Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Sound of Northern Lights

Hi, I'm Ali Orr, Technician for the VERVE (Need Make Use) project at the Pitt Rivers Museum. My main role at the Museum is to design and make new exhibitions as well as assisting and providing technical support for VERVE's outreach and AfterHours programmes. Often this means getting involved with audio-visual side of things...

The museum roof bathed in green and blue 'Northern Lights' © Pitt Rivers Museum 

In November 2014, the Museum was once again a key fixture of Oxford's annual 'Christmas Light Festival'. Our theme, in keeping with the winter season, was everything Arctic. The night was titled 'Northern Lights' to tie into both the famous book by Philip Pullman (which draws on the Museum), and the aurora light phenomena in the skies that occur at high, polar latitudes. We planned a torchlight experience that has proved so popular in the past, with the lights turned low and coloured effects. However, sound would be also be crucial to the overall experience. I am passionate about music from a wide variety of genres including branches of Electronica, Reggae, Hip Hop, Classical, Folk and World music. I have picked up on the latter a great deal since working at the Museum and being exposed to the music of other cultures that I might never have otherwise come across. I also have a bit of experience with sound production as a hobby. With all this in mind, I volunteered to put together a soundscape for the event in my own time.

We already had recordings of museum staff speaking about Arctic items in the collection (part of our standard audioguide). We were thrilled when Philip Pullman, patron of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, agreed to some specially commissioned recordings of him reading favourite exerpts from his book Northern Lights. These included Lyra's first visit to the 'other' Pitt Rivers in the 'other' Oxford, her Arctic journey with the armoured bear Iorek Byrinson, and her encounter with the witch queen. My challenge was to weave these vocal parts together into a single atmospheric piece.

Together with help and inspiration from another volunteer and experienced podcaster Alison Cooper, we found a number of ambient samples to evoke feelings of being at the North Pole such as wind, water and animal sounds. Alison also gave me the idea of layering some samples over the narration to add depth and context to the words. I then decided to hunt down as much music from the Arctic region as I could find, which was a challenge, but it would be a good representation of indigenous peoples such as the Inuit, Evenki, and Sami. A distinctive style of music from northern regions is 'throat singing' - in the Tuvan version from Mongolia it is a type of overtone singing employing harmonies, but among the Inuit, it is more of a duelling duet of sound produced when inhaling and exhaling!

Exploring carved ivory © Pitt Rivers Museum
There are some great websites where we found Creative Commons Licensed sounds (such as Freesound) and we also bought or licensed tracks; a fantastic source for ethnographic field recordings is Smithsonian Folkways, a non-profit record label that promotes cultural diversity through the documentation, preservation and dissemination of sound. 

Once I had all the material, it was just a matter of putting it together using Ableton Live software. This meant several hours of deciding on a running order, adjusting each section to similar levels, adding in a few effects, and just generally playing around with it until it sounded good! Audio equipment and speakers were provided by Oxford firm startech for professional sound delivery.

The event was incredibly popular, and 1200+ visitors entered the museum with a torch in controlled numbers throughout the night. The soundtrack looped about three times, allowing the different visitors to enjoy it. I ended with a 40-minute mix of Electronica drawing on music from all around the world. This also seemed to go down very well - I even saw a few people dancing!

You can check out photos from the event on our Facebook album plus listen to the full Arctic mix (46 minutes) and Ethnic Electronica mix (42 minutes) below. Full tracklists are available on our SoundCloud playlist.

I am proud of the end result, especially as I have never attempted anything like this before and I have since heard some good feedback. Staff and volunteers did a great job to help make the event a success too. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience - I learned a lot and discovered some great new music for my own growing collection. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to do something similar for future events - next I'm putting together a soundtrack of European folk music for our AfterHours: Folklore and Storytelling event on Thursday 4th December - see you there!

Alistair Orr
VERVE Technician

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Tanning Tales

Over the coming weeks, the first redisplay of objects on the Museum’s first floor will appear. This case will display objects chosen to illustrate leatherworking and will show some of the wide applications for leather from clothing, headwear, shoes and bags to drinking vessels, buckets, saddles and writing materials, plus some of the specialist tools used in their manufacture.

Before preparing objects for the new display, our project conservator Andrew attended a week-long course ‘Understanding Leather - From Tannery to Collection’ hosted by the Leather Conservation Centre (LCC) and Northampton University‘s Institute of Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT):

"The course gave me a hands-on opportunity to follow the vegetable tanning process of a hide - transforming a salted animal skin into a beautiful finished piece of leather. Seeing the processes first-hand, and smelling and touching the hides, helped me to appreciate the skill of the tanner - how many steps are involved in the process and how many chances there are for things to go wrong along the way.

