Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Craft on the Grass: Pitt Fest 2015

Unlike the blazing sunshine of previous years, the September morning of our third annual Pitt Fest dawned cold and drizzly. Would the weather dampen the appetite of event-goers? Not at all; more than 3300 people came to make, handle, listen, watch, dance, eat, drink and be inspired on the Museums’ lawn – exceeding last year’s attendance by at least 10%.

Volunteer Tim Renders and the Museum's Director Dr Mike O'Hanlon welcome visitors to Pitt Fest 2015
© Pitt Rivers Museum

So what is the point of Pitt Fest? Of course it’s a great deal of fun but there are more fundamental reasons behind it. Two of VERVE’s aims are to impart a clearer message of what the Museum is (or can be) about, and to increase participation. The project’s interpretation of the Museum is not necessarily one of anthropology or ethnography but of technology. Many of the collections are handmade, pre-industrial artefacts that suggest intimate knowledge of materials, design and techniques. Pitt Fest takes just some of the ingenious craft processes evident in the collections and makes them accessible and immediate outside the Museum, to re-engage people of all ages with their hands, and to see things ‘being made’ to contextualise and reanimate those static objects sitting behind glass.

Romilly Swann of The Outside demonstrates natural dyes © Pitt Rivers Museum

This years theme was 'handmade' crafts. So visitors to ‘Pitt Fest: Handmade’ could learn about dyeing techniques with The Outside, fire-making with Axe and Paddle Bushcraft, see a pole-lathe in action with Alistair Philips, or have a go at stone carving, leatherwork or basketry with Nancy Peskett, Katherine Pogson or the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Of course no festival is complete without music, shopping or food, and we tried to inject a global flavour into our line-up; you could try Tibetan dumplings or Peruvian ceviche (raw fish) whilst listening to Ugandan song or Brazilian capoeira, before perusing the market stalls of fair-trade and local artisanal goodies.

Families could have a go at face-painting, object handling making badges or a host of other creative activities run by museum volunteers. All day long, the these tables were filled with people of all ages busy making clay pots, paper hats, stick harmonicas, peg dolls and willow hurdles.

Volunteers and expert paper milliners Emma and Megan (left)
and staff from the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) from Reading (right) © Pitt Rivers Museum

Krisztina helping a child decorate a peg doll @ Pitt Rivers Museum
Volunteers Liz and Martin teach people how to weave willow © Pitt Rivers Museum

Volunteer Damon showing a visitor an mbira (thumb piano) © Pitt Rivers Museum

To get a taste of the day check out our short film:

Putting on a festival takes enormous amounts of time, planning, brawn, and goodwill. We are grateful to the many staff, collaborators and volunteers who helped make Pitt Fest 2015 such a success. Now time to start planning next year!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Visible Mending with Tom of Holland

This autumn we ran two 'Darning Masterclasses' with textiles practitioner Tom van Deijnen (AKA Tom of Holland). They sold out almost instantly. Here, Tom explains his techniques and celebrates 'visible mending', many examples of which can be found on objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections!

Detail of a gourd vessel, decoratively repaired
using beads; 1979.20.167 © Pitt Rivers Museum
"There is a temporary case exhibit at the Museum (until 3 January 2016) called 'Preserving What is Valued' and an accompanying museum trail. They demonstrate how people from all parts of the world repair their material culture. Conservators study objects in great detail and part of their role is to determine at what stage a repair has been made. If the repair was made by the originating community while it was still in use this provides an additional level of information and can give the object a deeper resonance. Identifying an original repair can raise questions that make us think about the object’s history differently.

"I was invited to run two darning classes as part of the events accompanying this display. My name is Tom and I’m a self-taught textile practitioner, and one of the things I do is run the Visible Mending Programme. Through this programme I seek to highlight that the art and craftsmanship of clothes repair is particularly relevant in a world where more and more people voice their dissatisfaction with fashion’s throwaway culture. By exploring the story behind garment and repair, the programme reinforces the relationship between the wearer and garment, leading to people wearing their existing clothes for longer, with the beautiful darn worn as a badge of honour.

