how an arrow is sometimes shot at a man so that it lightly pierces his skin. This serves as an invitation to be initiated into the Ekpo Secret Society. The man in question pays a fee for such an honour, so he can pay for medicine to heal the surface wound.

Looking at the Museum's collection, David explained that some Ekpo masks can be regarded as beautiful (mfon), others as ugly (idiok) and that many have particular names and roles. Some spirits are benevolent, others malevolent. Unfortunately we do not have such detailed information about the Ibibio and Annang masks in the collection. The appearance of Ekpo masks can vary so much over time and from place to place that now we can only really speculate about what they might represent. 

Ekpo masqueraders with bows and arrows © David Pratten

David took this five-minute video showing three Ekpo masqueraders in 2008 at a burial in the village of Ikot Esa, Akwa Ibom State. If you watch, you will see the masqueraders performing rites on the grave of a deceased member, parading around the village singing, plus collecting money from passers by.

My thanks to David for coming and sharing all this wonderful information. I am continuing to contact specialists from the UK and beyond to find out more about the African masks in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections to help us improve our knowledge about them and help us as we prepare new displays. Keep an eye on this blog and I will keep you posted! 

Zena (email me)

Suggested Further Reading
  • Akpabot, Samuel, 1975/1976, The Talking Drums of Nigeria African Music 5 (4): 36-40.
  • Akpan, Joseph J., 1994, Ekpo Society Masks of the Ibibio African Arts 27 (4): 48-53 & 94-95.
  • Ekpa, Aniedi E., 2012, The Dynamics of Music and Culture in Traditional Ibibio Society of Nigeria African Research Review 6 (2): 90-101.
  • Forde, Cyril Daryll and Jones, G.I., 1950, The Ibo and Ibibio-speaking peoples of south-eastern Nigeria. London: International African Institute by Oxford University Press.
  • Jones, G.I., 1984, The Art of Eastern Nigeria. London: Cambridge University Press.
  • Offiong, Daniel A., 1984, The Functions of the Ekpo Society of the Ibibio of Nigeria African Studies Review 27 (3): 77-92.
  • Offiong, Daniel A., 1982, The Process of Making and the Importance of the Ekpo Mask Anthropologica 24 (2): 193-206.
  • Pratten, David, 2008, Masking Youth: Transformation and Transgression in Annang Performance African Arts 41 (4): 44-60.
  • Simmons, Donald C., 1957, The Depiction of Gangosa on Efik-Ibibio Masks Man 57: 17-20.
  • Talbot, Percy Amaury, 1923, Life In Southern Nigeria. London: MacMillan and Co.