Partially-tanned deer and calf skin © Pitt Rivers Museum
"Very simply, tanning is a chemical process whereby skins are treated with chemicals known as tanning agents. These bind to the collagen proteins in the skin and prevent the skin from putrefying.
Tanning agents come in many types – Vegetable (or Bark), Mineral and Aldehyde. Different tanning agents produce different qualities in the leather – softer or harder, better tensile strength, different colours, etc.
Mineral tanning using chrome-based compounds takes just a few hours whilst vegetable tanning with oak bark traditionally takes 12 months and 1 day!
At the ICLT I followed a (much shorter) process of vegetable tanning using a number of different tanning agents:  
Some raw materials used in vegetable tanning © Pitt Rivers Museum
Traditionally, people of different areas of the world used tanning agents local to them and in good supply – in the UK this was oak bark; in Italy, the ground-up heartwood of the chestnut tree. 

Although the steps involved in tanning have probably changed little since ancient times, the machinery used today certainly has! In medieval England, tanning was carried out in pits where skins were hung or layered in a liquor containing ground up oak bark. Modern tanning is carried out in drums, something like an industrial washing machine:

Tanning drum with goatskin covered in vegetable tanning 
liquor © Pitt Rivers Museum

Today, skins are removed of excess flesh and fat by machine, de-haired by placing them in a drum in an alkaline mixture of lime, and then treated with enzymes in a process called 'bating'. This removes unwanted proteins and opens up the structure of the skin to allow the penetration of the tanning agent.

I was prepared for some bad smells along the way, but other than the smell of the salted skins and maybe a hint of ammonia, the tannery was a very clean place. Tight restrictions on waste disposal means that today's tanneries produce very little waste. Surprisingly, the ‘waste’ produced from the de-hairing contains many proteins useful in the cosmetic industry.

Kangaroo tail © Pitt Rivers Museum
The modern tanning process involves the prepared skins being gently turned in the drum along with a mixture of water, a purified extract of the raw tanning agent and added chemicals to produce the optimum acidic pH all at a controlled temperature. As the skins absorb and react with the tannins they are less susceptible to damage. The temperature is gradually increased and the drums turned more vigorously all of which contribute to speeding up the process from weeks and months to a number of hours.

Any animal skin and can be tanned from the common cow, goat and pig to the more unusual such as crocodile, salmon, seal and, on rare grizzly occasions, human.

The LCC has a large collection of different reference samples that are invaluable when trying to identify what an object has been made from.

The patterns of the hair follicles on the surface of mammalian skin can help in identification but often on museum objects they have been worn away, or obscured by surface treatments, paints or dirt, so you have to look for other clues. 

What animal do you think this bag is made from?

© Pitt Rivers Museum

© Pitt Rivers Museum

Yes, eel! Eelskin leather is highly prized. It is very smooth and exceptionally strong. Oddly however, it does not come from eels but the Pacific hagfish, a jawless fish also known as the 'slime eel'.

Today, there is just one remaining tannery in the UK manufacturing traditional oak bark leather - J&FJ Baker, based in Colyton, Devon. Watch this video to find out more about their process:

The new hide and leatherwork display at the Museum will reflect some of the processes and variety outlined above by including, not just calf and goat skins, but also items made from monkey, lizard, and fish, plus differently processed examples from vegetable tanned to brain tanned to alum tawed leather."

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Oxfordshire Travellers' Stories Project

"Socks", belonging to the Collins family at the Redbridge site.
Over the last six months, the Museums Outreach Office and VERVE have been working alongside Oxfordshire County Council's Family Learning team (Oxfordshire Skills and Learning Service) and the Museum of Oxford with four of Oxfordshire’s Traveller communities: Redbridge, Middle Ground, East Challow and Bloxham.

The collaboration aims to capture something of the lives of these different local Traveller communities - encouraging them to tell their own stories, relate their families’ cultural tales and represent themselves through objects, pictures and oral history. All these things are integral to their values, history and lifestyle. 

Traveller groups are under-represented museum visitors, so this ASPIRE-funded project aims to raise awareness of the local museums among these communities, and encourage further engagement and visits in the future.

Diana makes blankets for any new babies
born at East Challow, Wantage (her
grandmother taught her how to make them
Initially, each of the four groups spent some time with the Family Learning team discussing which objects reflected their Traveller community and history. Now the groups are developing work for display in an exhibition this winter to be held jointly at the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of Oxford. While each of the four groups have chosen to represent themselves through different objects - taking photographs, writing and telling stories, making model wagons, knitting blankets and decorating 'Crown Derby' papier mache plates - they have also been working on their literacy and computer skills. As the exhibition takes shape, Family Learning will continue to work with the groups by creating trails, captioning work and presenting their story. 