"A mother's work" Repair commission for a private client © Tom van Deijnen

Left: Swiss darning in action by one of the participants. Right: a completed practice swatch,
showing a stocking darn and rows of Swiss daring in bold colours. © Tom van Deijnen

"The darning classes were well attended and the participants were taught two classic knitwear repair techniques: firstly Swiss darning, also known as 'duplicate stitching', which is a good way to reinforce thinning fabrics such as elbows on sleeves, or to cover up stains.

"The second technique taught was the classic stocking darn, using a darning mushroom. It creates a woven patch that is integrated with the knit fabric, and is a good way to repair holes. Of course this is best known for sock repairs.

"Throughout the classes, I shared many hints and tips on repairing, such as what tools and materials to use for best results, examples of my work, and how to look after your woollens. Half-way through  we had a break, and everybody was encouraged to see the display cabinet and follow the museum trail to find original repairs.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is home to many repaired objects from all over the world, as well as closer to home. Shown here are details from a delicate muslin handkerchief with some rather crude darns, and and a tortoiseshell comb mended with a riveted metal strip, both from a collection made in Essex, UK; 1949.9.121 and 1949.9.373 © Pitt Rivers Museum

"I found the repairs very inspiring: an inventive use of locally available materials such as baste fibres, small decorative additions such as beads, or the neat way stitching cracks, the use of staples, or even items made in such a way that they could be easily repaired in the future. I won’t go into too much detail, as it’s fun so go and see it all for yourself!

Tom van Deijnen


The Preserving What is Valued case exhibit and museum trail at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 29 June 2015 – 3 January 2016. More information."

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Crafts in the Ethnographic Film Archive

There is a small but important ethnographic film archive at the Pitt Rivers Museum. These films either accompanied donations of artefacts or photographs, or else were acquired for teaching and research purposes. Much of the material, especially that of the early 20th century, is unique and of significant historical importance. You can find all those films that have been digitised to date here.

Some of the historical footage relates to local crafts - some of which have survived and others that have not - so this is of interest to the Need, Make, Use project.

Below is a playlist of some of these films including Wanga and Isukha blacksmiths from Kenya; Kamba men from Kenya making a drum; Kwali, the remarkable potter from Nigeria; and two films shot by Ursula Graham Bower in 1939 capturing the culture and crafts in Manipur, northeast India - featuring extended sequences of weaving, brass casting and pottery, as well as dance.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Bridging Volunteers and Collections

Hi, I’m Madeleine, the new VERVE Volunteers Officer and part-time VERVE Curatorial Assistant. I have worked at the Pitt Rivers Museum for almost seven years doing various jobs in the Collections department.

I’m looking forward to supporting volunteers delivering VERVE events, working alongside the Oxford University Museums Volunteer Service. I’m also eager to develop new volunteer-led opportunities and activities.

I will be spending half my time working alongside Siân, as a Curatorial Assistant. We will be exploring the Museum stores and database to identify objects for the new displays, many of which will have never been on public display before. I am excited to start investigating objects for the next craft display case of stonework on the Lower Gallery.

I hope to combine my two roles by consulting volunteers engaged in the VERVE project for feedback on display content and interpretation.

Volunteering can be a great way of sharing your passion for the collections, doing something to benefit the museum and the communities we serve, developing specific skills and boosting your CV, or simply doing something a bit different in a friendly, social environment. If you are interested in getting involved with the VERVE project email us.

Madeleine Ding
VERVE Volunteers Officer / Curatorial Assistant

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Forging ahead with new Metalwork display

The VERVE team is currently working on a new display of metalwork on the Museum's Lower Gallery. The previous display devoted to this subject was more than fifty years old, thinly and unimaginatively arranged and labelled, and unsuitable mounting materials posed conservation risks to objects.

The old display of metalworking tools
The old display also only contained tools - items which, divorced from the materials they are used to shape and create, are perhaps less able to speak for themselves, except to experts.

