Friday, 20 December 2013

Project end

Today marks the end of my two-year project, funded by the Clothworkers' Foundation, to conserve and investigate the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.  During the course of the project, with help from interns, I have worked on over 200 objects, generating new information and nearly 1000 photos for the new Cook website, which will be launched next year.

Work on the Cook-voyage collections won't stop.  I am speaking at an international conference in Cologne in January - 'Made in Oceania  - Social and cultural meaning, restoration and museum presentation of Oceanic tapa - where I will be talking about the Cook-voyage barkcloth held by the Pitt Rivers.  In addition, a number of objects collected by Joseph Banks, including the amazing fau headdress from Tahiti, will be going on loan to The Collection in Lincoln in February.

1886.1.1683 - Tahitian fau

The Cook collection will be redisplayed in the museum too, hopefully in a new case large enough to display the Tahitian Mourner's costume to its full potential.  We will hear if we have been successful in a funding bid for this new 8m long, 3m high case early in the new year.

Blog posts will continue, though less regularly, to keep you updated on the work on the collection.

Friday, 13 December 2013

'Safe and without injury'

Tahitian cylindrical drum

While working on this drum from Tahiti (1886.1.1518) I noticed in the documentation (available on the Pitt Rivers online database) that this and several other objects in the Cook-voyage collections had been sent to the International Colonial and Export Trade Exhibition of 1883 in Amsterdam, for which the Ashmolean (the collections were housed there before transfer to the newly opened Pitt Rivers in 1886) won a 'diploma of a silver medal, and a catalogue.'  We also learn that the objects 'were all returned safe and without injury.'

A view of the exhibition

The exhibition was held in the summer of 1883, and took place in the grounds behind the Rijksmuseum, now the 'Museumplein'.

View of the exhibition grounds

24 nations took part, as can be seen in the map of the fairground below.

Over a million tickets were sold for the exhibition by the time it closed in November 1883.

For more information on the exhibition, see

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Red Woollen Thread

This cloak is thought to be Forster No. 103 'A dogskin coat'

1886.1.1132 Maori Cloak

It is made of muka, the prepared fibre of the New Zealand flax plant (Phormium tenax), twined in the whatu aho rua technique (double-pair weft-twining).

The 100th aho row, is in whatu aho patahi (single-pair weft-twining) - this is the only row made in this technique.

The cloak was worn as a paepaeroa, with the aho rows vertical. 

There are 7 whenu warps per cm with a 6-7mm spacing between each aho weft row. 

A single length of red woolen thread is woven into the kaupapa of the cloak.

Red wool thread woven into the cloak

The pattern formed is known as paheke, which means 'trickle' or 'flow'.   This strand of red wool must have been obtained by unravelling fabric or clothing obtained during the first voyage, and it is clearly woven in as the cloak was constructed, rather than being added afterwards.

Detail of paheke design

Because of the way that the red wool thread is woven into the cloak, with the 'tails' of the thread woven in after the main pattern,it is possible to tell that construction began at the edge furthest from the wool insertion.

Shaping rows, aho poka, are present.  There are two clear wedge inserts are present, one near the side furthest from the commencement  (1240mm from this edge) and one near the centre (790mm from the commencement edge).  A third set of aho poka are present which do not form a clear insert - these are approximately 40mm from the commencement.

Cloak showing the ends of the aho poka marked with paper triangles.  The right-hand edge was where weaving commenced.

The bottom of the cloak, the left hand edge as constructed, is finished with a twisted three-ply braid of dyed muka.  Each ply in turn is held by a successive aho row, so that each ply is attached to the cloak every third row. The muka used to make the cord is natural in colour, and also dyed black and brown, giving a variegated effect.

Cord of plied muka fibre used to edge cloak

The top of the cloak, the right hand side as constructed, is finished with a fine plaited border made of dyed muka.  In some areas the colours are mixed,  so that plies of black, brown and naturally coloured flax fibre produce a variegated effect to the plaited edge.

The plaited edge to the cloak, as well as the method of attachment of the dogskin tags

Tags of dog skin are attached to the upper corners of the cloak.  The dog skin strips are approximately 24cm in length, and are folded in half and tied to the cloak with a length of plied muka cord.  The cord is threaded through the body of the cloak, a single length being used to hold all the strips in place.

This finely made taonga (treasure), with its use of dogskin and precious red wool, was clearly a high status item of clothing.