The Oxford University Museum’s Outreach team have been busy visiting the four sites, joining the local Children Centres and Mobile Children’s Centre bus, taking museum handling objects out, and meeting different members of each community. They have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Traveller culture and lifestyle, which in turn has highlighted how many misconceptions exist with regards to education, jobs, lifestyle and sites.

Chantelle collects porcelain dolls and displays
them on her trailer at Middle Ground site, Wheatley
During the Easter holidays, the Redbridge and Middle Ground groups visited the Pitt Rivers Museum to have a guided tour, handle objects from the collections, and take part in craft activities such as drum and mask-making. The majority of the group had never visited either museum before, so it was an eye-opener to many!

Several weeks later during the summer holidays, one of the Middle Ground families visited the Museum of Oxford and took a tour behind the scenes. They spent time exploring Oxford’s stories through a wide range of objects. Some of these were surprisingly familiar like the Victorian stove from West Oxford, which reminded a group member of her mother’s old stove:

“It’s amazing, everything here has a story. We used to have a stove just like that. It was my Mum’s when we were travelling. I love stoves like that.” (Chantelle, visit to the Museum of Oxford).

Other objects were less familiar and even a little spooky, including 'Giles the Skeleton' and one of the Museum’s old wax dummies! The youngest member of the group was particularly interested in the Museum’s Civil War collection and was inspired to paint himself dressed up as a Cavalier soldier (see photo). The group enjoyed exploring the gallery space where their work will be displayed later this year and the Museum is looking forward to welcoming other families from the project once the exhibition is in place. Do come and visit us then!

Work with the four groups will continue in the autumn in preparation for the exhibition at:

  • Museum of Oxford                                                   21 November 2014 – 10 January 2015
  • Pitt Rivers Museum                                                   5 December 2014 – 18 January 2015 

Maya Herbolzheimer (Pitt Rivers Museum)
Antonia Harland-Lang (Museum of Oxford)
Nicola Bird (Oxford University Museums)

Sarah Levete (Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire Skills and Learning Service, Family Learning Tutor Coordinator)

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Lion, The Princess and The Samurai: carnival board captures flavour of Pitt Rivers

The latest - and most popular - addition to the VERVE: Need / Make / Use outreach events this summer has been our colourful 'carnival board'. These colourful 'peep-through-boards' or 'head-in-the-hole' boards are a staple of the seaside and funfairs. The Museum is full of wonderful characters and objects with faces, so we thought we'd have a go at creating our own. It's fun but also acts as a great 'advert' for the Museum, encouraging photographs and sharing on social media, and reinforcing the identity of the Museum in peoples' minds.

So far it has travelled with us to Florence Park fete, Cowley Road Carnival (where it was the flagship image of the Oxford Mail's coverage), Larmer Tree Festival near Salisbury, and on Thursday this week, you can find it at Marriotts Walk shopping centre in Witney. Hundreds of people of all ages have given it a go...even other species, the lowest hole proving tempting for dogs!

Dogs and babies enjoy the carnival board's first outing at Florence Park Fete, June 2014 © Pitt Rivers Museum

To make the board we needed an expert helping hand or two. Charlotte Orr is a freelance illustrator based in Oxford, graduating from Falmouth University in 2013. Sukie Trowles is a recent History graduate from Edinburgh University with an interest in museum studies. Here Charlotte talks us through her inspiration for, and production of, the carnival board...

Charlotte with the Snoopy-esque
blank board. Image: Charlotte Orr 
I was asked by the Pitt Rivers Museum's VERVE project to paint a carnival board for their Need Make Use outreach events. It took a few weeks to shape up with the help of my friend Sukie, but it's now finished!

We wanted it to be colourful and stand out so we chose to depict outfits or costumes that were bright and bold, yet also iconic objects in the museum. For the rest of the design, I took inspiration from the architecture of the museum itself such as the beautiful beams and pillars which I used to frame the board along with the lettering in the archway of the entrance to the museum. I also decided to paint an impression of the museum's pillars and cases in the background to put the artefacts in context and add more depth to the piece. 

Sketches to test design and colours. Images: Charlotte Orr

When it came to painting, it turned out Sukie and I coincidently dressed in the colours we were painting in! On the left is a woman wearing a Hawaiian cloak displayed in the Court area of the museum. These 'Ahu-ula' were worn by high ranking individuals and this one was probably one of the last to be made in about 1840.  The cloak is made from bird feathers - the red feathers come from the 'i'wii bird and the yellow and black come from the (now extinct) 'Ō'ō bird. The woman wearing the cloak is based on a painting of the Hawaiian Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena. She is holding a Royal Kāhili which signifies power granted from the divinities. 

