Thursday, 30 August 2012

A Maori Putorino - an Art Treasure


This is Forster No. 116, 'A flute', from New Zealand. 

The putorino is only found in New Zealand, and is esteemed by the Maori.  Sometimes the instrument is called a bugle flute, because it has two complementary voices, male and female.  The male voice with it's kokiri (negotiating skill) sounds when the instrument is played as a trumpet, using the large hole at proximal end. The sound is used to summon, or to make people aware of something about to happen, and each named call has a meaning.

The female voice sounds when the instrument is played like a flute, using the opening half way down the instrument.  This voice is sometimes a crying sound, and is used on appropriate occasions.

The sounds made "can stir a wide range of emotions, from the ghostly chill of an icy wind to the heart-warming resonance of a peace-giving hue puruhau" (resonating gourd instrument). (Brian Flintoff, Taonga Puoro - Singing Treasures, The Musical Instruments of the Maori, Nelson, New Zealand, 2004).

1886.1.1153 Detail of carving

The shape of the instrument is derived from the shape of the casemoth coccoon that houses Raukatauri, Goddess of Flute Music.

Bugle flutes were made in two halves, using a dense wood like matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia).  Once the inside was shaped, the two halves were bound together with the split aerial root of the kiekie vine (Freycinetia banksii).

1886.1.1153 Detail of kiekie binding, with applied plant resin

This was applied when wet, and shrank on drying to hold the pieces tightly.  Before binding, a sealant such as the sap of the tarata (Lemonwood tree, Pittosporum eugenioides) was applied to the edges of the two halves.

The museum labels on this putorino were removed for the 1970 Pitt Rivers exhibition 'From the Islands of the South Seas', and were retained in the museum archives.  One of the labels was especially interesting, as it meant that the flute was sent by the Ashmolean to the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857.

This exhibition ran from the 5th May to the 17th October, and still remains the largest art exhibition ever held in the UK.  There were more than 16000 works on display, and 1.3 million people visited.

The Exhibition Hall

The venue was a specially constructed hall, similar to the Crystal Palace in London.  The hall was divided into separate galleries, including Pictures by Ancient Masters, Pictures by Modern Masters, Engravings, Works of Oriental Art, and Sculpture.  Works were borrowed from over 700 collections, most of them private.  One of the nobility, when approached to lend to the exhibition, is said to have replied 'What in the world do you want with Art in Manchester? Why can't you stick to your cotton-spinning?'

Nine objects currently in the Pitt Rivers Collection were sent to Manchester, seven of them from Polynesia.  They were presumably exhibited either in the Museum of Ornamental Art or in the Oriental Court.  Although an editorial in the Manchester Guardian on the 20 July 1857 was of the opinion that 'we are inclined to regard the museum of ornamental art as that portion of the present Manchester exhibition which is calculated to produce the most practically useful result, and to be of the highest importance to the community' the contents of that gallery are not listed in the exhibition catalogue.

See Jeremy Coote, 'A review of The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.  Entrepreneurs, Connoisseurs and the Public' in 'Journal of the History of Collections' Vol 24, Issue 1, 2011.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

'A Yellow Piece with Red Spots'

This post has been written by Kloe Rumsey, a conservation intern from the Conservation Practice MSc course at Cardiff University.

This large barkcloth, 1886.1.1236 is one of about twenty three pieces in the Pitt Rivers Cook-Voyage collections and is one of three with similar surface designs.

1886.1.1236 Detail

As suggested on the Ashmolean label applied by Assistant Curator Edward Evans in 1886, just before transfer to the newly-opened Pitt Rivers Museum, it is now known to originate from Tahiti and collected on Cook's second voyage in 1773-4. Also bought back to England from this voyage was O'Mai, a man from Raiatea, who, during his 2 year visit to Europe, became famous in high society as the 'noble savage'. 

In this illustration of O'Mai by Nathaniel Dance his barkcloth clothing is of the type worn by those of high rank and it can be seen to include a patterned piece of the same distinctive circular design. The similarities between the garments in this drawing, and objects held in the Forster collections of the Pitt Rivers are striking, and has been noted by then curator Peter Gathercole in the short catalogue to the 1970 Pitt Rivers' exhibition 'From the Islands of the South Seas 1773-4'

The design of this cloth (described in the Catalogue of Curiosities as 'No.15 a yellow piece with red spots') was created by dipping the cut end of bamboo into the dye and applying it to the cloth. Though simple, there is great variation in the patterns and characters created and it is thought that this was the primary method for printed decoration of barkcloths in Tahiti at the time of Cooks' visit.

There seems to have been a dramatic change in the decorative style of barkcloth in Tahiti following European contact.  This cloth a particularly noteworthy example of a very early style, soon replaced by fern printed patterns and other shapes created by the application of painted leaves onto barkcloth.  

Other illustrations of Tahitian barkcloth as garments, as well as the specific description of 'yellow' in the catalogue of curiosities suggests that this, now cream coloured piece has faded from a brighter yellow colour.

Despite the very 'bloody' appearance of this red dye there is no reference to blood being used as a printing medium and it is likely that it is one of the many colours derived from fruits, leaves and bark.

