31 July 2014

New book announcement - Museum Representations of Maoist China by Amy Jane Barnes

The collection, interpretation and display of art from the People’s Republic of China, and particularly the art of the Cultural Revolution, have been problematic for museums. These objects challenge our perception of ‘Chineseness’ and their style, content and the means of their production question accepted notions of how we perceive art. 

This book links art history, museology and visual culture studies to examine how museums have attempted to reveal, discuss and resolve some of these issues. Amy Jane Barnes addresses a series of related issues associated with collection and display: how museums deal with difficult and controversial subjects; the role they play in mediating between the object and the audience; the role of the Other in the creation of Self and national identities; the nature, role and function of art in society; the museum as image-maker; the impact of communism (and Maoism) on the cultural history of the twentieth-century; and the appropriation of communist visual iconography. This book will be of interest to researchers and students of museology, visual and cultural studies as well as scholars of Chinese and revolutionary art.

Further information and extracts from this book are available to view online.

29 July 2014

Conservation of a Ugandan shoulder harp at the Powell Cotton

A variation on the Egyptian New Kingdom shoulder harp, ennangas (arch harps) have for hundreds of years formed part of the rich musical heritage of Uganda. Used traditionally to accompany the singing voices of men, ennangas are recognisable by their elegant bowed neck, delicately laced strings, and falcate–shaped sound box which is usually covered by an animal skin.  Though often played at festivals and major ceremonies, the continuation of the ennanga as a “live” instrument was far from certain. With the loss of master and legendary harpists such as Temesewo Mukasa and the dearth of skilled musicians to instruct future generations, the musicologist Klaus Wachsmann declared in 1969 that the instrument was “practically extinct”. Gladly the ennanga has enjoyed a revival, you can see one in action here

Figure 1. Before conservation, strings broken.

Ugandan Ennanga (Walker Collection), Before Conservation
The Walker ennanga, collected over 100 years ago is comprised of wood, animal and reptile skins and vegetable fibres and is one of several in the Powell-CottonMuseum. The tautness of the stretched animal skin enveloping the top of wooden sound box and held in place by vegetable fibre lacing on its underside enables the sound box to still function as a resonator.  The vegetable fibres are integral: none are broken or friable. This is in part due to the ridges of stitched skin which encircles the mid-point of the sound box.  This ridge, formed by a series of running stitches from the laces being sewn into the leather, serves as a buffer as the tensile strength resides here and not on the individual laces.

The integrity of the sound box was in stark contrast to the condition of the strings at the neck of the instrument.  For whilst the neck shows soil marks and darkened patches from fingers on and between tuning pegs and the snake skin rings —all of which is valued as a biography of the object-- four out of the eight vegetable fibre strings were broken (Fig. 1). They dangled from the object’s neck and base.  Numerous attempts had been made over the years to repair the breaks. These attempts were not indigenous and resulted in various knots not only near the pegs but also at random sites along the fibre strings (Figure 2).     

Figure 2. Repositioning pegs with knotted vegetable fibre string. 

Knotting the strings had, in turn, resulted in an obvious shortening of their length and in heightening the tension which produced more breaks.  In counteracting the tension produced by the shortened strings, pegs had been repositioned and placed onto the other side of the neck.   Several knots were also anchored into peg holes, a short distance away from the indigenous knotting, as a makeshift measure to secure them into place.  The knots near  peg holes resulted in those pegs sitting crookedly in their slots due to their inability to be inserted completely. Several were at risk of falling from the neck.  There was also the problem of pegs being forcing into grooves which had knotted string.  This resulted in pegs becoming jammed.

After cleaning non-indigenous accretions from the surface of the object, by brushing and with the use of a museum vac, the aims of the conservation treatment was to return the pegs to their original position (providing a structurally correct interpretation of the object) and to rejoin the broken strings.  The former of these was fairly straight forward and involved researching object descriptions, sourcing pictures and diagrams of ennangas, to ascertain how pegs should be laced and inserted into the neck. The rejoining of the strings proved more challenging, as gaps between the ends of strings ranged up to 10 cms.

At first, measures were taken to relax the knots through humidification (use of tyvek, blotting paper and deionised water beneath a micro-tent) in order to make the fibres suppler before unknotting and re-joining.  Unknotting was successful on two occasions and the unknotted fibres edges were consolidated at their ends before joining. No attempt was made to remove knot from strings if the strings were still integral. Their pegs were simply turned slightly to lessen the tension on the strings.

Figure 3. Inch gap between joins. 