Hawaiian feather cloak PRM 1951.10.61 Images: Charlotte Orr

The figure on the right of the board is the samurai general from the collection of Japanese armour in the Upper Gallery. This suit of armour dates from around AD 1750 during the peaceful years of the Edo period when armours became more decorative than functional, and were often adorned with sacred and cultural symbols. 

Samurai armour PRM 1901.46.1 Images: © Pitt Rivers Museum and Charlotte Orr

Lastly, in the middle of the board, is a Chinese carnival lion mask from the Education department's handling collection, which I thoroughly enjoyed painting because of its expressive face! This type of mask formed part of Chinese New Year celebrations, and is believed to bring good luck to the places it visits. In Chinese culture the lion looks fearsome and scares other animals, but is kind and tame at heart. Two skilled acrobats wear the lion mask and mimic the lion’s movements using martial arts techniques and agility - one wearing the head, and the other the tail.

Chinese New Year mask. Images: Charlotte Orr

Image: Charlotte Orr
This year I have worked on numerous commissions and exhibitions, and have recently been shortlisted for the AOI Illustration Awards 2014 for my book cover design for 'The Dynasties of China' (The Folio Society). I was happy to take the opportunity to do work for the Pitt Rivers as I have always been inspired by the collection; when I was studying Foundation in Art and Design at Oxford Brookes, I based my final major project on the museum. I decided to do an illustrated map of the galleries, picking out specific artefacts, some well known and others less so, and positioned them where they can be found in the museum. The idea was that people could follow the map to find each artefact. Here is a photograph of the piece.

It was great to paint a large scale piece such as the Need / Make / Use carnival board. This project has helped to broaden my portfolio, and I hope it brings people lots of pleasure!


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Stich, Glue, Row your Boat...

In May this year, the VERVE: Need / Make / Use project embarked on one of its most ambitious public workshops yet. Under the guidance of expert local woodcarver and shipbuilder Simon Clements, the vision was to build a small fleet of “water-worthy” Nessmuk canoes in just four days!

They did it!  Four days, eight boats, and eight wannabe canoeists.
© Pitt Rivers Museum

The Nessmuk is one of a family of lightweight, stitched vessels found in the Northeastern Woodland areas of USA and Canada, used by the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Great Lakes and east to the coast. Traditionally made out of birch-bark around a wooden frame, they are remarkably stable, dry and light to carry. They were the water-going equivalent of an SUV, used for everything from transport to fishing to hunting, and are still used today. As part of VERVE the boats displayed high up at the back of the Museum were cleaned, re-lit and re-positioned. These incude a 20-ft long canoe from eastern Canada made out of a single piece of birch-bark, sealed with resin, and more than 150 years old.
Birch-bark canoe, Canada PRM 1886.1.864 .1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Simon Clements and Dr Laura Peers, the Museum's Curator for the Americas,
discuss function and construction with model North American canoes
© Pitt Rivers Museum

The VERVE project aims to re-connect people with the skills and crafts inherent in the collections  - not just to learn about them, but to have a go themselves. Due to time and space, we had to limit places on the workshop to just eight places, and we were soon oversubscribed. Simon came up with a programme that would enable the participants – some of whom had no prior knowledge of either boats or woodwork – to construct their own canoe from a single piece of plywood to take away. 
We're looking forward to releasing a film about this workshop soon. Here, though, we hear from three who took part – Jane tells how her boat ended up in her bed, Pete recounts what happened afterwards when he went home to paint it and test it on the river, and Darina - a marine archaeologist - came all the way from Ireland...

Jane says:

"Museums have changed a lot since I was a child in the 1960s. I remember being towed along by my mother through large and unwelcoming buildings; they had the feel of a library or church where you had be quite and reverent. Today, more people are visiting museums than ever and new ideas bring new people through the doors.
"I congratulate Pitt Rivers on its best idea yet, one which would have been hardly feasible in the dusty old days. I felt this was the best course I had ever been on. Simon was a brilliant instructor and not only taught us how to build a canoe from scratch, but also the history of canoe building and how to identify different types. Here was a teacher who was first rate and described every tiny detail.
"It's hard to believe that the canoe came from a flat piece of wood. The wood was called tortured ply, and it lived up to its name by making the most unpleasant noises when bent by hand. We worked in pairs and were lucky to be among such a nice group of people sharing a real sense of comradeship. 
"What I liked the most was that the boat was cut from a single template; bent, cut with hand-saws, then held together with recycled wire. Simon taught us how to strip old electrical cable to get the copper wire out. Many museum staff wandered into the workshop and were impressed with to see the progression of the boats over the four days.
"I have called my boat ‘Nigel Havers’, as I am a fan of his. However, as I no longer have a shed, I have to keep Nigel in my car, then move him to my bed when I need to use the car! When I finish sanding and painting the boat, I plan to sail off with Nigel Havers into the sunset; kind of a dream come true really."
Does Nigel Havers look as good as this? Photo: Simon Clements

