Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A club from Malakula

Club 1886.1.1466

This club is from Vanuatu, from the island of Malakula, which Cook visited at the end of July 1774.  It is number 142 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities', and is one of only three items collected in 'Mallicollo', the others being a bow and a bundle of poisoned arrows.  Meetings with the inhabitants of Malakula only occurred on the beaches - the visitors were not permitted to venture inland.  As a result the objects collected here are the kinds of things that would have been carried on the person.

George Forster writes in 'A Voyage Round the World' that 'Besides bows and arrows they wore a club of the casuarina-wood, which hung from their right shoulder , from a thick rope, made of a kind of grass.  This club was commonly knobbed at one end, and very well polished, like all their manufactures.  It did not exceed two feet and a half in length, and appeared to be reserved for close engagement, after emptying the quiver.'  The inhabitants of the island were persuaded to sell their arms for 'a handkerchief, or a piece of Taheitee cloth, or English frieze' (a type of coarse cloth).  As they departed Malakula, Forster said that that 'the natives came to us with all their fourteen canoes, and sold us great numbers of arrows of all kinds and some clubs….they seemed very eager to part with their arms for Taheitee cloth.'

Club head

The club in the Pitt Rivers collection is Janus-headed, having two faces with highly conventionalised features. Lissant Bolton, in her chapter entitled 'Place, Warfare and Trade 1700-1840' in 'Art in Oceania: A New History' (Peter Brunt et al. London: Thames and Hudson, 2012) writes that 'part of the Forster Collection now in the Pitt Rivers  Museum, Oxford, is a club collected at Port Sandwich, Malakula Vanuatu, in July 1774. Kirk Huffman identifies it as a "rare type of high-status club" that signifies links between south-east Malakula and west Ambrym, north Ambrym and south Pentecost. Although the club was very likely made where it was collected, it appears that this, one of the first objects ever collected by Europeans in island Melanesia, was an item in a ritual network that linked a number of adjacent islands and regions. This kind of club could be used as a weapon, but also in ceremonies and as a dance club. It was above all an object that related to a complex system of status enhancement: it would have been owned by a high-ranking man, and would have signified his status as a someone to be treated with respect.'

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A mat from Mo'orea

1945.11.130 Mat, Mo'orea

This mat (Museum  number 1945.11.130) from Mo'orea, an island 17km NW of Tahiti, was collected by Joseph Banks on Cook's first voyage (1768-1771), and subsequently given by Banks to Christ Church, his old Oxford college. 

The mat is plaited from hibiscus bast fibres, and is unfinished.  The strips of plant material are very brittle, and unsuitable storage over the years has resulted in several large tears in one corner of the mat.

Tears in one corner of the mat

The conservation treatment on the mat began by surface cleaning using a dry, soft sponge to remove dirt residues.  This was followed by humidification using an ultrasonic humidifier to restore some moisture and strength into the plant fibres.

The tears needed to be reinforced in some way, to prevent further damage which would result in sections of the mat being torn off completely.  The material used was Japanese tissue, a type of hand-made long fibred mulberry paper.  The paper was painted to blend in with the overall colour of the mat, using powder pigments in an acrylic matte medium, and narrow strips were cut which were the same width as the strips of hibiscus bast used to make the mat.  A 'needle' was cut from thick polyester film, and a strip of tissue tacked to the end using superglue.

Weaving a strip of Japanese tissue across the tear

The strip of tissue could then be woven across the tear, using tweezers to manipulate the needle, which was then cut off.

Several strips in place

This was repeated many times, and the ends of the tissue strips were then adhered in place with a paste made from arrowroot starch, which is easily reversible in water should someone in future want to remove the paper strips.  Once one end was securely fastened, the ends strips could be gently pulled to tension then across the tear, and the other end secured with a drop of starch paste.

Treatment nearing completion

There are currently no plans to display this mat, but now it is more stable and less likely to be damaged by handling if required for study by a research visitor.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Storing "Curiosities"

This post was written by Katherine Clough, who is currently volunteering with the Cook-Voyage project helping to provide customized storage solutions for the collection artefacts.

Many of the artefacts currently undergoing conservation during this project will be redisplayed in a fantastic new display within the Pitt Rivers Museum dedicated to the Cook-Voyage collections. In the meantime, temporary storage solutions are required for many of the objects after conservation treatment. Some of them, for example, the larger bark cloths, may have to return to storage. Stored objects will not have been neglected, but have each had customized storage boxes personally (and lovingly) made for their protection and for easier accessibility for future research purposes. One of my main tasks as a volunteer has to be construct boxes for these barkcloths.

Historically, the bark cloths were previously stored folded and stacked. This has caused uneven wear on the folded areas. Now each bark cloth has been unfolded, cleaned and conserved, and then rolled around custom-made calico supports, as described in previous posts on this blog. The final stage of storage preparation has involved the careful measurement of the rolled bark cloth and the making of a lidded box to these measurements. 

Kathy and Conor, our ICON conservation intern, making a Correx box

Making a box out of Correx board (sheets of corrugated plastic) is not too complicated, but has required a fair amount of crawling on the floor due to the sizes of the bark cloths. Firstly, the box net is drawn on the large board using the measurements from the object. The plastic is then cut out and scored with a craft knife. Finally the side-flaps are cut and folded, and secured in place using brass paper fasteners. A little bit of mathematics is required to work out the required dimensions of the corresponding lid so it fits the box snugly. The bark cloths are characteristically long (over 1 metre) but only about 20 centimeters wide and high when rolled. Therefore, most of the boxes I have made so far are also long and thin.

Cook-voyage collection objects stored on padded boards

In addition to box making duties, I have had also helped with other storage requirements. I have assisted, along with other volunteers, with sewing fabric supports for objects in the Cook-Voyage collection, from the long calico tube supports for bark cloth rolls to padded supports for smaller objects. I have also been ‘outsourced’ from working on the Cook-Voyage collections, helping to sew cushioned supports to meet transportation requirements of several North American artefacts that went out on loan to an exhibition in Germany earlier this year.

Completing these storage preparation tasks has enabled me to see artefacts from the Cook-Voyage collection close up and during the processes of conservation, and has given me a fascinating insight into the workings of the conservation department at an ethnographic museum. More recently, I have been assisting by photographing the labels removed from the Cook Collection artefacts in the 1970s, creating a visual archive that will be available on the new website for this project. Currently, I am also reading George Forster’s account of Cook’s second voyage, A Voyage Round the World, taking notes whenever exchanges occur between the local populations of the Pacific and the European visitors. This information will be formatted to create an accessible record to make tracking potential provenances of Cook-Voyage objects and similar items easier in future research.

As a recent graduate of Art History, Anthropology and Archaeology, who is about to begin an Anthropology Masters later this year, I have found my experience so far very enriching and it will certainly add to my growing understandings of material culture research. I have genuinely enjoyed helping with these practical and research tasks, but knowing that my boxes, cushions and additional tasks are contributing to the preservation and research potential of such an important and iconic collection makes it even more worthwhile. 

Thanks go to the other Museum volunteers who have contributed to the project.  Their work is very much appreciated.