With less than 5 cms square inches of mulberry paper and a small amount of wheat starch to create bridges between joins, a gap fill was created from conservation paper, adhesive, and nylon mono-filament: the nylon mono-filament serving as a substitute for the long fibres of the Japanese mulberry fibre as the conservation paper on its own had not the requisite strength.

Step 1: The filament was adhered to the paper with HMG. The end of filament was not covered with paper but left out to enable it to be joined with the consolidated ends of the vegetable strings.
Step 2:  Early stages of twisting paper. When dried the paper was twisted, at intervals, until it mirrored the twist of the string. 

Step 3: When the twist mirrored that of the string, the part of the filament which protrudes from the open end of the paper, was positioned on top of the vegetable string.  Conservation paper was then wrapped around both the string and filament and adhered into place by Poly vinyl alcohol.
Step 4: Lastly, a swatch of Japanese mulberry paper, that had been coloured to the shade of the string, was adhered around the join to secure it.  The paper was then crafted into mirror the twist of the vegetable fibre. 
The process was repeated on the remaining broken strings and these detachable gap fills were then coloured to resemble the strings.

Ugandan Ennanga (Walker Collection) after conservation. 

Novelette-Aldoni Stewart
Conservator, Powell-Cotton Museum. 

25 July 2014

New Pitt Rivers Museum Cook voyage collections website now live

1886.1.1332 Sisi Fale

A new website Cook Voyage Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum 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) was launched in June. At its heart is a searchable catalogue that links to the relevant records in the Museum's regularly updated online database. The website is one of the outcomes of a two-year project to conserve and investigate the Cook-Voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers, funded by the Clothworkers' Foundation and led by Deputy Head of Conservation Jeremy Uden. 

In February 2014, 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 Museum will help with installation costs. The new case will give the Museum the opportunity to reinterpret the Cook voyage collection in light of new information and research findings discovered during the Conserving Curiosities project. Below are images of some of the objects that will be included in the new display.

1886.1.1340 Headdress

1886.1.1685 Headdress

1886.21.19 cloak

An ethno update from the South East

Museum ethnography has a growing profile in the South East thanks to two initiatives currently underway, both funded through Arts Council England grant streams. One, initiated by Bexhill Museum, is about ‘Rediscovering Ethnography in Kent& Sussex’. Focussed largely on collections of ethnography in museums without dedicated specialist staff, the project aims to offer these organisations a better understanding of the strengths of these collections and of local communities which may wish to engage with them. The project will also explore the viability of setting up a regional network for those interested in museum ethnography and will share project learning with the sector through an event later this year.

New display cases being prepared for the ethnography collections at the Powell-Cottton Museum.

Ali Clark researching Pacific collections from the Powell-Cotton Museum. 

In Kent, ‘Securing the Future of the Past’ at the Powell-Cotton Museum is some way into the creation of a fantastic new collections-based learning space to present highlights from its permanent collection as well as offer visitors the chance to interact with its handling collection. New interpretation will also create greater public awareness of the value of Powell-Cotton’s natural history collection as a research resource. The new space opens late October but here’s a sneaky peek of new cases just installed as well as an image of the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge’s ‘Pacific Presences’ project in action - in the form of Ali Clark, post-doctoral research assistant - at the same museum.

Helen Mears
Keeper of World Art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

21 July 2014

Africa Accessioned Project call for working group members

MEG is calling for any Africanists among our members to sit on the working group for the project Africa Accessioned. The Africa Accessioned project was initiated by the International Committee of Museums of Ethnography (ICME) which is working in partnership with the Southern African Development Community Heritage Association (SADCHA). The Africa Accessioned project has just started and is currently setting up a working group with two representatives from each county that is involved. 

The Africa Accessioned project was launched to coincide with International Museum Day 2014 - 'Museum Collections Make Connections'. The project aims to identify ethnographic collections in four different European countries that have links to four southern African countries. 

The project will also look at possible connections between collections in the African countries and museums and communities in Europe - for example, the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, Scotland might make links with the Livingstone Museum in Zambia. The four African countries that will be covered are: Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the four European countries are: Britain, Finland, Germany and Sweden. 

The first task of the working group will be to develop a questionnaire for circulation to the museums in the eight countries involved so that we can establish an initial 'map' of potential connections that will form a network for further dialogue. The conversation will enable source communities to provide greater historical depth regarding the intangible cultural heritage and geographical places which can provide a more complete biography of an object in a collection. The use of collections to forge contemporary links between different places can also provide the basis for other forms of cultural exchange. As many ethnographic collections were formed during the colonial period such international exchanges can stimulate and inform debates about contemporary issues and emphasis the ways in which some traditions might endure, whilst others have faded or evolved. 

If you would be interested in being a member of the working group and would like to know more about the project please contact Jeremy Silvester for more information. 

