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


  1. Metal work has come a long was since it was first discovered. What used to be a "simple" process is now very complicated. Can't wait to see what new advances are discovered in the years to come in the field of metal working.

  2. Nice! Metal bellows are fabricated to tight tolerances in a variety of materials for use in clean rooms and ultrahigh-vacuum applications.


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