Friday, 30 December 2016

Out in Oxford: Where did it all begin?

Hello, I’m Beth, Assistant to the Director and Administration. I also have a background in Egyptology. In February this year I attended a lecture given by Professor Richard Parkinson (Queen’s College, Oriental Institute, Oxford, and the British Museum) for LGBT History Month. The talk was entitled, ‘A Great Unrecorded History’: LGBT Heritage and World Cultures and I found it incredibly inspiring. You can watch the podcast here and see if you find it as powerful as I did! What struck a particular chord with me were Richard’s words that:

“One day, hopefully, every museum will have at least one LGBT item openly identified as such on permanent display, so that visitors of any sexuality can feel empowered by their human heritage…Silent and implicit support is not enough...Public gestures by institutions are crucial in embodying, consolidating and legitimising our history. Prominent institutions have a responsibility to stand up for inclusive human rights – prominently.”

I simply thought, why not? Why don’t we do that? The Pitt Rivers Museum is a celebration of human experience and creativity, so surely we have relevant objects? With the help and encouragement of my colleague, Helen Adams, VERVE Project Curator, and Lucy Shaw of the Oxford University Museums Partnership (OUMP), I applied to the OUMP Innovation Fund to develop a trail similar to Richard’s in the British Museum and his book, A Little Gay History. One of the criteria was that the project had to involve other museums and, so, the University’s first cross-collections trail was born!

The specially commissioned trail highlights LGBTQ+ experiences across Oxfordshire and beyond. LGBTQ+ community members and allies volunteered to write about objects in the University Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) to queer the collections and offer alternative insights into the fascinating items looked after by the University. Many different objects have been considered for inclusion in the trail, here are just a few of them:

Noh mask 1884.114.56 © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
A Noh theatre mask from Japan showing Hannya, and angry female spirit (1884.114.56). During the Edo Period, women were banned from performing in Noh and Kabuki theatre, meaning that female roles were performed exclusively by men, but this is starting to change.

Bone pendants 1932.65.203-209 © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Natufian bone pendants from Mount Carmel in Palestine (1932.65.206-209). These were excavated by Francis Turville-Petre (1901-41), who was openly gay, in 1931.

In the words of Matt Smith, the artist and curator behind the Queering the Museum project at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2010-11,

“Unlike many groups whose culture is passed down from parents to children, there are few objects which can stand in for LGBT lives. Rather than universalising the group using totemic objects, museums need to work differently with interpretation about LGBT lives. It has been likened to detective work, looking into the cracks and fissures of collections since historically, the LGBT links with objects would often have been undocumented.”

If the University of Oxford’s museums and collections are to truly reflect human experience and achievement in all its forms, then the LGBTQ+ experience should be explicitly represented. I sincerely hope this pilot project will help address that!

Beth Asbury
Assistant to the Director and Administration Team

I am indebted to my friends and colleagues who are helping me to run the project and design the trail booklet: Katherine Clough, Nicholas Crowe, Madeleine Ding and Jozie Kettle. With the help of the project’s volunteers, Jozie, Maddie and Nico are organising launch events for the trail, which are going to be amazing! I am also indebted to Richard, who is advising on the project, and the curators who have identified items in their collections for inclusion in the trail: Stuart Ackland (Bodleian Library), Mark Carnall (Museum of Natural History), who also co-ran the workshop, Jeremy Coote (Pitt Rivers Museum), Simon Glenn (Ashmolean Museum), Clare Harris (Pitt Rivers Museum), Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers Museum), Stephen Johnston (Museum of the History of Science), Andy Lamb (Bate Collection), Julia Lenaghan (Ashmolean Museum), Charlotte McKillop-Mash (Bodleian Library), Liam McNamara (Ashmolean Museum), Laura Peers (Pitt Rivers Museum) and Matthew Winterbottom (Ashmolean Museum). Caroline Kennedy of the Equality and Diversity Unit has been incredibly helpful and supportive, and without her brilliant network of contacts we would not have had the wonderful group of volunteers who have given up their time, including weekends, to make this project work!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Textiles in Focus Day

Event Poster
On the 29th October, the Museum was - or so it felt - entirely taken over by textiles! Working collaboratively with Conservation staff and the Collections team, the Need/Make/Use team developed an event to showcase pieces from the textile collections and offer hands-on and behind-the-scenes opportunities for visitors. In particular, we set out to highlight textiles collected by Sheila Paine during her fieldwork throughout East and Central Asia. From 16th August 2016 through to 12th February 2017, you can see a special display on the first floor of the Museum entitled Stitch of a Symbol - Insights into the textile journeys of Sheila Paine. You can read a great article about Sheila Paine here.

Stitch of a Symbol gallery display
Going behind-the-scenes
Visitors were able to book a place on a special behind-the-scenes talk led by Curator and Joint Head of Collections, Julia Nicholson. Visitors were able to see close-up objects specially taken off of display and retrieved from the Museum's stores. 

Textiles in the research space © Pitt Rivers Museum
Curatorial Assistant, Nicholas Crowe, and Curator and Joint Head of Collections, Julia Nicholson, laying out objects in the research space ready for the tours. 

Visitors in the research space © Pitt Rivers Museum
Beautiful and intricate objects were laid out in the research space. Visitors were able to take photos, hear Julia talk about how the objects were acquired and learn a bit about their history. It was excellent to hear many of the visitors puzzling between themselves about how they thought garments were constructed and exactly how decorations were applied. Through opportunities such as this, we hope to facilitate visitors to get thinking about the intricacies of construction and about the individuals who made - and still make - such objects.

