Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Redisplaying Naga baskets

Our work creating new displays along the upper tier of the Museum's ground floor (Court) continues. Currently we are turning our attention to the north side, focussing on Naga material, including a large number of Naga baskets. The Naga comprise several tribal groups living in northeastern India and northwestern Burma. The Museum has rich Naga collections, largely due to substantial donations by John Henry Hutton and James Philip Mills in the 1920s. 

The old display of Naga baskets (with new lighting) © Pitt Rivers Museum

Watercolour of Naga man with dao, 
shield and basket. 1893.7.14 
As part of the project, our plan is to significantly improve the Naga baskets display, which has been unchanged for many years. Such baskets were made and used by men, associated with the Naga tradition of head-taking, which is no longer practised. They are varied in construction and appearance, decorated with carved wooden heads, monkey skulls, boars'  tusks, goat hair, grass and palm tassels and even whole birds. We want to improve how these objects are mounted and reduce the number of items in the case to create more space for them to be seen and appreciated individually, rather than just as a collection.

The old display contained 32 baskets, tightly packed into two display cases. They all have long handles but being so tightly packed meant that many of the handles had been folded inside the basket, plus many of the attached tassels overhung other baskets or were squashed against the bottom of the case making access difficult. In addition, many of these tied-on decorations have become detached.

Now, all the baskets have been removed from their cases to be carefully catalogued and photographed. They are undergoing conservation treatment which involves being cleaned of any surface dust acquired whilst on display, and securing any damaged basketry or detached decoration back in place.

Most of the baskets were previously displayed by tying a short length of string to the rim and hanging them from a nail in the back of the case. Being positioned like this for many years has caused damage to the fragile woven cane structure so the new display will have individually-made mounts to provide much more support for each basket.

The new display will be designed to make it easier to see each individual basket and also show some of the elaborately woven straps, previously hidden inside each basket. This new layout incorporates 22 of the original baskets, meaning we have had to decide which baskets to remove and put into storage.

1929.22.15  © Pitt Rivers Museum

The decision on which baskets to remove (or 'deselect') was made jointly by members of the curatorial, conservation, technical teams based on various criteria - if it was too fragile to return to display, how likely it would be for the fur, bird skins and hair to be attacked by moths, the style of basketry and decorations used, and whether these demonstrated a suitable variety of techniques and materials within the theme of the case.

For example, this basket was not included in the new display for two reasons: we were concerned that it was vulnerable to pest damage (moths love fur and hair tassels!). Also it lacks any carved figures or skulls so it did not fit with the faces and figures that have so far informed the theme in the Court phase of redisplay - “the world is watching: performance and ceremony”.

As well as allowing the carrying straps to be visible for the first time, the new display will allow the outline of each basket to be clearly visible, whist new lighting will help draw visitors' eyes upwards, illuminating the baskets' shapes and colours.

The technicians' planned layout for the new Naga baskets display © Pitt Rivers Museum

The baskets that did not make the final selection have been stored in bespoke boxes since their unusual dimensions meant they would not fit any standard sized ones. This is a relatively common problem at Pitt Rivers, so many of us are very good at producing boxes made from corrugated plastic.

It is envisaged that the project's redisplay work in the Court will be completed by Spring 2014 so do come take a look at these lively arrangements of masks, figurative sculpture and re-lit boats from around the well as this fascinating collection of Naga baskets.