The new display will feature around 200 objects including tools, raw materials and finished products, demonstrating various processes associated with pre-industrial metal manufacturing. Objects from the old display will be incorporated with items identified and retrieved from reserve collections, many of which have never been on display before. We are focusing in particular on three elements:
  • Extraction
  • Forming
  • Decoration

The 'Extraction' section presents an opportunity to explore ores, bellows and furnaces. The stages needed to get from rock to workable metal are many and ingenious, entering into the worlds of alchemy and chemistry. Whilst selecting objects for display it was interesting to learn about the different types of bellows used around the world, from the piston bellows of the Far East, the bag bellows of India, accordion bellows in Europe and the bowl bellows of eastern and southern Africa. Bellows create oxygen to fuel furnaces either for smelting ore or for heating the forge during metalworking.

Left: Man working piston bellows, Khiamniungan Naga people, northeast India, 1965;
Right: Piston bellows with exhausts and furnace bowl used in brass casting, Burma; 1888.39.30

Iron ores come in the form of iron oxide minerals that vary in chemical make-up and also in colour, from dark grey to bright yellow, deep purple to rusty red. The two principal iron ores are haematite and limonite, both mined for the production of iron since at least 2500 BCE. Among the Nyoro people of Western Uganda, a soft ‘female’ ore galimuzika is smelted together with a harder ‘male’ ore nyaitume  – both named after the local hills from which they were mined – to produce a softer, more workable iron.

Soft 'female' ore (top) is smelted with harder 'male' ore (below), Nyoro people, Uganda.
Collected by John Roscoe during the Mackie Ethnological Expedition; 1921.9.57-.58

Mock-up display with sections for tools, bellows and casting
The 'Forming' section will focus on three techniques evidenced by the collections  - casting, forging and wire-making.

Casting is a complex process, one most easily demonstrated visually rather than described. We hope that placing tools, apparatus and objects together will help illustrate the various stages of the lost-wax ('cire-perdue') method and give some sense of the time and skill involved in creating a cast object. The casting section includes wax moulds from Benin, aluminium jewellery from Sudan, a complete set showing how to cast with cuttlefish bone, and this wonderful set of heads from Togo (below).

Three stages of casting a brass head, Yoruba people, Togo; 1910.48.1-.3   
1. Inner clay core; 2. Wax model covering core; 3. Outer clay mould broken to reveal cast brass face

The 'Decoration' section will feature several items illustrating surface ornamentation through hammering from the reverse side to create low-relief design (repoussé) and its opposite - punching or hammering from the front side (chasing).

This treasure-box on a detachable wheeled tray is decorated with repoussé proverb figures, symbols and repeating designs. Like copper, gold, silver and lead, brass is a malleable metal and, in thin sheets, is well-suited to repoussé work. The treasure box was probably used to store personal items of value. It is associated with the Asante (Ashanti) Empire, which thrived from 1750 onwards, in what is modern-day Ghana. Natural gold resources in the dense forests of southern Ghana brought wealth and influence to the Asante, enabling the production and trade of beautiful items like this. 

Brass repoussé treasure box, Asante, Ghana; 1935.56.12

The treasure box was collected by one F. W. Ensor and donated after his death to the Museum by his wife in 1935. According to outgoing passenger lists leaving the UK 1890-1960, F. W. Ensor sailed from Liverpool to Accra in Ghana three times from 1900 to 1903. These dates would tie in with Britain's incorporation of the Asante kingdom into the Gold Cost colony as a protectorate in 1901. 

Adjacent in the display you will find two remarkable items of headwear known as 'tantour' or 'tantur'. Worn by high status women from the Druze community in Lebanon - the taller the tantour, the richer you were - these head ornaments were attached to the head by hooking on to a cloth cap. They are not dissimilar to the 'hennin' (conical hats) worn by noblewomen of medieval Europe, which were also usually worn with a veil. A tantour was traditionally presented by a husband to his wife on their wedding day, but the fashion for wearing them died out by the 1880s.

This particular tantour is a remarkable piece of workmanship, made of a single sheet of silvered copper, decorated with repoussé designs of cypress trees, flowering branches, birds and deer (the animals represent a particular true or caste), and inlaid with red and glass paste beads at the base. The sheet has then been wrapped into a cone, the castellated edges hammered together to create a flush join.

