Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Creating a new app for Chinese visitors to the University of Oxford’s Museums

This month sees the launch of a new app, introducing the four major Oxford University Museums in English and Chinese. The app, developed by the 2017 Leadership Program Team from UESTC (University of Electronic Science and Technology of China) and in consultation with the Oxford Museums, is a free tool designed to make knowledge about the collections in Oxford more accessible to Chinese speakers. Oxford receives more than 13,000 visits from Chinese tourists each year, and Oxford University is home to more than 1000 Chinese students. The app is available on both Google Play and Baidu – take a look!

Facilitated by Summit Education Enterprises (SEE) and working closely with technical, curatorial and communications staff from the University, the students were able to produce the app in just one month in summer 2017. This partnership has proved that a project with social engagement, international and interdisciplinary aspects can – with careful planning, due care and commitment - can be an exciting opportunity to create something surprisingly meaningful, innovative and beneficial to all stakeholders within a limited length of time. This blog describes the process of collaboration between the three organisations and the development needed to create this product in just four weeks. How did we get on?

UESTC students with (right), Sarah Bruhn (SEE), Susannah Wintersgill (Oxford University Museums) and Andy Haith (University IT Services) University) and (front) Helen Adams and Jessica Suess (Oxford University Museums). Photo © Summit Education Enterprises

In May 2017, the Gardens, Libraries and Museums of the University of Oxford (GLAM) was approached by SEE to work on a digital humanity project that would help promote the Oxford University Museums among Chinese audiences. SEE is an Oxford-based education service and consultancy providing high-quality education and training courses to enrich the learning and aspirational experiences of students and professionals from around the world. The digital humanity project was part of a summer school programme which SEE hosted in collaboration with Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford and UESTC (China), designed to provide leadership development training in arts and sciences for a cohort of 31 talented students. 

To help the students apply and develop their knowledge and skills in electronic science and technology (UESTC is ranked No. 1 in those subjects among all the universities in China) and gain meaningful social engagement experience, SEE proposed to work with GLAM for the students to design a Chinese language mobile application for marketing the Museums among Chinese audiences overseas and here in the UK. Chinese visitors comprise a steadily growing proportion of overseas visitors to Oxford and its cultural institutions, mirroring a general rise in Chinese tourism to the UK, and there is a year-on-year increase in Chinese visiting scholars and students at the University. The potential of such a project, therefore, was easy for us to appreciate. So how did we start?

UESTC students with Dr Yi Samuel Chen (Director and Founder of Summit Education Enterprise as well as a Researcher at the University of Oxford). © Summit Education Enterprises

Week 1
The first steps involved introductions. Prior to the arrival of the students, Susannah Wintersgill (GLAM Director of Communications and Marketing) and Ted Koterwas (Website and Mobile Applications Team Leader, University of Oxford IT Services) already sent the students introductory materials about the Museums and the technical aspects of the development of existing digital resources. Once the students arrived in Oxford, The GLAM Director of Communications and Marketing, Susannah Wintersgill, gave an overview of what GLAM is and does, then representatives from the four museums,Ashmolean, Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM), Museum of the History of Science (MHS), and Museum of Natural History (MNH). All meetings were scheduled at the PRM so students also got a tour of the galleries there and the most popular exhibits. This process also helped familiarise the students with some of the values of the University of Oxford’s commitment to widening education that ought to be reflected in the digital resource – scholarly excellence, inclusivity and diversity, and free to access. Ted Koterwas and his colleague Andy Haith from our Mobile Applications Team at the University of Oxford’s IT Services also provided close guidance to the students on the benchmark for technical and user acceptability. And the project management team of SEE, especially Sarah Bruhn, coordinated and oversaw the entire process to ensure the smooth operations and cohesion of the project.

PRM Curator Helen Adams gives a gallery tour to the students. © Summit Education Enterprises

Next was a discussion on what the ‘digital resource’ would be. Three GLAM members – PRM, MHS and MNH – had recently launched an audio guide in Mandarin but needed help promoting it. The students shared their cultural knowledge of how Chinese people search for and consume information using their smartphone, and we agreed an app would be a good way of packaging information in one place, having links to social media (especially WeChat), and incorporate existing Museum content such as the audio guide and collections images.