The description of the cloak is based on information and descriptions found in Whatū Kākahu / Māori Cloaks, edited by Awhina Tamarapa. Wellington: Te Papa Press (2011)

Friday, 15 November 2013

"A Shaggy great coat"

This is Forster No. 107, decribed in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities' as 'A shaggy great coat.'

1886.1.1124 Front of cloak

1886.1.1124 Back

It is a rain cloak, with an outer 'thatch' of plant material, mainly New Zealand flax but possibly also including kiekie (Freycinetia arboria).  The thatch is incorporated into the body of the cloak as it is made, held within the whenu weft structure.  Folded strips of plant material form each bundle of thatch.

Folded lengths of plant material are incorporated into the whatu as the cloak is made

Work on the cloak would have started at the bottom, using relatively unprocessed bundles of harakeke, New Zealand flax, as the aho warps.  The cloak is woven in the single pair weft twining technique (whatu aho patahi).  At the neck edge, the finishing point for the construction, the warp threads and additional plant material are made into a thick plaited edge.

Braided edge at top of cloak

Sometimes, garments such as this these are called 'rough' or 'coarse'.  Yet, as Mick Pendergrast writes in "Maori Fibre Techniques - Ka tahi hei tama tu tama (Auckland, Reed Books, 2005) this designation is 'unfair to the garments and their makers...the workmanship and design is often exquisite.'

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Cook-voyage Collection in Florence

The Duomo, Florence

Earlier this week I visited the Museo di Storia Natrale di Firenze where there is a collection of objects collected on Cook's voyages.  This was the first such collection to be systematically described and published, by Gignoli in 1893.  However, until work done by Adrienne Kaeppler, curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, in the 1970s, it was not certain which voyages the collection is from, or how exactly the objects came to Florence.  Kaeppler discovered that Giovanni Fabrioni, an Italian Scientist and director of the Mint in Florence, and Felice Fontana, director of the museum in Florence, were listed as purchasers at the sale of the collection of George Humphrey, an art dealer,  in London in 1779.  In addition, Fabrioni knew Joseph Banks, the naturalist on the first voyage, and could have obtained specimens from him, or from other collectors.  He may still have been in London when the third voyage ships arrived, and been able to obtain specimens from Hawaii and the Northwest Coast of America.

(see 'Cook Voyage Artifacts in Leningrad, Berne and Florence Museums' edited by Adrienne L. Kaeppler, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication 66, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, Hawaii 1978)

The Palazzo Nonfinito, Via Proconsul 12

Museum entrance
The Anthroplogy and Ethnology section of the museum is housed in the Palazzo Nonfinito ('unfinished palace'), Via Proconsul 12.  The Cook-voyage collections are displayed in two cases in a room with other Oceanic collections. 

Case displaying Cook-voyage collections
Second case - Tahitian Mourner's costume and Hawaiian objects

One of the most unusual parts of the collection in Florence is this painted barkcloth from Tahiti.  Other Tahitian barkcloths collected at the time are either plain, or decorated with red circles made by dipping the end of a plant stem on dye and using it as a stamp. 

Detail of decorated barkcloth

Thursday, 17 October 2013

'Three plain coats of the flax plant'

As discussed in a previous blog post, the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers contain many Maori taonga or treasures.  I have been examining some of the textile taonga, in particular a kakahu (cloak) collected by the Forsters, 1886.1.1133.  Number 106 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities given to Oxford' it is described as one of 'Three plain coats of the flax plant, two with dogskin at the corners'

The first step in being able to describe how a kakahu is made involves developing the correct vocabulary.  I've been following the terms used in the excellent book 'Whatu Kakahu/Maori Cloaks' edited by Awhina Tamarapa and published by Te Papa Press in 2011, as well as many other references to help me to describe the way that kakahu were made.

The term 'weaving' to describe the process of making a kakahu can be misleading.  They were made by weft-twining, a process in which two 'weft' threads (aho) are twisted around each other, enclosing 'warp' threads (whenu) as they twist.  No loom is involved, and the process is done entirely by hand.

Forster 106, 1886.1.1133.  The white triangles indicate the ends of the short weft rows, poka, used to shape the cloak

Forster 106 is a small kaitaka (a cloak with a fine undecorated foundation, edged with a border, normally of taniko, a decorative weft-twining technique developed only by the Maori.)  The kaitaka is of muka, the fibres extracted from the New Zealand flax plant (Phormium sp.)  The aho is made up of single pairs of threads (single-pair weft-twining - whatu aho patai).  There are shaping rows inserted into the weft.  These short rows - poka - allowed the cloak to hang gracefully over the body.