Left: Tantour of silvered copper, Lebanon, collected by George Davis Hornblower, c. 1902; 1920.37.3
Right: Druze woman, Shouf Mountains, wearing a tantour. Photo by Félix Bonfils, ca. 1870. Source: 
Wikimedia Commons

From these taster objects you can see that, far from being a dull tale of hammers and anvils, this metalwork display is bursting with stories relating to individuals, communities, traditions, cultures and empires. We are aiming to install in late Spring 2015 so watch this space...

For more information about the Togolese cast heads and other African metal artefacts, download our African Metalworking Introductory Guide.

Helen Adams
VERVE Project Curator/Engagement Officer

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Crafternoon at Pitt Rivers

Crafternoon has recently come to an end at the Pitt Rivers Museum after a successful three-month stint as part of the Need / Make / Use project. The outcome of our congregations is a Pitt Rivers-inspired quilt, which has been donated to the Museum.

© Pitt Rivers Museum

What is Crafternoon?
Crafternoon began in Oxford in 2012. We are a group of parents/caregivers and young kids who meet once a week. Crafternoon combines childcare with co-working for parents and caregivers who have a creative practice or an interest in crafts. These crafts are undertaken at various levels from hobbyist to professional. This rich mix of experience and expertise has led to the transfer of skills and sharing of ideas. The aim of Crafternoon is to normalize the idea of having children present while adults are productive in another task, taking the popular idea of "co-working" to another level by including our children. 

Crafternoon and Pitt Rivers
Holding these sessions at the Pitt Rivers Museum couldn't have been a better fit. Not only do many of the objects in the Museum’s collection have a direct connection with parenting and childhood, many of the objects will have been produced by hand, in community settings, in the presence of children.  

For our residency at the Museum we worked on a group project - a quilt. The imagery depicted in the quilt was inspired by objects in the galleries which relate to parenthood, childhood and co-working. With the help of Maya Herbolzheimer, VERVE Activities and Outreach Officer, we were introduced to these objects through object handling and tours of the displays. We used a series of questions to think about the 'biography' of these objects and brainstormed some possible visual representations of these biographies.

With the help of our expert seamstress and quilter, Caroline King we depicted our chosen objects using appliqué and embroidery techniques. Each participant worked on an individual square which was then sewn into one large quilt. Some of us had experience sewing and some had none – we even had contributions from some of the kids themselves! 

Every Crafternoon session is an experiment. We are never sure what the dynamics of the group will be like. But the stars were well aligned for these sessions! As the adults worked, the children got on with playing or contributing to the creative process alongside the adults. It was a calm enjoyable atmosphere. 

Our quilt has thirteen individual squares depicting baby carriers, a wolf's tooth amulet, moccasins, and a Haida totem pole - to name a few. A wolf's tooth amulet was the first object we looked at and discussed. It originates from France and was worn by children to ward off febrile convulsions caused by high fevers that can occur during teething. One of the Crafternoon participants was very familiar with these seizures as both her children had them. She chose to depict the wolf's tooth in a very creative way: using coloured squares of fabric she represented the heat of fever contrasted with the coolness provided by the amulet, "The warm colours represent fever, which is spreading and taking over the body, until it comes up against the amulet - then it disappears and we're left with a tiny, calm, cool colour." 

A personal favourite is this 3D baby carrier. Here's the maker's account of her handiwork:

"My quilt piece was inspired by a small (15 cm) model of a Saami cradle made of wood covered with leather and cloth from Sweden. I was super happy to find it; it brought back happy memories of Sweden were Abel is born on the first day of snow during a cold but beautiful winter. We spent those days outside walking in the snow or skating on the ice, and Abel napped outside, tucked in a sheepskin blanket to keep him warm in the freezing cold (it sounds funny, but many mothers do this in Scandinavia). For me, the little cradle became a symbol of happy times carrying, nursing and caring for my newborn in nature, while being free to go anywhere."

This Pitt Rivers Crafternoon quilt is a tactile educational object as well as a testament to what can be achieved together in the presence of our kids! If you visit the Museum this spring, please do check it out!

Crafternoon is now back at home in the Jericho Community Centre on Tuesdays from 2–4pm. Check our website for information and updates.

