Thursday, 20 November 2014

An Otahietan Fisherman's Petticoat - a new discovery

Forster 36, 1886.1.1179 - before conservation treatment

Forster number 36 in the Catalogue of Curiosities is described as 'An Otaheitian fisherman's petticoat of coloured threads/filaments of bark.'

There was an entry for it in the 'List of Anthropological objects transferred from the Ashmolean to the Pitt Rivers Museum' in 1886, where it is listed as 'A New Zealand Woaman's Apron, or Petticoat; made of narrow long strips, or rather shreds, of the inner bark of some tree ... each piece being doubled and looped over a twisted cord made of the same material, the ends of which are left long for tying. The whole has the appearance of a very deep rough fringe. Width 30 inches; Depth 2 feet. Probably Captain Cook's Collection. 1772-1774. Number lost. Given by Reinhold Forster, Esq.'

This entry was the last time it was recorded as being seen by museum staff, until last week when I found it in a box of grass clothing from Papua New Guinea.  It had been folded in half and tied tightly, hiding the Ashmolean label inside the bundle. 

Cataloguing and re-storage of the grass fibre clothing collections is part of our ongoing work to upgrade the store.  Finding 'missing' objects like this apron is just one of the benefits of carrying out this kind of work, which can be time consuming and not very glamorous! 

Comparison with similar objects in other Cook-voyage collections suggests that this skirt is indeed from Tahiti - it will be displayed with the rest of the Pitt Rivers Cook-voyage collections in mid 2015.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A Black Stripe

For the last few weeks, we've been working with Rachael Lee from the Textiles Conservation section at the Victoria and Albert Museum to help us make a mount for the Tahitian Mourner's costume.  The costume will be one of the highlights of the new display of Cook-voyage objects which will open in 2015.  The new display case which will house this exhibition is being installed this week in the Lower Gallery of the Pitt Rivers, and the re-mounted Mourner's costume will use almost the entire 2.7m height of this case. 

A few months ago, I blogged about finding a strip of barkcloth in one of our stores which I was sure was part of the Mourner's costume headdress.  Once in the lab, it was possible to confirm that this was the case - the strip was exactly the right length to fit back on the cape in the expected position.

Barkcloth strip before conservation treatment

Expected position of black strip

The barkcloth was very fragile, and couldn't be handled without damage.  It was necessary to line the strip with very fine Japanese tissue, a strong paper with long fibres, leaving a tab at the top to attach to the white barkcloth under-layer of the cape.  The adhesive used for this was a made from arrowroot and sodium alginate - it is a fairly 'dry' paste but strong enough to support the strip when hanging from the cape.  Small magnets were used to hold the barkcloth in place until the paste was dry.

Small magnets holding the tissue tab at the top of the black barkcloth strip in position

The two parts of the cape have been reunited after 120 years - one thing that is more noticeable now is the extent to which the barkcloth of the cape has faded after being on display almost continously for almost 250 years, compared with the black strip which has been in storage. 

Cape after treatment

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Cook Redisplay Begins

Work started this week on the Lower Gallery of the museum (this gallery space is now closed until the 5th September) to prepare for the installation of a new case for the Cook-voyage collections.

Taking the Mourner's costume headdress off its mount

 On Monday, we deinstalled the Tahitian Mourner's costume exhibition, moving most of the pieces to the conservation lab.  We will be working over the summer with Rachael Lee from the Textiles Conservation section at the Victoria and Albert Museum to make a mount for the complete costume for the new display.

Removing featherwork from display

While we were doing this, Collections staff emptied some of the featherwork cases, which have to be moved to allow the new case to fit into the corner of the gallery.  The current Cook case will be dismantled next weekend.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Cook Website now Live

A major outcome of my project, 'Conserving "Curiosities"' is a website, bringing together the research done on the Forster and Banks collections over the years by museum staff and visiting researchers. The site was made possible by the generosity of the Clothworkers' Foundation.

This website is designed to provide researchers and the general public with access to all the information that the Pitt Rivers Museum holds about the objects in its care that were collected on the famous Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook (1728–1779). At its heart is a searchable catalogue that links to the relevant records in the Museum's regularly updated online database. The site also provides information about the collectors, Joseph Banks and father-and-son Reinhold and George Forster, about the history of the collections in the form of a timeline, further readings, and a bibliography. Further materials will be added as they become available.

Please visit the site and explore the collections.

Monday, 3 March 2014


Several events related to the Cook-voyage collections have taken place over the last couple of months.

The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne

In January I was invited to speak at a conference at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne.  The symposium, about barkcloth,  was called 'Made in Oceania', and I gave a presentation about the Cook-voyage barkcloth at the Pitt Rivers.  Other speakers covered subjects as diverse as the cultural meaning of tapa, and presentations about the material qualities of barkcloth, such as dyes and surface decoration.  I was grateful to have been asked to speak at this very interesting conference, which is just one of the events accompanying the special exhibition 'Made in Oceania: Tapa - Art and Social Landscapes'.  The exhibition is described as presenting 'a number of unique masterpieces from the museum's own collection in combination with loans from major institutions such as the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington or the Australian Museum in Sydney. Many of them will be shown in Europe for the first time. The selection ranges from the oldest objects dating back to the 18th century - the Cook collection - to contemporary artworks from renowned Polynesian or Melanesian artists like John Pule, Fatu Akelei Feu'u, Michel Tuffery, Shigeyuki Kihara, Timothy Akis or Mathias Kauage. Various media such as film or audio stations bring people and stories behind the objects to life. Connections between past and present, everyday life and art and from island to island can be independently discovered.'  It runs until the 27th April 2014.

In February, the Pitt Rivers was pleased to announce that it had been awarded £64,845 from the DCMS/Wolfson Foundation's Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund.  The award will allow the museum to purchase a new display case for the Cook-voyage collections, and the case will be big enough to enable objects like the fau (Tahitian Priest's helmet) and the Tahitian Mourner's costume to be displayed to their full effect for the first time.  A generous donation from the Friends of the Pitt Rivers will help with installation costs. 

A digitally constructed image of the Tahitian Mourner's costume, showing how it will look when redisplayed

The fau, along with 18 other Cook-voyage objects, was lent to The Collection in Lincoln in February, for the exhibition 'Joseph Banks: A Great Endeavour'.  The exhibition centres on Benjamin West's portrait of Banks, wearing a Maori cloak (possibly one in the Pitt Rivers Collection, also loaned to the exhibition).  Many original illustrations and sketches have been brought together for the exhibition, which runs until the 11th May 2014.

Portrait of Joseph Banks by Benjamin West, The Collection , Lincoln

Packing the fau for loan is difficult, as it is large and fragile.  However, we had previous experience of doing this a few years ago, when the headdress was part of the large touring exhibition, "James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific' which had venues in Bonn, Berne and Vienna.  Because packing material might actually damage the structure of the headdress during transit, we developed a system whereby the fau is held just at the top and bottom.  The crate dismantles completely, allowing us to see what's happening as the sides and top are added or removed.  A padded post screwed to the bottom of the crate fits inside the headdress and holds the bottom securely, while a cushion, loosely filled with polystyrene beads, is stapled to the lid. This gently folds around the top of the headdress and stops it from moving.  The fau arrived in Lincoln without damage, as did the other objects in the loan.

The fau, 1886.1.1683, during packing