Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Hides and Heels: work starts on new leatherwork display

With the new displays of masks and carvings in the ground floor Court now finished, we are turning our attention upstairs to the middle floor of the Museum - the Lower Gallery. The project's target area, on the left wall as you enter the gallery, is home to some rather dilapidated, fifty-year-old displays of traditional crafts. Our plan is to retain these themes but give the whole area a facelift with new displays featuring more objects - better mounted, better lit, and better labelled.

The first case we are working on will contain artefacts made of skin, hide and leather. We have decanted a large case full of headrests (these will be displayed elsewhere) to free up this much larger space for the new display. This will allow us to unite the various shoe- and saddlery-working tools that were in a smaller, previous leatherworking display with a diverse range of objects from storage, many never before displayed. 

Left: the old leatherworking case dating to the 1950s (some items were
nailed directly on to the backboard!) and the existing display of headrests,
now emptied to make way for the new Skin, Hide and Leather display. 

The VERVE team spent many hours trawling the Museum's collections database and visiting the off-site stores to identify suitable material. More than 200 objects have been carefully selected, retrieved and catalogued to show the diversity of uses, animal sources and methods of manufacture, and are now being worked on by our Conservation Department.

Boxes of leather and hide shoes (right: North American moccasins) in storage

Currently there is no special display in the Museum dedicated to footwear and it was always envisaged that the new display would provide the perfect opportunity to showcase some of the Museum's fantastic shoe collections (some of these were recently loaned to the Oxfordshire County Museums Service for an exhibition entitled 'Head Over Heels'). However, working on this case led us all to appreciate a much larger range of objects in this category; our original conception of a 'leather' display has quickly grown to incorporate membrane, skin and hide too - to tell a more complete story about human beings have worked and utilised animal skin products. We have found everything from a leather drinking tankard to Japanese shoes made from salmon skin to an English leather violin.

Leather violin 1938. 34 648 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Salmon skin shoes 1900.78.35 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The violin is full size and resembles a normal wooden one, but the body is entirely made of leather. We have been trying to find others, so far with no success, so please get in touch if have ever seen anything like this before. 

The salmon skin shoes are called Chep-kere which literally means “fish boot”. They are from Hokkaido in Japan and were used by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. The shoes were soaked in water before wearing to mould them to the wearer’s foot. The salmon skin was cut and used in one piece with sewing at the toe and heel. The skin has a scaly texture, providing a good non-slip surface. This type would have only been worn in winter on the snow and may have been stuffed with grass or worn with a sock for insulation.

We also came across this fantastic pair of boots!

Gambadoes 1888.12.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Each foot is more than 30cm long and after an initial reaction of "giant's boots!", it became clear that these are gambadoes. They are open boots or gaiters worn whilst riding to protect their legs and trousers from mud and bushes, popular from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The buckles at the top attached to the saddle and they doubled as stirrups. This particular pair were worn by farmers in the West of England. They are made from very thick, strong leather and look very functional at first glance, but upon closer inspection they are actually decoratively stitched around the top, with moulding near the side opening and brass furniture tacks around the base.

We were fortunate and delighted to coordinate this stage of the project with a visit from the Archaeological Leather Group (ALG) to the Museum. Their group included scholars, curators, conservators, archaeologists and leather-workers and they spent several hours examining the material, helping us understand various aspects of leather-working, advising on techniques and provenance, and suggesting intepretive themes. For ALG members, it was a rare opportunity to get up close to museum collections and have personal input into the project. We had a very informative and enjoyable day and swapped several contacts to take the discussions further.

Members of the ALG examine a selection of boots, from Inuit sealskin
'wellies' to Chinese boots for bound feet, to a pair of women's boots
from Poland c. 1900 with bright pink laces © Pitt Rivers Museum

ALG members discuss an 'alum tawed' saddle and cushion from India
1966.1.1316 © Pitt Rivers Museum
We have focused on a 17th-century leather shoe-boot as our Object of the Month for June. Work will begin on designing and installing this case this summer so if you visit the Museum in the autumn, do keep an eye out for it!