A presentation includes evidence of WeChat statistics © Pitt Rivers Museum

Week 2
After receiving a brief with milestones and important clauses about IP and logos, the students undertook research on aspects of the Museums’ collections with both actual visitors and potential visitors to find out which things interested people and why. They also did some surveying on issues unique to the individual museums. For example, the Pitt Rivers Museum’s ground floor is much busier than the top floor – how could we encourage visitors to go upstairs?

The data was revealing – for example, it seemed the most appealing aspect of the Pitt Rivers Museum’s collections were ‘Textiles and Clothing’ and that better signage and an assurance of the safety of the floor would encourage people to the Upper Galleries!

Students undertook on-and off-site audience research © Pitt Rivers Museum

We discussed how the app would be used and by which audience. Was it to be an in-gallery experience or a resource to be used remotely to engage with the Museums virtually and inspire a visit? The students believed it could be both...

Week 3
Following consultations with staff, including Ted Koterwas and Andy Haith from the Mobile Team , the students had self-selected into four groups focussing on content, design and technical aspects. A huge amount of work happened in this week involving the final draft of wireframes and UX. These were presented to staff and feedback focussed on user tools and services such as the ability to switch between English and Chinese; the inclusion of information about toilets, shops and cafes; and gallery plans that matched those available in the Museum.

Students split into groups to develop technical and design elements © Summit Education Enterprises

Week 4
The students had one more week to tweak the designs, test the app and present the final app ready for launch. The result is a simple, easy-to-use, and yet comprehensive user interface which presents the user with a choice of four museums, each presented in a consistent way offering highlight object tours, resources and facilities. Each museum has its own designated colour within a contemporary design palette and easily recognisable with its branding and logo.

The students achieved an incredible amount in just one month. Together they had created a digital resource containing 110 pages of 30,000 words and 200+ images, backed up by more than 200 programming files and 2.46459 line codes.

Screenshots of the finished app 

The app is already available on Google Play and on Baidu (major Chinese web services provider). It’s FREE so take a look!

We are thrilled with the outputs of this project and have been constantly surprised and impressed with the aptitude, enthusiasm and adaptability of the students, not just because of their obvious technical knowledge in terms of programming and graphic design, but also because we were having to communicate quite complex ideas to each other in English.

We look forward to promoting the new app on various channels (not least the University of Oxford’s WeChat account) and running analytics on its marketing, take-up and use among Chinese visitors.

Helen Adams

Project Curator and Engagement Officer, Pitt Rivers Museum

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Unearthing the new archaeology displays

A new display of stone artefacts
© Pitt Rivers Museum
During the VERVE: Need Make Use project, the team have refreshed displays and created entirely new exhibits.  The previously empty desktop cases on the Upper Gallery are now being filled with new displays of archaeology. We hope the public will find their way up to the top floor to uncover these artefacts.

Here are a few highlights from the displays:

Female ceramic figure 1921.54.1
© Pitt Rivers Museum

In Case 4: Ceramics is a female figure (1921.54.1) from Cyprus dated to the Bronze Age (1800-1600 BC). It was donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum by George Davis Hornblower in 1921.

This terracotta female figure has been hand formed and is hollow. The details have primarily been painted on with dark brown pigment, with some impressed and incised into the clay. The figure has a striking pose, which is believed to symbolise female fertility. According to Professor Vassos Karageorghis this figure is a rare example of the Astarte-type figure (Karageorghis, 2004). Astarte is an ancient Middle Eastern goddess. This figure shows a transition point in the development of such figures from a plank shape to more three dimensional shapes. The figure’s actual provenance is unknown as it was purchased at a sale in Egypt in 1908.