The foundation of the cloak, showing single-pair weft-twining (the horizontal fibres).  The end of one of the shaping rows is also visible.

The cloak is very finely made.  There are eight whenu warps per centimeter, and the spacing between the aho warps is only three or four millimeters. The cloak is is excellent condition, even after 250 years, and the flax fibre is still soft and lustrous.

The plain part of the border on this kaitaka is not taniko, but very closely packed rows of single-pair twining, creating a thick, dense fabric.  However, the patterned areas at the top and bottom of the border do appear to have been created using taniko techniques, where two colours are used in the twining process, with the colour not in use being hidden inside the wrapped threads.

The border of the cloak, showing the patterned edge, and the plaited finish.  A short fringe of whenu warp fibres also is visible.

Small tags of dog skin are attached to the cloak along both edges of the border.  A cord made from twisted muka has been threaded through the body of the cloak and looped around the strips to hold them - this possibly would have required the use of a needle, which would probably have been made of bird bone.

Dog skin tag, showing the method of attachment.

A fine cloak such as this would have been a prized garment, imbued with the mana of both its creator and its wearer.  Kaitaka were garments of prestige, worn to stress the importance of an event.

I am not an expert in Maori fibre techniques, but I hope that by documenting these taonga and sharing that information on the new Cook-Voyage collections website, people with more knowledge might be able to contribute to our understanding of these important cloaks.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

'A hatchet of green stone, the handle curiously carved.'

This blog post is by Conor Tulloch, our Icon HLF intern at the Pitt Rivers Museum.  

What is this and what’s it for?

1886.1.1159 Adze, New Zealand

Smaller and more ornamented than the average Maori adze, this particular ‘toki’ was probably never used as a tool. Rather it is a ceremonial weapon, the main function of which was likely to act as a symbol of the owner’s authority. High-status individuals (rangatira) could indicate their position on important occasions by carrying such ‘toki poutangata’ [‘the adze that establishes the standing of a person’] (Neich, 1997). 

Beyond this, it has been suggested that ‘toki poutangata’ were also used for the execution of captured enemies, as praiseworthy spoils of war, as significant objects to be exchanged in treaty, and as heirlooms, physically connecting its owner with their ‘venerated ancestors.’ (Keene, 2012). 

Where did this one come from?

Naturalists George Forster and his father Johann Reinhold Forster acquired this ‘toki poutangata’ in New Zealand on Captain Cook’s second voyage. Though the exact date they obtained the adze is not known definitively, it appears at least likely to be that described by Forster on the 4th of June 1773 as, ‘… a hatchet, of which the blade was of the finest green jadde, and the handle curiously ornamented with fretwork.’ In his journal entry for this date Forster writes how the, ‘hatchet’, was sold to them at Queen Charlotte Sound by Maori from the ‘opposite shore of the northern island, called Teera Whittee.’ 

Map of Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand
A similar adze illustrated in Cook's account of the Second Voyage

What’s it made from?

Nephrite  - the blade of the ‘toki’ is made of nephrite, a form of Jade. It is a hard, fine-grained, greenish mineral that, in New Zealand, is only found in particular waters of the South Island. Known as ‘pounamu’, nephrite was a highly valued and highly traded commodity in Maori life and was used to make a variety of tools, weapons, and ornaments.

1886.1.1159 - detail of nephrite blade
Flax -the type of flax found in New Zealand was essential to the Maori way of life. The common forms of this plant (Phormium sp.) were used variously in medicine, clothing, and tools. Here, the flax makes up the lashing that secures the nephrite blade to the wooden haft.
This type of flax, closely related to the day lily or Hemerocallis, and thus unrelated to linen flax, was greatly praised by George Forster in his journal entries.

Haliotis shell  - the inlaid eyes of the two carved faces in the handles are both made from shaped pieces of Haliotis shell. Also known as abalone, Haliotis is a genus of sea-snail endemic to New Zealand. Its iridescent appearance is somewhat similar to mother-of-pearl and is a common decorative feature in Maori craft.

1886.1.1159 Detail of eye

How was it made?

