24 August 2015

MEG Event Review: Indigenous Australia at the British Museum

I always find exploring other museum collections and meeting colleagues working in other institutions a rewarding experience. Julia Nicholson and I, both from the Collections Department at the Pitt Rivers Museum, recently visited the British Museum to see the temporary exhibition Indigenous Australia enduring civilisationas part of a special tour of the exhibition, which included a talk by the Curator Gaye Sculthorpe, organised by MEG.

We met up with the rest of the group from MEG, then Gaye gave an informative and interesting introductory talk before we looked at the exhibition. The British Museum collection was very impressive - including the work of contemporary Australian Indigenous artists, as well as older objects.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, along with other institutions,  had loaned some objects for the exhibition - which had plenty of visitors - so it was good to know people had this opportunity to see them on display.

After a good look around we then met up again with Gaye, who had kindly set aside time to have an informal chat with us all after we'd looked around.

A relaxing chat after the exhibition tour
with Curator Gaye Sculthorpe
Unfortunately the exhibition closed on 2 August, however, if you are interested you can still get a copy of Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which was researched and written in conjunction with the exhibition. If you are in Australia, you will be pleased to hear part of the collection is travelling there for a temporary exhibition. Plus Gaye intends to continue to bring attention to the importance of the British Museum's Australian collections, which will involve working directly with Indigenous   Australians.
Artist Billinyara Nabegeyo's
painting of the Rainbow Snake
loaned for the exhibition
PRM 1982.12.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

On behalf of Julia and I, I'd also like to say thank you to Gaye and MEG for this opportunity for such an insightful and enjoyable day.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator, Pitt Rivers Museum

Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: The Statues from Easter Island

Manchester Museum, 1 April - 6 September 2015

Any exhibition about Rapa Nui is inevitably going to be popular and challenging. How to satisfy a public who feel they ‘know’ the island’s most famous inhabitants – the iconic ‘Easter Island heads’ - when the statues themselves are inevitably out of reach on one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world?
This exhibition succeeds on two fronts. Significantly, the curators have been able to borrow the British Museum’s lesser-known, but still impressive statue Moai Hava (meaning ‘dirty statue’). This figure was brought to the UK by the crew of HMS Topaze in 1868, at the same as the British Museum’s famous moai: Hoa Hakananai’a. Raised up on a plinth in the entrance to the museum, Moai Hava ensures that visitors do not overlook the exhibition. Secondly, the exhibition includes two replica moai that impress, both in terms of their scale, and in the sense of drama created by the way one encounters them.

The British Museum's Moai Hava in the entrance hall at Manchester Museum

The first part of the exhibition is contained in a small room which houses four display cases and a screen projecting large scale images of Rapa Nui and the statues in situ. While the images of the statues are striking, more remarkable are the beautiful views of the island’s landscapes: lush, green, rolling scenery and white beaches probably unfamiliar to those whose only experience of Easter Island is via representations of the moai in films such as Night at the Museum. This room introduces visitors to the Island’s geography, histories of encounter and the on-going fascination with the statues that has led to a myriad of cultural representations.

Initially it seemed that this may be all there was for the visitor to see. A large curtain covered with images of Rapanui Rongo Rongo script tantalisingly suggested that there may be more to discover, but it required the encouragement of a museum attendant for most visitors to venture beyond. Stepping through the curtain brought one face to face with the replica moai. This moment of revelation, along with the decision to adorn the moai with red topknots and, in one case, to include the figure’s eyes ensured a ‘wow factor’ and the appreciation of visitors was audibly clear!

Replica Moai on display in the exhibition
Here, the exhibition discussed the latest interpretations of quarrying techniques, manufacturing processes and the way that Rapanui may have moved or ‘walked’ the moai. These texts were informatively and accessibly written and were the result of recent archaeological fieldwork carried out by members of the curatorial team. I was particularly impressed with the attention given to aspects of Rapanui cosmology, including many indigenous terms and concepts both in the gallery text and in the reasonably priced accompanying catalogue. One example was a discussion of the Polynesian realms of Ao and Po (light and dark or everyday and spiritual worlds). Indeed, the decision to separate the opening section of the exhibition from the darker space behind the curtain can be read as a clever visual manifestation of these concepts, and this intention was confirmed by a well-informed gallery attendant.

My only disappointment was that some of the ethnographic pieces included in the exhibition were not displayed as well as they might have been. One case including a staff and two beautiful dance paddles seemed cluttered and poorly lit, making it hard to appreciate the objects. On the other hand, a display of stone adze blades, lit through a glass shelf to create a series of shadows on the case floor below, created a very pleasing effect. It’s a shame that this attention to detail was not applied consistently.