Bronze mirror 1887.1.414 © Pitt Rivers Museum

This broken bronze disc mirror (1887.1.414) is in Case 7: Metals. The mirror is from Ancient Greece and is dated to the 4th century BC. The label on the mirror in Greek is literally translated as ‘Athens vi / The skull of a woman from / a tomb at Vari in Attica, / excavated in the / year 1866. There are also / more bones and a bronze / mirror 250-500 / BC.’  The mirror was transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum from George Rolleston at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Rolleston purchased the mirror from Athanasios Rhousopoulos in 1871. The mirror would have had a shiny, reflective surface but, over time, the metal has corroded. 

Rush matting fragment 1937.44.13 © Pitt Rivers Museum

In Case 8: Organic Materials are two fragments of rush matting from Bee Cave Canyon, Brewster County, Texas, USA. Bee Cave Canyon is a large rock shelter that was excavated between 1928 and 1929 by the Museum of the American Indian in conjunction with the University of Cambridge. The site has evidence of walled rooms, rock paintings, worked stone and also yielded a considerable amount of perishable materials, revealing a lot about the prehistoric people that lived there.

The fragments on display are a piece of twill plaited basketry or matting (1937.44.13) and a corner piece of chequer plaited matting (1937.44.17). They were donated by Lewis Colville Gray Clarke, who was director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge from 1937. Artefacts from the site are housed in the National Museum of the American Indian, which is now part of the Smithsonian Institution, as well as in Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, also accessioned there in 1937.

This is just a sample of the objects on display with interesting stories to tell, so come to the Museum to find some more...

Madeleine Ding and Sian Mundell
VERVE Curatorial Assistants


Karageorghis, V. (2004). 'Kypriaka XV' in Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus. Nicosia: Dept. of Antiquities, pp. 169-74

Friday, 7 July 2017

Bone carving, African dance, cupcakes...and ancient poo! A look ahead to Pitt Fest Remixed, 29 July 2017 (10.30-16.00)

The team is busy finalising preparations for the Need / Make / Use project's last ever Pitt Fest event! Our annual Pitt Fest day-festival has been a real highlight of the project and we are closing the event series with a bang! We'll have an array of interactive demonstrations, hands-on activities and behind-the-scenes opportunities and there will be things to do for visitors of all ages. We'll be inviting new Pitt Fest collaborators into the Museum and welcoming back some familiar faces. The theme this year is simply 'creativity', but expect to see lots to do with archaeology as we explore the newly installed archaeology cases on the top floor. After last year's downpour, we've decided to host most of the event inside the galleries this time but you will be able to spot a few tents on the lawn. We are looking forward to...

Interactive demonstrations

James Dilley, from Ancient Crafts UK, will demonstrate skills key to survival in prehistoric Europe. Last year, we particularly enjoyed trying on his wolf skin headdress! Visit James' website to learn a bit more about his experimental archaeology. 

James Dilley at 2016's Pitt Fest, adorned in his replica of a ancient European chief's headdress. 
Catch James in the galleries and explore the replica artefacts he'll bring along.

Taking inspiration from the many objects carved out of bone on display in Pitt Rivers galleries, artist Jason Turpin Thomson will come along to demonstrate his intricate carving technique. His miniature carved sculptures are reminiscent of the hundreds of Japanese netsuke on display on the second floor. Find him in the gallery creating exquisitely detailed figures from animal bone. Check out Jason's Instagram for a sneak preview of his work. 

A tiny, portable netsuke-esque bone carving by Jason Turpin Thomson. He'll be on the top floor carving live! 

Find Oxford Archaeology underneath the totem pole where you'll be able to explore stars of their flint collection. After speaking to their expects, head up to the top floor to see if you can spot similar items on display in the new archaeology cases. 

Oxford Archaeology at 2016's Hopes & Fears evening event.

Talks, tours and going behind the scenes

Tours and talks were so popular at last year's Pitt Fest that we've decided to run even more this year. Pop-in to the library (a space most visitors don't get to see!) and settle down for short talks from Pitt Rivers Museum Staff and special guests. Talks this year include 'Percy Manning at the Pitt Rivers', by folklore expert, Mike Heaney, and an introduction to the University of Oxford's first ever LGBTQ+ cross-collection project, Out in Oxford, with Dr Clara Barker (University of Oxford).

Dr Clara Barker (back right) and the Out in Oxford team. 