Pete says:

"As promised to myself, I went straight home with the canoe with a goal of trying to finish everything that weekend. So via a trip to Wickes on Friday night I managed to get the whole boat painted on the that night with the aluminium paint that was recommended. The paint was thin and easy to work with and went on fine and dried very quickly. 
Epoxy magic © Pitt Rivers Museum

"The next day I screwed on the small "breast plates" triangles at either end which was quite fiddly and then glued on the outer rail using epoxy and screwed it in for good measure. I used a bit of epoxy and woodchip as a filler for any small gaps. This was all a little tricky and took a lot longer than I expected. With hindsight I'm not sure I got the right ratio in the epoxy mix exactly right...

Same day, I painted the whole thing with a thick exterior gloss paint I had lying around - a nice burgundy colour - that the kids - unprompted - thought was pretty nice.

The next day I was hoping to take it out but alas the gloss paint took nearly a week to dry properly. The last task was to screw in the rather large back rest / thwart (with a dollop of epoxy glue for good measure). I decided in the end to go for something fairly chunky so it could act as a back support. The very last things to do was to put some wood protection varnish on all the exposed wood. I also stuck a little chrome ring for a rope on the front peak. All this took a few days to go totally hard. 

So finally, last week, I took the canoe out for a quick test paddle with my 11 year-old son at Sandford-on-Thames. The boat was OK for me but as a heavy six footer, it felt like it was very low in the water though still perfectly safe on flat water. As with any canoe, getting your body gently balanced is the first challenge - always a bit shaky in the first few moments as you settle and distribute the weight correctly. My first impression was how unbelievably fast the canoe is, and how easy it is to manoeuvre.  Next my son had a go. He took to it with no problems at all and the waterline didn't even go past the side cut. He was zooming about on a very still river.

"We spent a good two hours in the canoe on Sunday pottering down the Thames. The speed of the little Nessmuk is unbelievable, it's so light it doesn't need much force to move. It's perfect for my kids and its light weight means they can drag it to the water from the car, and paddling doesn't seem to exhaust them as much as a big canoe. 

"The canoe's been bumped about a little over three trips and everything is still totally rock solid.  I'll probably put on a second coat of gloss in at the end of the summer, and I'm definitely going to make another, probably using two sheets to create a longer canoe!

"So what new tricks did I learn from the workshop?
  • Working with Epoxy and copper ties - Absolutely eyeopener for me - I was always nervous of using such a strong chemical but with tuition it just needs a bit of care, planning and timing
  • Japanese saws - I didn't realise how good these tools are. Much more sensitive and responsive than any saw I've ever used.
  • Manipulating the plywood into a tortured shape - this felt really creative and something that you cann't pickup from reading books.
  • Weight is everything - the canoe is so light that you are much more likely to use it."

Sawing, 'stitching', glueing and sanding. Photos: Alistair Orr

Darina says:

"As a maritime archaeologist I have been collecting data on skin boats for years and I have also been looking at similar ancient technologies such as bark canoes. A friend who works for the Oxford University Press contacted me and told me that there was a course at Pitt Rivers Museum that was “made for me”. Applying for the course was a simple on-line process and there was excellent follow up informative emails before and after the course from the Museum staff. 
Simon talking about paddled craft in the Museum
"We had a good introduction from Simon in the morning and while we were using modern materials the similarities to traditional stitched bark canoes and other boats was emphasised. Simons was not only a great and patient teacher but his enthusiasm for all paddled craft was infectious. I had not expected to get so much information on traditional craft and I was delighted with the constant references to the stitched boats of the Americas.
"I have always been fascinated on how flat materials can be turned into things of three-dimensional beauty that can float. While everyone got a finished canoe to take home, I think my main outcome was finding out the so much more information on stitched bark canoes of the Americas including their propulsion methods. Also, for me, doing the course in the environment of the Pitt Rivers Museum with their unique collection of ethnographic material was an extraordinary opportunity. Thank you to all the extremely helpful staff for such an enjoyable week and experience."

Thanks again to Simon and all who took part. In June, a grand launch of some of the boats was held at Port Meadow so watch this space for film footage of the results!