Blade - the blade of this adze has been shaped into a long, thin rectangle. The hewing end is beveled to an edge while the butt-end has been cut to accommodate the toe of the wooden haft. A perforation has also been drilled at this end to allow the lashing to pass through. Perforations like this are not found on adzes used as a working tool, probably as it weakens the structure of the nephrite and so shortens the useful life of the tool (Pearce, 1971).

A way of shaping nephrite was by sawing and filing with sandstone or greywacke flakes. Using these flakes with the addition of water, a groove can be incised into the nephrite. Into this groove, quartz sand, which is harder than the nephrite, can then be added to speed up the sawing process. This action would continue until the saw-line was deep enough to snap the nephrite cleanly or until it met an opposing groove, sawed from the other side.

Once the general shape of the ‘toki’ blade was established, the fine-grain of the nephrite would be polished on grindstone slabs (hoanga) of sandstone or mudstone. The hewing end of the blade would also be fashioned this way. One author describes the process in the absence of rotary grindstones: 

‘He takes his slab of sandstone to the nearest stream or pool, and places it therein in a slanting position, the lower end being under water. He "squats" down at the upper end, and rubs his implement up and down on the stone in a longitudinal manner, each downward movement taking the edge and part of the blade well under water. This assists the grinding process, and saves the operator the trouble of obtaining water and frequently pouring it on the surface of his grinding-stone.’ (Best, 2011)

The drilled hole would probably have been achieved using a weighted ‘stone-tipped pull-cord drill,’ the alternating rotation of which would produce a conical hole. This would meet with an opposing hole, drilled from the other side, to form an hourglass shaped perforation.

Lashing - the flax lashing here appears in two forms. In the photo below it can be clearly seen that the flat, straight plant fibres on the left have undergone fewer processes than the twisted, plaited fibres on the right. 

Detail of lashing
These fibres are obtained from the leaves of either of two indigenous Phormium species (Phormium tenax and P. coelensi, syn P. cookianum). The flesh is removed from the broad leaves using a sharp shell.

The flat fibres here are bound around the blade to the foot of the handle with a turn of cord running between the butt of the adze and the foot. The plaited cord however belongs to a different system of lashing and is not attached in any way to the flat fibres. Rather, the plaited cord runs through a hole in the foot of the handle that corresponds with the perforation in the adze. The cord is then passed through the nephrite from opposite directions and tied off at the top. 

Haft  - The haft (kakau toki) of this ‘toki poutangata’ is made of wood, the exact species of which had not been identified in this example. Its form, however, is common to Maori adzes and is well documented. The angle of the foot to the shaft is acute, having been derived from a secondary branch of a tree. A section of the primary branch would have been cut from the tree and then carved down to create a foot for the adze-blade (Best, 2011).

In the case of this haft, there is a perforation running through the width of the foot. This is unusual for adzes functioning as working tools (the blades of which are usually lashed to the foot directly without perforation) but is often seen in ‘toki poutangata’.

What does the decoration mean?

There are various assertions on the meanings of the curvilinear patterns and distinctive figures found in Maori carving. However it is misleading to give any definite interpretations. One publication on a New Zealand government website accounts much of the meaning given to these carvings to, ‘the perpetrator of [a] clever and successful hoax’, a member of the Arawa tribe who, ‘obligingly,’ misinformed the author of the book Maori Symbolism. Instead it is suggested that much of the carving was purely decorative and that the symbolism relating to the figures has been either exaggerated or was already lost by the time Europeans arrived. (McLintock, 2009).

Regardless, the fact remains that there are recurring patterns and motifs in Maori carving, some of which are present on this ‘toki’: 

Spirals are one of the most common motifs in Maori relief carving. These are usually not single spirals but are formed of interlocked pairs as illustrated below. One form of spiral here is the ‘rauru’, a curved variation of the ‘rauponga,’ which is a band of dog-tooth notches bordered with parallel grooves. 

Carved decoration on adze

In addition there are simple incised notches, more rectilinear bands of ‘rauponga’, and, of course, the two abstracted figures on the foot. Such abstracted figures are seen throughout Maori carving and it has been suggested that the basis of design in this tradition is built out of the human form. It can be seen that the anatomical features of the figure shown here is composed of distinct decorative elements. The four-fingered hand, splayed across the belly, is formed of simple rectilinear bands, while what appears to be the legs and arms are variations of the ‘rauru’.

