Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Materials Identification at the British Museum

This post was written by Alison Foster,  who is our current intern from the MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums at University College London.

A visit to the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, was an opportunity to catch up with the analytical work being undertaken by Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist, on items from the Cook-Voyage Collections. Prepared for a brief synopsis of the findings I was delighted that Caroline also took the time to run through her methodology, and the use of the scanning electron microscope (SEM). 
The VP-SEM showing images on the screen of 1884.29.5 .1 Pteropus (Flying Fox) hair being identified by C.R.Cartwright. Caroline R. Cartwright © Trustees of the British Museum
Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the technique, the SEM works by scanning a beam of electrons onto the surface of an object, generating signals to form a black and white, three-dimensional image of its surface. This image is clear and detailed, and can be produced at very high magnification (up to several thousand times). Caroline is using this technology for fibre identification of samples taken from a number of the Pitt Rivers Cook-Voyage items, the clarity of the images enabling diagnostic scale patterns or other surface features of the natural fibres to be identified.
Items for sampling were chosen carefully by Jeremy, including a ‘twig-like’ material from the Tahitian Mourner’s costume cloak, as well as barkcloth, and plant material used to decorate it, from Easter Island. This is one of the few flat barkcloths in existence from Easter Island and therefore of particular value in terms of the information it holds. The research may assist in determining not only composition but possibly also provenance of some of the materials chosen. For example, preliminary analysis of the cord from a fishhook, thought to originate from Hawaii, indicates in fact that the fibre is New Zealand flax. Similarly, plant material from a sling has been documented as originating from New Caledonia, although assessment indicates it might in fact come from Tahiti. 

New Zealand flax fibre from fish hook 1887.1.379.  Image: Caroline R. Cartwright

By using a ‘variable pressure’ SEM, Caroline is able to scan these non-conductive, organic fibres without firstly coating them with a conductive material. This not only enables her to view the samples without distraction but also leaves them ‘uncontaminated’ for potential future analysis, which is a huge bonus when working with such unique material where sample taking must be restricted. The process is not as straightforward as it might appear, diagnosis being only as good as the quality of the sample, the breadth (and knowledge) of a sample reference library, and the condition of the fibres which, after 250 years or more, are not as pristine as they once were. However, Caroline has a wealth of experience in this department and has made some exciting progress. Already, she has been able to confirm that a sample of brown hair from a New Caledonian sling stone string bag is indeed made from the fur of the flying fox, and we look forward to more discoveries.

Flying fox fur from New Caledonian bag 1884.29.5 .1. Image: Caroline R. Cartwright
Somehow, in two enjoyable and informative hours, Caroline managed to dispel a year’s worth of bewildering lectures and encounters with the scanning electron microscope, and for that alone I’m truly grateful! Thank you to the Friends of the Pitt Rivers who funded this opportunity, as well as all those at the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers who made this visit possible. 

Monday, 15 April 2013

Cook-Voyage Collections in Germany - Hernnhut

Volkerkundemuseum Hernnhut

The final stop on my trip to Germany was Herrnhut, a small town near the Czech and Polish borders.  'Hernn Hut' means 'the Lord's Watchful care', and the town was founded in 1722 by Moravian protestants who were refugees from religious persecution in Czechoslovakia.  The land was on the estate of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, and the town grew rapidly, becoming a major centre for Christian renewal and mission during the 18th century.  Within 20 or 30 years of the founding of the town Moravian missionaries had been sent to many countries.  Zinzendorf had connections with the Royal Family of Denmark, and so missionaries were sent to Labrador and to Greenland, which were then ruled by Denmark .  Other missions were established in South Africa, North and South America and the Far East. The missions had a strong emphasis on welfare, and mass conversion was not the aim - instead, they wanted to sow the seeds of their religion in indigenous communities so that it would flourish over time. 

The Moravians, or Unitas Fratrum, embraced the Enlightenment, but, as Mr Stephan Augustin, director of the Völkerkundemuseum Hernnhut, explained, they did not want themselves to be enlightened - they already had their faith.  But the voyages of discovery in particular interested them, as they were a way of finding out about other cultures and of gathering information about them for future missionary work.  The missionaries were encouraged to make collections from the cultures they worked with, and to send these collections back to Germany to teach others. 

Members of the Moravian Church were in London during the 18th Century. Cook even took a book written by a Hernhutter on the third voyage (A History of Greenland, Containing a Description of the Country and its Inhabitants: and Particularly a Relation of the Mission, carried on for above these Thirty Years by the UNITAS FRATRUM at New Hernnhuth and Lichtenfels, in that Country' by David Crantz- and in the margins annotated the differences between harpoons from Greenland and from the Northwest Coast of Canada.

The Cook-voyage display

The Cook-voyage  collection in Hernnhut was likely to have been collected on the third voyage by Lieutenant James Burney.  The collection was given to the La Trobe family, who were leaders of the Moravian Church in England, who gave it to the collection of the Moravian Church then held at the Theologisches Seminar der Bruder-Unitat in Barby.  The collection moved to Niesky in 1809, and in 1878 the museum in Hernnhut was founded.

Part of the Cook-voyage display, Hernnhut

The Cook-voyage collection did not remain intact.  As was usual at the time, pieces of mats, barkcloth and cloaks were cut off to be given away.

