Monday, 31 October 2016

Archaeology Displays Update

Museum staff arranging metal objects ©Pitt Rivers Museum
The new archaeology displays in the Pitt Rivers Museum will be displayed by type of material, rather than by chronology or geography.  The objects for these displays have been selected and now the time has come to layout all the objects to determine their final positions in the cases.  Prof Dan Hicks was involved with the final selection, Technicians Alistair and Adrian advised regarding the placement of objects in the cases and Conservator Miriam recommended ways to support and protect the objects.

The run of 10 archaeological cases is 17 metres in length and so it is important to see the potential layout of the cases next to each other.  The team spent three days working through the the displays which will show archaeological objects made of stone, metal, bone, glass, ceramic, wood and textile.

This case contains examples of spindle whorls © Pitt Rivers Museum

We started with the stone case.  The PRM has over 10,000 archaeological objects; most of these are stone tools so we had a lot to choose from. The carved stone piece in the centre of the photograph is a fragment of limestone (1884.138.12) excavated by Lt. Gen. Pitt-Rivers himself from Caesar’s Camp near Folkstone.

A close up of objects made of wood © Pitt Rivers Museum
Organic material is less likely to survive in the archaeological record but the museum holds some interesting examples to display in the case.  This case contains an intriguing wooden mummy face (1890.25.3) from Ancient Egypt 3rd Intermediate period excavated by Flinders Petrie and a mystery wooden object, possibly a lock, from a bog in Aghabullogue, Ireland (1884.117.1).

A close up of textiles © Pitt Rivers Museum

Archaeological textiles pose a problem for the museum conservation team.  These textiles are fragile and vulnerable to UV light, high lux light levels and to museum pests.  The conservation and technical services departments are investigating methods to control light levels and protect the textiles on display.

A close up of objects made from bone © Pitt Rivers Museum

The bone case contains examples of bone, tooth, shell and horn.  This case contains many small objects.  During the layout we took the opportunity to test the case text.  We printed mock up labels and tried placing the labels along the side edges of the cases.

The Archaeology Stone case in situ © Pitt Rivers Museum

The first display was installed on the Upper Gallery in October 2016.  Keep an eye out for more appearing soon!

Madeleine Ding and Sian Mundell
VERVE Curatorial Assistants

Thursday, 20 October 2016

New techniques in soft-mount making at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Recently, in the conservation lab we have been busy preparing objects for a new display. Rank and Status in the Pacific is one of the new VERVE displays, which are being installed in the Lower Gallery. The case presents a range of items, including jewelry, clothing and ceremonial sticks, representing emblems of authority and status in the Pacific.

A large number of soft mounts, mostly consisting of padded MDF boards covered in Jersey fabric, were required to support the many neck ornaments, which feature in the display. However, two particular objects, a headband 1989.28.11 and a shell necklace 1990.22.3, offered us the opportunity to be more experimental with our mounts. We decided to create a head-and-neck 3D mount, which would display the objects as they would have been worn. This mount will be the centerpiece of the case.

To create a mount of this kind we would normally use a method called buckram, which consists of covering a mould, usually a mannequin, in layers of linen strips impregnated with starch paste which, once dry, create a cast of the mould.  Although this method is very efficient and very popular among conservators and mount makers, it can be very time-consuming, especially when many layers of linen strips are required to achieve the desired shape and strenght. Each layer in fact has to be completely dry before a new layer can be applied.

However, a new material, called Fosshape (Fosshape™), is becoming more and more popular among conservators and mount makers as an alternative to buckram for making soft mounts. Fosshape has been designed and used mostly in the millinery industry and it is a thermoplastic, non-woven, synthetic fabric, which can be molded into any desired shapes using vapour and heat. Earlier this year, I used the same material to create a hand-shaped mount for a leather glove 1911.29.85 used in the masonry industry, which is now on display in the Stonework display in the Lower Gallery.

Leather glove 1911.29.85 mounted on a hand-shaped mount made of Fosshape, front (left) and back (right) 
In April, Jeremy Uden, Deputy Head of Conservation, and I also attended a one-day training session at the textile conservation lab at the V&A with Textile Conservation Display Specialists Rachael Lee.  At the V&A, Fosshape is used extensively. Due to its versatility, ease and speed of use, it is an ideal material to adapt mannequins and create desired silhouettes for costumes. Our day at the V&A textile lab, gave us a chance to practice further with Fosshape and improve our skills under Rachael’s direction, and to observe how versatile this material can be and what great potential it has for use in conservation and mount making.

Although it is great fun to work with Fosshape, it must be said that creating complex mounts out of it can be tricky. For our first attempts, the hand-shaped mount mentioned above and the head-and neck mount, we set our goals pretty high.

The first step was to select a suitable mannequin’s head to use as a mould on which to shape the Fosshape. Given the size of the headband, which we were making the mount for, we needed a fairly small head. Finding a mannequin of a suitable size can be difficult when only a few are available in a small lab.  Fortunately, the mannequin available to us was perfect for the job. 

Our mannequin head is covered in calico fabric, which has been cut into eight sections and sewn together to create a perfect fit for the head. We decided to use a similar pattern to cut the Fosshape into eight pieces, which we then sewed together. We chose to use Fosshape 600 grs for this project, as it creates stronger mounts than the Fosshape 300 grs, which is more suitable for smaller, lighter mounts, like the hand-mount shown above.

Sewing patterns
Once ready, the Fosshape was turned inside-out and fitted onto the mannequin head again ready to be shrunk with heat and vapour from an iron. To ensure that the mount could be removed from the mannequin, the back of the mount was stitched by hand. 

Fosshape sections sewn together and fitted onto the mannequin, front (left) and back (right)
A wet piece of calico was used as a barrier between the mount and the iron, partly to generate more vapour and partly to protect the mount from potential burns. We shrunk the Fosshape to a point where we felt comfortable that it was still flexible enough to be removed from the mannequin, while still being able to retain its shape. Once removed from the mannequin, which required a significant amount of teamwork in order to plan, pull and remove it without causing any damage to the mount or the mannequin, the Fosshape mount was stitched back together.

Jeremy shrinking the Fosshape 
Fosshape mount shrunken and ready to be removed from the mannequin, front (left) and back (right)

Although our mount at this stage was already quite strong, following advice from Rachael, we decided to add a layer of buckram for additional strength. The mount was left to dry overnight and the next day was ready to be covered in fabric. We used the same pattern created for the Fosshape to make a black Jersey cover to fit the mount. At this stage, it is impossible to stitch through the Fosshape as it is completely hardened. This meant that the Jersey had to be stretched out gradually onto the mount, using pins. Whereas the majority of the cover was machine sewn, the back of the mount was hand-stitched. At the base of the neck, the fabric was tucked inside and hot-glued to the mount. 

Fosshape mount covered with a layer of buckram 
Miriam sewing the Jersey fabric cover (left) and Jersey cover nearly completed (right) 

Ultimately, the headband mounted on Polyfelt covered in black jersey, was attached to the head using Velcro, and the necklace was fixed onto the mount using nylon monofilament wire.

Headband and necklace mounted onto the Fosshape mount, front (top center), side (bottom left), back (bottom right)

The results of our experimentation were highly pleasing. Aside from being a really useful, alternative, material for soft mounts, we were able to assess the huge potential that Fosshape has to aid the interpretation of objects in our displays. Rank and Status will be installed soon… Watch this space!

Miriam Orsini
VERVE Conservator