Figure carved on heel of adze

Figure carved on base of handle

Best, E. (1912) 'Stone Implements of the Maori', Wellington: NZETC 

N. Thomas and O. Berghof (Eds) 'A Voyage Round the World, George Forster' Volume I, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000

Kaeppler, A. L.'“Artificial Curiosities”, An Exposition of Native Manufactures, Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R.N.'  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1978

Keene, B. (updated 2012) Pounamu – Jade or Greenstone – Symbols of Chieftainship, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Neich, R. 'Pounamu, Maori Jade of New Zealand', Auckland: David Bateman Ltd, 1997

Pearce, G.L. 'The Story of New Zealand Jade, Commonly Known as Greenstone', Auckland: Collins 1971

Swarbrick, N. (updated 2012) Flax and flax working - Māori use of flax, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

McLintock, A.H. (updated 2009) Meaning and Symbolism, , Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A Story of Reuse and Fermentation

This is another post written by Emma Schmitt, the Conserving 'Curiosities' project summer intern.

1886.1.1367 Paddle, Tonga

This carved wooden paddle from Tonga was listed by George Forster in 'The Catalogue of Curisoities Given to Oxford' as No 81 “A spatula of wood to mix up their paste of breadfruit with”.   

The form and shape of this object suggests that the object may have had a prior role as a dance paddle, used by men of high rank in a dance called me’etu’upaki (Kaeppler 1978). This term means ‘dance’ (me’e) ‘standing’ (tu’u) ‘with paddles’ (paki). The Forsters did not see this dance being preformed and thus probably had no knowledge of it. Cook, however, saw and described the dance during his third voyage:

‘It was a kind of dance, performed by men and youths of the first rank; ... Any number may perform it, there were in this one hundred and five, each having in his hand an Instrument shaped something like a paddle of 2.5 feet in length, with a small handle and thin blade so that they were very light and the most of them neatly made. With these Instruments, they made many and various flourishes each of which was attended with a different attitude of the body and some different movement or another They at first ranged themselves in three lines, and by different movements and motions each man changed his station in such a manner that those who were in the rear came in front. Nor did they remain long in the same form, but these changes were made by pretty quick movements; they at one time extended themselves in one line then formed into a semicircle and lastly into two square Columns, while this last was performing, one of them came and danced a harlequin dance before me with which the whole ended.’

Broken handle of paddle lashed together with plaited coconut fibre

The Pitt Rivers’ paddle has been carved from native hardwood, and it is deceptively lightweight.  It was damaged at some point, the handle breaking away from the blade completely.  It was mended using braided coconut fiber to secularly wrap the break and hold the two pieces in place.  Chips to the wooden blade are on the edge of the blade, possibly indicating a long period of use.

Tip of paddle, showing damage

This pattern of damage indicates that the paddle may not have ended its time on Tonga as the prestige item it was first meant to be.  How can an object move from a prestige object used by elite men to a utensil of daily use? In simplest terms, the very fact that this was a prestige object is what saved it for repurposing.  The time, energy and material that went into creating such and object meant that, if it could be repaired it should not be thrown away.  It was probably no longer appropriate to be used during dances, but it could be used for another task, in this case the preparation of breadfruit paste.  The spatula’s role in the preparation of breadfruit paste is difficult to discern.  Methods of paste production have been documented, though not thoroughly, and tend to vary between the islands.  

The breadfruit tree grows throughout the south pacific and was a main source of food for the population of the islands Cook visited; it was also one of the products he traded for to keep the crew of the ships provisioned.  The fruit was out of season for some portion of the year making preservation of this staple imperative for the island communities. And earlier post here provides Joseph Banks’ description of the process as well as his opinions on taste: 

Banks’ opinion aside, the description he provides is helpful, but does not give any indication as to what a spatula may have been used for.  More modern discussions of the fermentation of breadfruit provide a fuller description of the later stages of the process.  

After the breadfruit has been buried, the period of time the fruit remains in the pits is variable, from a few months to years.  In fact in the 1980’s a pit was uncovered that was believed to be over 300 years old and the paste inside was deemed “still in edible condition” (Pollan, 2013).  It must be said that this was a rare find and the definition of  “edible condition” may very between people, however, the general thought is that breadfruit paste gets better with age.  

Overall, the management of these pits differs. In some cases fresh fruit may be added to the pits, or old paste mixed with new.  In other places, paste from year to year was kept completely separate (Pollock 1984). 