Fragment of Maori cloak

A sample cut from a Maori cloak illustrates this.  It was given as a thank-you to Christlieb Quandt, a missionary who had been in Surinam in 1772 and who had brought back a collection for the museum.  He was the grandfather of the founder of Hernnhut Museum, and so the two pieces were reunited again a century later.  Some of the collection was destroyed in the Second World War, or stolen when the war was over, so that nearly 70 objects are now missing.

Many thanks to Mr Augustin, who gave very generously of his time. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Cook-Voyage Collections in Germany - Wörlitz

After visiting the exhibition in Hanover, I headed east, to Wörlitz, and the Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Schloss Worlitz

The houses and gardens at Wörlitz were developed in 1765 by Prince Leopold III Freidrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau.  He was a leader of the Enlightenment in Germany, and had made several visits to England, the Netherlands and Italy.  Working closely with the architect and art theorist Friedrich Wilhelm von Erdmannsdorff, the landscape and buildings were designed to be a unified expression of the Enlightenment, based on English landscape gardens and neoclassical architecture.  Schloss Wörlitz, built between 1769-73 was the first neoclassical building in Germany, while the Gothic House, completed in 1774 established a fashion for gothic revival buildings all over Europe.

The neo-gothic St Peter's Church, Worlitz

Uwe Quilitzsch, curator at Wörlitz, was extremely generous with his time.  Late in the afternoon, we met at the entrance to the very snowy park, and as more snow began to fall he explained that the links between Wörlitz and England were very strong during the eighteenth century.  England was seen as the centre of the Enlightenment, and interest in Cook's voyages of discovery was Europe-wide.  Prince Leopold met the Forsters in London after the second voyage, and the Forsters presented him with a collection of objects.  On return to Wörlitz, the collection was displayed in the house for several years, until the Otaheite Pavilion was built in the grounds and the collection was moved there.

The Otaheite Pavilion - built on a bridge

Entrance to the Otaheite Pavilion

The landscape of the gardens echoed the importance of the South Seas collection - the 'Rousseau Island' in one of the lakes imitated the island in Ermenonville where the philosopher was buried, and brought to mind in the viewer Rousseau's ideas about the earthly paradise of the South Sea Islands.  This was reinforced by the maze, where the goal was an oval space, 'Paradise', decorated with potted orange trees, the golden fruit of a Pacific Eden.

The collections were on display in the Otaheite Pavilion until the 1920s, when they were removed and taken back to the Schloss.  For the last 30 years they have been in storage in the nearby city of Dessau, which is where we went the next morning.

Thirty objects remain in the collection, and I was able to view them all with Mr Quilitzsch at the store in Dessau.

Priest's breastplate (taumi), Tahiti

Replica breastplate, made in Leipzig

One of the more unusual objects was a replica of a Tahitian breastplate, or taumi, made in a artist's studio in Leipzig in the 1980s.  The workmanship was amazing!  The replica was made for display in the Otaheite pavilion, but environmental conditions were not good enough.  The pavilion will itself undergo restoration soon, and there are plans to make new replicas of some of the collection for display.

Adze blade, nephrite, New Zealand

Another interesting story involved an adze blade from New Zealand.  Prince Leopold wrote to Johann Reinhold Forster and said that he was going to have a portrait of Forster engraved into the surface of the adze.  Forster replied that he'd just has a portrait plaque made by Wedgewood, and that it would be much better if the Prince had one of those instead, which he duly sent.

Portrait of JR Forster, Wedgewood

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Cook-Voyage Collections in Germany - Tabu?!, Hanover

Neidersächisches Landesmuseum, Hanover

After visiting the collections in Gottingen, I next went to the Neidersächisches Landesmuseum in Hanover.  Their temporary exhibition, 'TABU?! Verborgene Kräfte-Geheimes Wissen' (Tabu?! Hidden Powers - Secret Knowledge) contains many objects loaned from the Cook/Forster collection in Göttingen, as well as objects from museum collections in Hanover, Braunschweig and Hildesheim, all in Lower Saxony .The exhibition concept was based around objects and ceremonies regarded by various cultures as taboo.

Tahitian Mourner's Costume, Göttingen Collection

On entering the exhibition, the first object visible was the Tahitian Mourner's costume from Göttingen.  Displayed by itself, it made an imposing start to the exhibition, accompanied by the sound of the pearlshell clappers that would have been the signal for everyone to flee from the approaching Chief Mourner.  It was interesting to see the similarities in construction between this costume and the one in the Pitt Rivers collection, and also the differences - for example the pieces of cowrie shell used on the apron as well as coconut shell, and the turtleshell used on the mask.  
Mourners' Costume mask

Near the costume were displayed a Tahitian drum and nose-flute that would also have been used in the mourning ceremony.  

Tongan baskets, Göttingen collection

The exhibition continued with a display of objects from Tonga, reinforcing the hierarchical nature of Tongan society, and from Hawaii, before moving on to cultures in Africa, Asia and the Americas.  
The exhibition served to show that the museum collections in Lower Saxony, little known in the UK, contain some amazing objects, and it was exciting to see them all together and so well displayed. 

Objects from Africa

Feather headdresses, South America