20 October 2012

Review: Made for Trade at the Pitt Rivers Museum


Solar-powered prayer wheel. Collected in Darjeeling, 2010
Until 27 January 2013
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

By Sue Giles
Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives


I had looked quickly at Made for Trade on a previous visit, but as I am going to be talking about it to Julia Nicholson at the next MEG meeting, I needed to go back for a proper look. 

As the introductory panel states, almost anything in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection could have been included in the exhibition – almost everything was made for trade in some way, so how to chose ideas and objects.  

What is trade? One might assume it is meant in a strictly commercial sense – an object made by one person for sale to another.  But trade can be taken in a personal, social sense.  It can be between neighbours, or across continents.  It can involve objects or ideas.  It can be one-way, two-way or multi-way.  The exhibition looks at many of the different ideas in the title, illustrating them with choice objects from the PRM huge collection.

I thought it interesting that the curators felt they had to state at the outset that the exhibition was not looking at the slave trade, at the trade in people: and that one visitor’s comment deplored this omission, as slavery was a part of ‘native’ trading traditions, rather than the choice ignoring or hiding the European slave trade.  But slavery kept cropping up throughout the exhibition: not in relation to people, who are not ‘made for trade’, but to the many European and Asian objects that were traded to Africa as part of a slave ship’s cargo – such as glass beads.

The exhibition is not a continuous narrative, rather a collection of stories about objects that illustrate trade in different ways.  What it shows is that trade is often a two-way exchange: ideas and fashions move across cultures with the objects being traded.  So American Indian women taught French nuns in Quebec how to work birchbark and moosehair, and the nuns gave French floral embroidery patterns to the American Indian women.

The exhibition raises the question of what is indigenous?  As people adopted and adapted trade goods – glass beads, Stroud cloth, steel tools, cotton cloth – it affected local crafts, styles and ideas.   And economics and society: the import of Indian and Manchester cotton into Africa, in the 18th century slave trade cargoes, probably all but killed the local cotton textile manufactures by flooding the market with ‘cheap’ imported goods.

This also affects notions of status: if trade goods confer status on the owner, how does that affect a society, if an upstart entrepreneur can be wealthier than the traditional rulers? 

There are lots of ideas in the exhibition to work through: trade can mean finished objects or raw materials, such as pottery made in one area of Papua New Guinea and traded across to areas without suitable potting clays, or feathers traded from the highland forests to the coast; or it can mean the widespread Arab trade across Africa, Asia and the middle east, or Ao Naga weavers selling cloth to neighbouring Konyak Naga buyers; it can mean trade in essentials or luxuries; or it can trigger the move from functional object to tourist souvenir.

Looking at the objects on display, one thing that jumps out is the spread of glass beads – many made in Czechoslovakia or Venice, they appear on costume and jewellery made in Amazonia, North America, Africa, Oceania and Indonesia.  What was the appeal when these glass beads were offered for exchange, how did they affect local style, were existing trade materials and partnerships displaced?  
Coffin for a shop-keeper made at Kane Kwei Coffin workshop in Teshei, Accra Ghana; 2010.68.1

One of the largest objects on display is a fantasy coffin from Ghana: made for the museum rather than use, it is a copy of one made for a shopkeeper and made in the shape of his shop, plastered with adverts for the stock inside.  But are these coffins commonplace, or exceptional?   

Two of the smaller items are an aluminium penis gourd made for South Africa, and a glass pubic triangle for Senegal: made in Europe for sale to Africa at a time (in the early 20th century) when I am sure that such things were not mentioned in polite society.   Commercial interest obviously trumps social niceties.  But they are just two of the many articles of trade made by Europe adapting local objects to replace them with mass produced versions.  What effects did this have on local production and economics?

There are many fascinating stories in the exhibition: the ‘octopus’ bags made of Stroud cloth in the Great Lakes area are that shape because they started as skin bags, with the legs dangling as decoration; an Englishman started making porcelain in Moscow to export to Central Asia; Gujarat weavers made different designs for the Indian and Muslim markets; and Chinese porcelain was made in Vietnam for export to East Africa.


The exhibition has a very nice quote from an Innu man in the 18th century: ‘Beaver makes everything’, he said, in reference to the fact that the trade in beaver furs allowed the Innu to buy everything they needed from the Hudson Bay Company shop.  One can read much into the quote and the social revolution that came with it.  Like the exhibition, it intrigues whilst raising questions.


See the website for details of the MEG meeting on 7 November, looking at and discussing the ‘Made for Trade’ exhibition.

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