The paste, when eaten, goes through a preparatory process that involves mixing it with water, kneading, and baking.  Descriptions of the fermented paste indicate that is dry and possibly hard in its fermented form.
No direct reference is made to where in the process a spatula may be used, however, there are many times with both the fermentation process and the food preparation that such a utensil may have been put to use.  These include, but are not limited to, removing the paste from the pits if old and new paste were to be layered together or if paste was needed for food.  A spatula may have also been useful while mixing the paste with water before the kneading process.  

Objects like this are incredibly important because it makes us think differently in terms of use and reuse.  Had the Forsters not recorded what they saw as the use of the paddle we would be seeing it as a completely different object, not related to food preparation at all, but to the male members of society and the role of dance on the island; completely different cultural practices that wind up coming together in this simple object.  

Beaglehole, John Cawte, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780, Hakluyt Society, Extra Series, 36, 1 u. 2. vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1955

Kaeppler, Adrienne L, ‘Artificial Curiosities’ Being An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook RN [Exhibition catalogue], Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978

Pollan, Michael  Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.  New York, The Penguin Press 2013

Pollock, Nancy J. Breadfruit Fermentation Practices in Oceania.  Journal de la Société des Océanistes, Vol 40 Issue 79, 151-164.  1984.  

Thursday, 5 September 2013

'A Black Piece' revisited

This post was written by Emma Schmitt from the Textile Conservation MPhil at the University of Glasgow, who is the summer conservation intern on the Conserving 'Curiosities' project.

Barkcloth 1886.1.1256

'Upon arriving at the Pitt Rivers Museum I was shown the bark cloth object on which it was assumed I would spend most of my time.  The “black piece", as it was listed in Forsters Catalogue, is an interesting and singular object in many ways.  The cloth itself is constructed of three layers, two of plain white bark cloth and one of a decorated black cloth.  The decoration, similar to that seen on the headdress of the Pitt River's second Tahitian mourner’s costume, is itself, rare in form.

1886.1.1637 .9 Headdress, Tahitian mourner's costume

Detail of barkcloth on headdress

At first glace this object is a bit scary, as you can see there are many areas of loss, but on top of that the black cloth appears to be flaking apart in some areas and powdering in others.  The painted areas easily lift up from the surface of the black bark cloth taking both the paint as well as bark fiber with it.  Every time the piece moves other small fragments are lost.

Detail of 1886.1.1256 showing surface damage

The construction of the object has had an effect on some of the damage.  The layers of this cloth have been lightly pasted together.  The black bark cloth has been pasted down in a rather haphazard manner causing creases and folds to form.  These folds can be seen in the photo and, in some places, correspond to the areas where the piece has been damaged. 

Black dyed fibers overall are susceptible to damage for one main reason.  Black dyes tend to be very high in tannin and iron and thus very acidic.  In an acidic environment the fibers can break down at the molecular level eventually leading to visible damage, like we see on this object.  For the most part black dyes in the South Pacific were made using extracts of bark, high in tannin, followed by immersion in mud that would have been high in iron.  Earlier research on this cloth shows that the black portion of the cloth is high in iron, explaining why the barkcloth was breaking down. 

1886.1.1256 - detail of surface under microscope x24

On initial examination of the painted decoration it looked as if white paint had been applied to the black cloth. However, under magnification, the paint appears to have originally been black and, for an unknown reason, appears to have bloomed with a whitish powdery substance.  The question was raised as to whether or not the paint might be a Western paint, brought on Captain Cook’s earlier voyage.  Without chemical analysis of this paint this question is difficult to answer.  The fact that the paint may be black, instead of white, means that it could easily be a local resin.  This still leaves the possibility of it being a Western paint open to speculation. 

While the investigation into the piece leaves numerous questions unanswered it posed a number of conservation issues which led to some interesting experimentation. 

As mentioned, this bark cloth is in poor condition, however it is a rare piece and thus incredibly important to the Pitt Rivers collection.  When we started to discuss possible treatments consolidation of the surface was discussed, to prevent the continuing loss of the back fiber.  Consolidation is the process by which an adhesive is applied to a surface to bind a material together to prevent further loss.  In many cases this is something down to more rigid objects like flaking or powdery painted surfaces.  In dealing with bark cloth the flexibility of the cloth is important and maintaining that flexibility is key to the treatment. 