Visitors can also go behind-the-scenes with staff from the Photographs and Manuscripts department and the Conservation team. In pre-bookable 45 minute tours, you'll be able to try for yourself techniques used by Pitt Rivers conservators to protect the thousands of objects that we look after, and you'll be able to take a close look at the albums of Wilfred Thesiger and visit the climate controlled store rooms. Tickets for these tours will be available in advance via our website

Visitors in the research space examining objects at a behind-the-scenes tour.


Music has been central to our Pitt Fest events and will remain so this year. Master Kora player, Fily Cissokho, will be coming back and we'll also welcome musicians from Confluence Collective. The wonderful African Dance Oxford will be performing and they'll also run a workshop that you'll be able to book on to in advance via our website. Finally, community singing group, Ark T Singers, will sing songs from around the world in response to the Pitt Rivers Museum collections - event goers are encouraged to pull up a chair, fill their lungs and join in! 

Grace, from African Dance Oxford performing in the galleries and Fily Cissokho playing the Kora at 2016's Pitt Fest. 


There'll also be lot's of hands-on activities going on throughout the Museum. You'll be able to have a go at directing historic poo to discover what people ate in the past (yuk!) and learn about flint knapping using (and we aren't joking,) a butter knife and a bar of soap! Have a go at making a bracelet to mirror the one made out of snakes vertebra on display in the Court, try lino printing, and model a mystical figure out of clay. 

We'll also be joined but other fantastic guests, including Cogges Manor Farm and paper cutter Vanessa Stone. As we'll mostly be inside the Museum this year, we won't be having a global food fair but there'll be delicious cupcakes from our old friends, Happy Cakes

Entry to Pitt Fest is a free but donations are very welcome. Join the Facebook event for updates on the programme.

Jozie Kettle
VERVE Programming & Communications Officer

Friday, 30 June 2017

Identity Without Borders

Ahead of Refugee Week in June 2017 the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Joint Museums Outreach Team undertook numerous community and public engagement events connecting with people from refugee communities. It is a series of activities geared at transforming the museum into a platform for the voices of people who are refugees, many of whom are locally based. The run of events culminated in a free public evening event called Identity Without Borders. 

Here is a taste of some of the events and activities:

Family Day craft activity
Ahead of the numerous community events taking place at the Pitt Rivers Museum training was arranged for Pitt Rivers staff around supporting refugee and asylum seekers and understanding their experiences. It was led by our partners Asylum Welcome, one of the charities and organisations that support refugees in Oxford. The training offered a brilliant opportunity to learn a bit more about the experiences of refugees within our communities and also to think about how the museums are placed to support local refugee and asylum seeking communities to engage in new ways with the collections.

The Museum and Joint Museums Outreach team ran three family days for Oxfordshire's Syrian community and people who access Refugee Resource services. The families used the museum spaces and spent time in the galleries.

BK.LUWO crocheting
The international women's group, BK.LUWO, 'took over' the balcony, working on their current craft projects and chatting to visitors. BK.LUWO is a women's empowerment group based in East Oxford Community centre. They come together twice a week to offer peer support, share skills and just be. We invited them along and they decided to make the Pitt Rivers their home for the afternoon covering the balcony with their craft projects!

Photograph by John Wreford

A Private View was held for community members and organisations involved with the project, of two new temporary displays, Syrians Unknown and Identity Without Borders. Syrians Unknown is a photographic exhibition by John Wreford which will be on display until September 2017. Visit the Upper Gallery to encounter large scale portraits of people displaced from Syria, now surviving and thriving in Istanbul, Turkey. Each person photographed has written powerful testimonies about their experiences. The exhibition is in English and Arabic.

Identity Without Borders is a display of Pitt Rivers Museum objects and loaned objects co-curated by volunteers who came to the UK seeking asylum. The two case displays were developed with community volunteers in partnership with Refugee Resource and Asylum Welcome. Through facilitated visits to the collections volunteers have used familiar museum objects to share stories from their home countries and reflect on their identities.