The Victoria and Albert Museum Photography Curators’ Training Programme

Supported by the The Art Fund
Art photography collections are held at regional museums, libraries and archives across the country but often without specialist curatorial expertise. Peer support for curators working with photography collections is limited. There is currently no Subject Specialist Network for Photography, and no active planning, programming, research, information exchange, scholarship or training that is more formally coordinated between UK institutions. As a result, many photography collections tend to be ‘dormant’ and inaccessible to experts and audiences, and curators responsible for photography collections do not have access to the necessary staffing and financial resources, or knowledge and specialist skills to actively develop their collections.
With the support of the Art Fund, the Victoria and Albert Museum is running a two-year pilot programme to help support the development of curatorial expertise in art photography, working with regional museum partners.
Programme Aims

  • To provide an unparalleled practical training opportunity in photograph scuratorship in the UK to build expertise in the field and, specifically, to equip two curators with specialist knowledge of photography and ability to care for and develop photograph collections;
  • To enable UK organisations to raise the public profile of their permanent collections of photographs and to improve public access, both physically and intellectually;
  • To provide the opportunity for collaborative partnerships and lay the foundation for an active future UK photographs subject specialist network.

The V&A will work with one regional museum for each of the two years. The partners will be chosen by open competition and both partners will be selected at the same time so they can participate in the development and delivery of the programme. Museums wishing to be considered should have a permanent collection of art photography and be able to identify a discrete project for the trainee curator to deliver which will benefit the collection, the museum and its audiences. This project will result in material outcomes for the regional partner which could include, but are not limited to, an exhibition, a refocus of the collecting policy, a publication or cataloguing of the collection. The project may be related to a specific theme, for example, processes and techniques, British industry, British colonialism, Protest, Childhood, or Landscape.

The partners will work together to support the aims of the programme and the selected museums will be required to enter into a contract with the V&A regarding the delivery of the project, including confirmation of the museum’s capacity to support the trainee, by providing a nominated support manager for the trainee, normally a section curator and agreeing a regular reporting process.
Once the partners are selected and project agreed, a trainee curatorial assistant will be recruited for the first year’s partner. Participants will spend approximately six months in the Photographs section of the Word and Image Department at the V&A, with a V&A curator as mentor and six months at the partner museum working on the agreed project.
The V&A will support the curator/trainee in developing their curatorial skills through work with the V&A photography collection and via participation in relevant V&A training modules. The V&A mentor will assist the participant in defining and developing their placement museum project and provide mentoring support over the six months they deliver the project at the partner museum.
The Art Fund will provide the V&A with funding to employ the trainees for the duration of the project on a 12 month fixed term contract each and travel expenses to enable the trainee to work between the V&A and the regional partner. There will also be attendance at relevant conferences and visits to other important photographic collections.
Should you have any questions, please contact Julia Brettell, National Programmes Manager. The deadline for applications is 11 August
Victoria and Albert Museum South Kensington, London, SW7 2RL. Tel: 020 7942 2537

7 July 2014

Deadline for applications for Principal Curator, Oceania, Africa and the Americas at National Museums Scotland extended...

Principal Curator, Oceania, Americas and Africa
£34,360 - £45,502 per annum plus membership of Civil Service pension scheme

This is an exciting opportunity to manage and develop a section within the World Cultures Department. The section covers the ethnographic and archaeological collections from the region of Oceania, the Americas and Africa. The section has responsibility for curatorial input to the galleries and exhibitions. The collections are currently featured in the six World Cultures galleries in the recently refurbished National Museum of Scotland and in the Scotland to the World gallery which tells the story of Scots migration.

As head of section you will have responsibility for developing these collections, and setting out a programme for their research and exhibition. You will lead, manage and develop a strategy for the research, interpretation and public programme activities of the section. You will be expected to contribute to the Department’s input to National Museums Scotland’s special exhibition programme. You will have acknowledged demonstrable personal expertise in a relevant specialist area, with a preference for Oceania. You will also be able to support the Keeper in developing the Department and help it achieve its aims and ambitions.

You will have a degree/postgraduate qualification (or equivalent) in a relevant subject, plus proven relevant work experience. An excellent communicator with proven research and publication skills, you will be organised, methodical, adept at problem solving, a team worker and a good thinker. You will have experience in managing staff and projects, and will have good ICT skills. A driving licence is highly desirable. Details of this post and of all our vacancies can be viewed on website.

For further information and an application pack, please visit the website, telephone 0131 247 4094 (answer phone) or email applications@nms.ac.uk, stating reference NMS14/497. Closing date for completed applications is Monday 4th August 2014.