Research into different methods of consolidation led to the work of Rangi Te Kanawa, a Maori Conservator based at The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.   Ms. Te Kanawa’s work focuses on the conservation of Mari Cloaks.  Her recent research has lead to the use of sodium alginate, a seaweed based gel, as a consolidate for black dyed New Zealand flax.  Her research showed that, not only did the sodium alginate bind the deteriorating fibers together, but it also had the added benefit of neutralizing some of the acids that are the result of the mud-based dye process. 

Sodium alginate has not been applied to bark cloth by Ms. Te Kanawa so it was unknown how it would affect a very different material.  We set up an experiment to see whether or not the treatment would have a beneficial effect.  Solutions of sodium alginate were made up in various concentrations.  Using fragments of bark cloth from a store of unaccessioned samples we applied the solutions to a dry bark cloth fragment with a brush and allowed them to dry.  The result of the treatment was a metallic sheen on the surface of the bark cloth samples, reminiscent of mica, and a slight stiffening of the material.  Checking of the pH of the samples before and after treatment showed that there had been no change in the acidity of the cloth. 

Unaccessioned fragments of deteriorated barkcloth consolidated with sodium alginate solutions of varying concentrations

A second test was run to see if wetting the cloth through humidification could reduce the metallic sheen.  It was hoped that by wetting the cloth first, the sodium alginate would be drawn into the bark cloth, thus leaving less on the surface.  This treatment was successful in reducing the sheen, however, a test of the pH showed that there was still no change in the acid levels and the fabric still retained the slight stiffening see in the original tests.

Overall the experiment showed that this type of treatment may not be appropriate for bark cloth.  This may be because of the structure of the fabric as the beaten fibers lack the directionality seen in woven fabrics and thus move differently.  The lack of affect it had on the acidic pH as well as the metallic sheen and change in handle made the treatment less than ideal for “the black piece” collected by the Forsters.  An object of such importance and rarity should be treated in a way that is safe and will not visually change the object.   In the end, ‘the black piece’ had a custom-padded board and box constructed for it that will allow it to lay flat and be stored safely, in hope that in the future a treatment may be able to stabilize it and preserve it for future generations.'

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Black Drops From Tahiti

Katherine, one of the volunteers assisting with practical and research tasks in the Conserving Curiosities Project, reports on a recent exhibition in Oxford that references the voyages of Captain Cook.

Map of Tahiti by Lieut. J Cook, showing Point Venus at the top (image from the David Rumsey Map Collection)

Simon Starling’s film 'Black Drop' documents the scientific attempts to accurately record the Transit of the Venus through the past 400 years. This astronomical event, where the planet Venus passes across the disc of the sun, only happens twice every century (on a cycle just over one hundred years), with a short interval of just eight years between the first and second transit. The most recent transits were in 2004 and 2012. Starling was commissioned by Modern Art Oxford and Oxford University to record the transit in 2012 in the artist’s chosen medium of 35mm film, from the historic observation point of Hawaii. His film and two new sculptural works, Venus Mirrors (05/06/2012, Hawaii & Tahiti (Inverted)) have been exhibited at Modern Art Oxford over the summer.

By traveling to the Pacific to accurately record the planet’s movement across the sun, Starling was following in the footsteps of Captain Cook, who, as a newly appointed Lieutenant, commanded the HM Bark Endeavour on the Royal Society’s expedition to record the Venus transit of 1769. This was the year that the astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks had mathematically predicted the phenomena would occur again from his observations in the previous century. Accurate measurements of the time of the transit were desired for use in calculating the distance of the earth from the sun and therefore providing a unit of distance for measuring the universe. A skilled map draughtsman and navigator, Cook was chosen to record the transit himself alongside the astronomer, Charles Green, using the latest telescopic technology at slightly different locations in order to verify the accuracy of their recordings. Cook’s role in history of recording the Venus’ silhouette features in Starling’s film, interwoven with Starling’s own footage from 2012.

While the astronomical phenomenon can be seen from England, the sun sets in the sky before the transit is complete; a trip south to the mid-Pacific enables the planet’s complete movement to be recorded. Captain Wallis had identified the island of O-Taheitee (Tahiti) as a suitable vantage point for astronomical observations during his voyage on the HMS Dolphin between 1766-68, and so this was the destination Cook sailed towards. Upon arrival at the island, Cook chose a projection in Matavai Bay as the most suitable location to build the observatory surrounded by fortifications.