Nuzhat Abbas singing at Identity Without Borders
We also co-hosted, with TORCH, an event exploring identity, memory and migration. The event was a really interesting and thought provoking session chaired by the Museum Director Dr Laura Van Broekhoven. Lots of people came along to discuss this timely topic. 

Amir Darwish, a Syrian/Kurdish poet, led two Poetry workshops at the museum. Budding and established wordsmiths were encouraged to join in.  People who took part in the workshops also had the chance to perform their poems at the Identity Without Borders event.

The Pitt Rivers Museum has also supported English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision for refugees. Oxford University Student Administration identified the museum as a location to teach English to refugees. The volunteer teachers delivered language lessons for women with young children, and museum provided family activities for the children, enabling parents to attend.

African Dance Oxford performing at Identity Without Borders

Identity Without Borders, was the public evening event celebrating the project, with our community partners performing dance, poetry and music in the Pitt Rivers Museum. The event was a celebration of identity and who we are - showcasing the two new exhibitions: Syrians Unknown and Identity Without Borders. Refugees make up most of the performers and this event was a culmination of activities which have spanned over the last three months.

All of these events are part of the Migration project which aims to connect people who have suffered forced migration to engage with the collections and the PRM as a space. 

Thanks go to ...

Firstly thank you to all the community members and especially Asylum Welcome and Refugee Resource for their support. Thank you to Nicola and Beth who co-managed the project. Many thanks to everyone in the museum who helped get the migration project going, especially to Al and Chris who managed to install both displays at a very busy time. I'd also like to say thank you to George who helped translate activities into Arabic - really, really helpful! 

Jozie Kettle
VERVE Programming and 
Communications Officer

Monday, 15 May 2017

Forest+Found - Makers in Residence (Archaeology)

I am thrilled to announce this year’s VERVE Visiting Makers in Residence are Forest+Found. Collaborative makers Max Bainbridge and Abigail Booth are fine artists whose experiments with traditional and less traditional making processes create objects that celebrate the intrinsic beauty of found natural materials. 

As part our Heritage Lottery Funded VERVE project, Max and Abi are taking inspiration from the newly redisplayed archaeology collection. These new displays bring together archaeological objects from across the world. Organised by material, they showcase thousands of years of human endeavour and highlight the ability of humans to create functional objects that solve to everyday life problems using the environment around them.

What excites me most about this collaboration with Max and Abi is the synergy between their own working practice and the archaeology on display. Making from found materials through experimental techniques that give a nod to traditional processes, Forest+Found learn through practice, refining their techniques guided by the material itself, in a similar way to the earliest humans.

Max and Abi looking at Egyptian rush matting from the Archaeology collection
Forest+Found researching the VERVE archaeology collections
© Pitt Rivers Museum
To kickstart the residency Max and Abi visited our research space with support from our wonderful collections team. They were drawn to two main areas of the collection: the stone archaeology that does not immediately reveal its functional use but is a charismatic form, alongside organic woven pieces that immediately tell you their function despite being a fragment of their original object. 

Forest+Found residency research visit - object Scottish Carved ball
Carved ball, Scotland; 1892.60.12 © Pitt Rivers Museum
To see more about Forest+Found and their residency so far visit their blog at http://www.forest-and-found.com/ or follow them on Instagram @forestandfound to see their stunning photographs documenting their residency.

Experimental workshops participants
Experimental making workshop © Forest+Found 
As part of the residency Max and Abi would like to meet you. They will be running the following events:

Saturday 27 May – Experimental Object Workshop
This workshop is suitable for over 16s who are looking to reengage with their own creative practice or have a go at being creative for the first time. It will enable participants to trial, test and investigate found natural materials to re-imagine and create new objects inspired by the museum’s collections. Find out more and book your place visit http://bit.ly/2q9AZGY

Thursday 1 June – The Future of Objects
The Future of Objects is a roundtable event with some fascinating speakers. Info and book: http://bit.ly/2qqOORy

In the meantime, and in anticipation of their final installation, come and see the archaeology displays that are currently being installed on the top floor of the Museum.

Beth McDougall
VERVE Education and Outreach Officer