Sarah Cullen, Crafternoon

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

We've Got Mail

We are selecting objects for a new permanent display of metalwork on the first floor (Lower Gallery). Whilst searching through the museum's reserve collections at our off-site storage facility  we found this wonderful board mounted with different types of mail armourMail is often referred to as 'chain mail' - terminology introduced by Sir Walter Scott in his 1822 novel "The Fortunes of Nigel".

This assemblage was collected - and possibly arranged - by General Pitt-Rivers himself. Pitt-Rivers collected from many sites in London during the 1860s, often as part of early 'salvage archaeology' excavations during groundworks for civic construction projects such as the London Underground and the Victoria Embankment.

C17th-centruy mail with rounded jumped (butted) rings and f
lat, welded rings. 1884.31.41. 5 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The pieces of mail are described in an early catalogue of 1874 as "Twenty fragments of Chain armour. European and Oriental". The hand-written labels date some of them to the XVII (17th) century, and several are recorded as being recovered from the "Thames Embankment". The board has clearly been put together as an exhibit rather than a cataloguing or storage device. We have no record of whether it was ever displayed at the Pitt Rivers Museum but it may well have been displayed in Bethnal Green Museum (now the V&A Museum of Childhoodand South Kensington Museums (now the V&A) where the General's archaeological and ethnological collection was first shown to the public in London from 1874-1878 (Bethnal Green) and from 1878-1882 (South Kensington), before being donated to the University of Oxford in 1884.

The board was arranged to show a variety of different types and gauges of linkage variations within the single category of 'mail armour' - a neat demonstration of Pitt-Rivers's concept of 'typological' arrangements. Some samples are of butted or 'jumped' mail, arranged in alternating rows with solid welded rings. Butted rings were the cheapest type of mail to make and buy, though the most vulnerable to a well-placed thrust from a sword or spear. Each ring is linked to four others in the European '4-in-1' style.

There were also examples of what seemed to be imitation rivets - perhaps to give the illusion of quality or strength - plus large-gauge hooked mail with spiral links, which may have been worn by horses in conjunction with solid barding armour.

Mail with possible imitation rivets (left) and hooked mail, possibly for horses (right)
1884.31.41. 15 and 1884.31.41. 13 © Pitt Rivers Musuem

The different pieces of mail were fixed to the painted wooden board with metal staples. Many of the metal rings were suffering from corrosion and rust and some links were missing. When the items were sent to our Conservation lab, our conservator Andrew rearranged tangled links and cleaned the metal with a sponge and stiff brush.

Of the twenty small pieces, a handful demonstrating the different mail types were chosen for the new Metalwork display. One substantial piece of fine mail was arranged flat on the left side of the board, rather like a half-folded T-shirt, but in fact consisted of a tube that opened out into a flat piece. Perplexed, we consulted the experts. Staff at the Royal Armouries were very helpful and Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour and Oriental Collections, suggested it was part of C17th-century pajama zereh (mail trousers), worn by an Indian Mughal warrior.

Half riveted mail armour, identified as being part of Indian pajama zereh (mail trousers), India. 1884.31.41. 3
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Next, Andrew considered how to create a mount that would both support the mail for display and illustrate how it would be positioned on the body. Using a template from the armour, and based on his own leg, he made a liner out of calico, and filled it with polyester wadding. After padding it out to form a rough leg shape, he then tacked the mail to the calico with cotton thread. Research indicated this is not too dissimilar to how the armour would have been worn, as it would originally have been sewn to fabric trousers. Mail armour can adjust to many shapes and is very heavy, so this mount should support most of the weight and hopefully help visitors understand how it was worn.

Andrew at work in the Conservation lab making a new display mount for the pajama zereh leg armour
© Pitt Rivers Museum

You can see just how much work has to go into preparing just a few objects. You will be able to see the mail armour, alongside up to 200 other objects, in the new Metalwork display on the first floor this summer. In the meantime, you can still find examples of full mail shirts, plus various other armours (plate, lamellar, brigandine) upstairs on the Upper Gallery or here on our Arms and Armour site.

Helen Adams
VERVE Project Curator