Floral brocaded ribbon (Slovakia 2008.117.5) © Pitt Rivers Museum
Mola (Panama, 1924.46.74) © Pitt Rivers Museum

Waistcoat and blouse (Slovakia, 2008.117.1-.2)
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Tapestry panel (Peru, 1952.7.69) © Pitt Rivers Museum

Huipil blouse (Guatemala 1990.46.1) © Pitt Rivers Museum
Visitors in the research space © Pitt Rivers Museum

Weaving demonstrations and object handling
The balcony space on the first floor was filled with textiles from our handling collections - visitors were able to pick up and look closely at all sorts of objects - contrasted in different ways - from around the world. One of the days highlights was Head of Conservation, Jeremy Uden, demonstrating weaving on an 8 shaft loom. Visitors of all ages seemed to find this intricate and time consuming work really interesting and asked many questions throughout the day! With help from VERVE volunteers, people could also have a go at weaving on a 4 shaft loom. 

Head of Conservation, Jeremy Uden, demonstrating
an 8 shaft loom. © Pitt Rivers Museum
Visitor using a 4 shaft loom © Pitt Rivers Museum

Volunteers and visitors have a go at 4 shaft loom weaving using patterns designed by Jeremy Uden, Head of Conservation. 

Colourful handling objects © Pitt Rivers Museum

Handling objects - Huipil blouses from Guatemala ( and and a backstop loom likely to be from South America ( 

Handling object - toy doll in traditional Uzbek dress
( © Pitt Rivers Museum 

Coffee and cross stitch  
To finish off their visit, we invited people to join VERVE staff and volunteers for a coffee and to have a go at cross stitch in our seminar room. Each cross stitch design had been specially created by VERVE volunteers and reflected patterns found on the women's hats in the Sheila Paine collection. People could take away patterns and the work they had begun to continue cross stitching in their own time. Some visitors said that this was the first time they had cross stitched since childhood and that they now felt inspired to keep going with the craft. Others had never tried cross stitching before and learnt a new skill whilst also connecting with the collections in a new way. 

Designs based on 2008.116.22 - a panel made for a
women's skull cap © Pitt Rivers Museum
Cross stitching © Pitt Rivers Museum
Finished cross stitch © Pitt Rivers Museum
A new convert to cross stitching shows off her completed design! 

All in all, Textiles in Focus Day was a real success, offering more than 400 visitors the chance to closely examine the textiles in the collections and get some insight into the people who still make and use such items today. 

Keep an eye on our what's on pages for information about other events like this one ... in 2017 we are offering monthly hands-on workshops (such as prehistoric knife making!) that provide the chance to explore the making methods behind objects in the collections. 

Jozie Kettle
VERVE Programming and Communications Officer

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Out in Oxford: handling collection

Helena Fox volunteered at the Pitt Rivers Museum assisting with preparations for activities during LGBT+ History Month in 2017.  We asked Helena to explore our Object Handling collection.  Here are her experiences: 

From 28th November to 2nd December I had the opportunity to undertake work experience at Pitt Rivers Museum.  One of the tasks I had was to search the Museum’s Object Handling Database to find items which could be used as part of the Pitt RiversOut in Oxford LGBT+ History Month in February 2017. Here, I want to highlight two objects which I feel have a particularly pertinent part to play in contemporary discussions around LGBTQ+ issues.

Mask © Pitt Rivers Museum

The first object I have picked is the collection’s carved wooden face mask, called a Mwana Pwo mask, of the Chokwe people of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These masks, depicting the ideals of female beauty, are used in initiation ceremonies to promote fertility and honour the women of the communities in which they are used. However, Mwana Pwo masks are always worn by men who dress as women and skilfully mimic female movements during performances. For me, the mask evokes conversations I have had about the huge scope of different gender identity expression, such as is seen in the hugely popular TV show, RuPaul’sDrag RaceThe Mwana Pwo masks are objects of great importance and respect; they are so revered that it is said they are buried with the masqueraders. In my opinion, these masks speak of widespread respect for the fluidity of gender expression and the many different forms which this can take, and this is highly relevant to LGBTQ+ discourse today.

Kohl flask and applicator and © Pitt Rivers Museum

The second item which struck me as especially interesting is the collection of kohl flasks. I was grasped by two things: first, that kohl is associated with both practical and aesthetic uses, and secondly that, in Ancient Egypt, it was worn by men, women and children. Kohl’s practical applications included belief in the protection it provided against harsh sunlight, ailments and being cursed by the Evil Eye. Kohl is now known to have qualities which boost the immune system and help ward off potentially dangerous bacteria. This universal wearing of eyeliner, be it for practical, cultural or aesthetic reasons, made me think about our perception of makeup as an inherently female, or at least feminine, item. Consequently, we tend to associate men wearing makeup with a certain level of femininity and therefore an assumption of them being gay, as fits into the ‘gay best friend’ model of a camp man providing fashion and makeup advice. To qualify our unease with men wearing makeup, especially men we see as far too masculine to be gay (which is, in itself, an odd conclusion, as levels of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ behaviour cannot denote sexuality), we use terms like ‘male grooming’ and ‘guy liner’. Reading about male and female usage of kohl (made iconic in the images of Tutankhamun and Cleopatra so synonymous with our perception of Ancient Egypt) made me consider how strange our gendering of makeup is, and how we use this to presume people’s sexualities when we really have no basis to go on. 

Kohl flask and applicator and © Pitt Rivers Museum

I will leave you with this: next time you go to talk about someone wearing ‘guyliner’, why not try simply ‘eyeliner’? Is there really any difference?

Helena Fox