As it can be seen in images from earlier posts these cloths have been stored folded, and, as part of the conservation treatment of this piece it has been surface-cleaned with a conservation-grade soft sponge and humidified to remove damaging creases.  

Creases being flattened with the aid of an ultrasonic humidifier

The barkcloth was torn in a few areas, and the tears were repaired with Japanese tissue and arrowroot starch paste.

Using Japanese tissue and starch paste to repair a tear

This treatment means this cloth can now be more easily rolled around a support and stored safely. 

Barcloth being rolled around a calico covered support

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Brass Patu

1932.86.1 front  

1932.86.1 back

Joseph Banks, the naturalist on Cook's first voyage, had forty brass replicas of Maori patu onewa made to take with him on the second voyage.  They were made in 1772 in Eleanor Gyles's brass foundry at No.9, Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, at a cost of nine shillings and sixpence each, and engraved with Bank's coat of arms by Thomas Orpin, at his shop opposite Northumberland Court, in the Strand, London, at a cost of one shilling each. 

At least two of the patu onewa collected by Banks on the first voyage were used as patterns for the brass replicas, being used to make a two part mould from sand and clay, which would have been destroyed in the casting process.  The marks in the surface of the stone cleaver can be seen replicated in the surface of one of the brass versions in the Pitt Rivers collection.

Banks withdrew from the second voyage after disagreements with the Admiralty over additional cabin accommodation on the Resolution - his place as naturalist on the voyage was taken by the Forsters.  Some or all of the brass patus were later given to Charles Clerke to take on the third voyage in the Discovery.  It has been suggested that the patus were meant to serve as a form of permanent visiting card, recording for posterity Bank's activities and connections.

The brass patus were sighted in various places in the next few years - in 1787, on the Northwest Coast of America in Hecate Straits, in 1788 Nootka sound, and in 1801 and 1816 in New Zealand.  Today the whereabouts of six are known - two in the Pitt Rivers, one in the British Museum, one in the Museum of London, one in the Tamatslikt Cultural Institute of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (which was said to have been excavated from a grave on the shore of the Columbia River in Oregon, and 'repatriated' to the Umatilla Nation in 2005) and one in a private collection.

One of the Pitt Rivers brass patus can be seen in the temporary exhibition 'Made for Trade' until the 27th January 2013.

See Coote, Jeremy, 2008: Joseph Banks’s Forty Brass Patus in the Journal of Museum Ethnography No 20 (March) pp 49-68. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Maori Hand Weapons

These five Maori hand weapons are part of the collection donated by Joseph Banks to Christ Church, his old Oxford college. This first voyage collection has only recently been identified by Jeremy Coote, Curator and Joint Head of Collections at the Pitt Rivers.  There are thirty objects in total, thirteen of which are from New Zealand.

Maori scholar Ngahuia Te Awekotuku writes in 'Maori Art and Culture' (Ed. D.C.Starzeca, British Museum Press, 1996) that 'short clubs were grasped in either hand and struck, jabbed and sliced in swift dance-like motions…Weapons were regarded as precious heirlooms, passed from one generation to the next.  They were coveted battlefield trophies…Being intimately associated with the god of war and the shedding of blood, they were highly tapu and were concealed when not in use; possession of such a treasure was a weighty responsibility.'

The five cleavers in the Banks collection represent five of the main types of Maori hand weapon.  There are three of wood, one of whalebone and one of stone.


1887.1.388 - A simple cleaver, or patu, in wood, with a perforation for a strap near the grip.


1887.1.389 Detail

1887.1.389 - A kotiate, or 'fiddle' shaped cleaver.  The blade has notches on either side, which were used in a ripping action - the word kotiate literally means 'to divide, split in two.'  There is a face carved at the end of the grip, although the shell eyes have been lost.

1887.1.393 Detail

1887.1.393 - A wahaika - this can be translated as 'the mouth of the fish'.  These cleavers are often referred to as 'crescent-shaped'.

Wooden clubs were made from hardwoods, such as maire (Nestegis cunninghami), manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), kauri (Agathis australis) and akeake (Dodona viscosa).  Positive identification of wood usually requires a fairly large sample to be taken and this is not considered to be acceptable for these taonga (treasures).

1887.1.387 - A whalebone cleaver (patu paroa).  This is made of dense bone, probably from the jaw of a sperm whale.


1887.1.714 - A basalt cleaver (patu onewa).  This heavy patu has an incomplete perforation for a strap.  Holes have been drilled from either side to meet in the middle.  The stone for the patu would have been hammer dressed, pecked and finally ground and polished using varying grades of sandstone until the finish was perfectly smooth.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Fishhooks, Necklaces and Combs

Last week Pitt Rivers Technicians Chris Wilkinson and Alan Cooke prepared some of the Cook-voyage collection objects for display.  These objects - fishhooks, necklaces and combs, are all from Tonga, and the display will highlight the materials and construction techniques.

The photo above shows the mock-up of the desktop case - a mock-up is done so that the arrangement of the objects and size of the labels can be finalised, allowing the holes for mounts to be drilled in the right place in the backboard.

This small display will be installed in the next couple of weeks, and will be on the Upper Gallery of the Museum.