In summary, Making Monuments is an excellent exhibition that succeeds in appealing to a range of audiences and no doubt has attracted visitor numbers to please the curators as well as the powers that be at Manchester Museum.
Julie Adams
Senior Research Fellow

21 August 2015

Islamic Art and Material Culture Network Specialist Support Scheme

Building on from a mapping programme the Islamic Art & Material Culture Subject Specialist Network (SSN).  completed last year, the SSN are offering a specialist support scheme aims to provide regional museums with a toolkit to help them unlock the potential of their collections of Islamic Art and Material Culture and use them to engage with new and diverse audiences. It will provide flexible, specialist and practical support through a scalable programme that can be tailored to the needs of the individual institutions. At least one tangible output, such as a new display, knowledge sharing or outreach event should result from that specialist support.
Details about the Specialist Support Scheme and how to apply can be found via the SSN website

The deadline has been extended to receive applications for our Specialist Support Scheme. The deadline is 5pm on Friday 18th September, 2015.

Staff wanted for a major AHRC-funded project on Pacific barkcloth

Three job opportunities for a major AHRC-funded project on Pacific barkcloth (tapa/kapa), starting in January 2016. The project is led by Frances Lennard at the Centre for Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow, and is in collaboration with Adrienne Kaeppler (Smithsonian) and Mark Nesbitt (Kew Gardens), with a distinguished advisory board. Staff will be based in Glasgow but with travel to the partner institutions. The project combines research into tapa as a plant material with research into its history and cultural context. It is centred on the museum collections of the Hunterian, Kew and Smithsonian.

Three posts are being advertised, closing date 20 September 2015.

011026 Historical researcher (post-doctoral) 36 months

011025 Scientific researcher (post-doctoral) 30 months

011024 Research conservator 24 months
Full details can be found here.
Queries can be sent to Frances Lennard and/or Mark Nesbitt 

Frank Davis Memorial Lecture: A Critique of the Natural Artefact: Anthropology, Art and Museology

by Professor Nicholas Thomas: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Tuesday 13 October 2015 - 5:30 pm - 6:45 pm
Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre,

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN, UK, WC2R 0RN

Open to all, free admission

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, studies of ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ arts were closely identified with museums and collecting; when the field re-emerged in the early 1970s it was inspired by ethnography and new theorisations of symbolic systems but relatively unconnected with the vast collections of Oceania, African and native American art in the galleries and stores of ethnography museums in Europe and elsewhere. The lecture reflects on the constitution of collections, and in particular on the artefact, proposing that the museum, in dialogue with contemporary art, again has the capacity to constitute a ‘method’, to empower interpretations of art objects and cross-cultural art histories.

Nicholas Thomas has written extensively on art, empire, and Pacific history, and curated exhibitions in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, many in collaboration with contemporary artists. His early book, Entangled Objects (1991) influentially contributed to a revival of material culture studies; with Peter Brunt and other colleagues, he co-authored Art in Oceania: a new history (2012), which was awarded the Art Book Prize. Since 2006, he has been Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, which was shortlisted for the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year Prize in 2013.

See full details here.

Oxford Anagama Kiln Project

A social anthropologist from Oxford University is collaborating with Japanese and UK potters in building and firing two traditional kilns in Wytham Woods near Oxford. Dr Robin Wilson, an associate researcher from the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, is studying how a traditional craft can remain commercially successful in a modern global economy. The 11-metre-long anagama kiln, fashioned from willow and clay, was lit on the 11th August. To follow the project and find out more visit the University of Oxford news and events web page here.

4 August 2015

Materials Identification Workshop

Location: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter

Jointly run by the Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG) and the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA)

Course leader: Paolo Viscardi

Maximum number of attendees: 40

Price: free to attend

Date: 15 October 2015

10.00am  – 3.00pm

Enquiries: Tony Eccles

Museum staff caring for collections will understand how important it is to be able to identify the materials objects are made from.  By working with colleagues across different fields of expertise, collections become accessible.  Managing knowledge of related legislation ensures that collection management is done responsibly and ethically. 

Historic items often employ ivory as a decorative element, but is it elephant ivory or walrus ivory?  Do you know the difference between them?  Items of jewellery and other items brought to the UK over 100 years ago were sometimes decorated with animal and human remains; bone, horn and teeth.  But would you be able to identify them?  This workshop will examine snake, fish and whale bone even the teeth of a wild cat and dogs.  With anything made from bone one needs to be able to identify the species of animal, indeed it could even be human.  With this in mind, museum staff should be aware of the current CITES and Human Tissue Act legislation.

The workshop aims to provide museum professionals and students with an opportunity to learn how to identify raw materials and understand how current legislation can guide best practice in the museum environment.