Fort Venus, site of the observatory

Although they had clear skies on the day, unfortunately the accuracy of Cook and Green’s recordings was limited by the ‘dusky haze’ that surrounded the planet making it near impossible to notice the exact time the planet first emerged and later disappeared over the edge of the sun disc. Instead, the boundaries of the planet appeared to partially bleed into the edge of the sun - the black drop effect referenced in Starling’s film title. Therefore, they were unable to provide the accurate measurements needed for further scientific calculations.

Starling traces the legacy of Cook’s ‘black drops’ in his film, interweaving the history of attempts to record the phases of the planet’s movements with the development of film technology itself. Cook was recording by eye through a telescopic lens, drawing the shape of the silhouetted planet as it met with the curved edge of sun disc in a series of sequential drawings produce on a sheet of paper. At the next transit, the following century, astronomer Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen, also sought to record sequential images of Venus to map and time its journey. Instead of drawing images seen through a telescope, Janssen developed emerging photography technology to design his own photographic revolver – a camera that took sequential photographs on a rotating disk.  Widely recognised as a precursor to cinematography, Starling draws out this relationship further by choosing film to record the 2012 transit and as the artistic medium for his historical commentary. 

However, the astronomical observations were only one part of the motivation for travelling across the Pacific in the eighteenth century. European expeditions competed in discovering and mapping new lands, resources, and other scientific discoveries. The legacy of the black drops that represented the failed goals of recording Venus has been matched by a different legacy that Cook is more well know for today: a navigator, cartographer and enlightened discoverer, and, here at the Pitt Rivers Museum, as a pioneer, alongside his crew, in establishing ethnographic collections of the material culture of people living in the Pacific in the eighteenth century.

Cook returned to the Pacific on board the HMS Resolution a few years after the Venus expedition, and it was this second voyage that the Father and son naturalists, Johann and George Forster participated in, and who later donated their significant collection of Pacific artefacts to the University of Oxford. George Forster describes the revisit to Tahiti in 1773: “We now discerned that long projecting point, which from the observation made upon it, had been named Point Venus, and easily agreed, that this was by far the most beautiful part of the island” (Forster 2000 p. 175). The Tahitians living on the island “recognised their old friends” in the returning sailors (ibid.) and a base camp was “established once more on Point Venus, for the purpose of making astronomical observations, as well as for the convenience of trading, wooding, and watering” (ibid. p. 350).

Black Drop and the accompanying sculptures are exhibited at the Modern Art Oxford until the 28th August – an except of the film can be viewed here.


Forster, George (2000) A Voyage Round the World edited by Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Two Standing Figures

Wooden figures, Society Islands, 1886.1.1424 and .1423

These carved wooden figures from the Society Islands were described by the Forsters as 'Wooden representations of human figures.'  The figures, male and female, have been described in the past as 'idols', and to have been associated with the 'free standing sorcery figures' that were the abodes of inferior and sometimes malignant gods, the 'oromatua.  

It has also been suggested that the figures, known as ti'i were used as canoe prows or stern figures, since the feet are damaged, as they appear to have been attached at one time to a larger piece of wood.

1886.1.1424 Female figure

According to Hooper, in 'Pacific Encounters - Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860' (British Museum Press, 2006) the asymmetrical hand position of the female figure is very unusual in the Society Islands.  He goes on to say that 'the second-voyage ships visited several places in the group, and, given that no specific island style has yet been identified, this figure may be from an island other than Tahiti or Ra'iatea.'

Thursday, 1 August 2013

A Chance Discovery

The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded in 1884 when General Pitt Rivers, an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, gave his collection to the University.  The ethnographic holdings of the Ashmolean were transferred to the Pitt Rivers in 1886, including the Forster collection.

Sometimes, objects, or fragments of objects, were transferred and the provenance was unknown.  Research into these is ongoing, and that's why I happened to notice a strip of barkcloth, waiting to be investigated, in one of our store rooms.  It carries the blue label which indicates that it came from the Ashmolean, and a note with it said that it has no provenance or number.

Barkcloth strip with blue Ashmolean label

On examining the strip of black-dyed, brittle barkcloth, two things struck me - that it was very similar in appearance to a strip of black barkcloth on the cape of the Tahitian Mourner's costume, largely missing, and that the remains of paste or gum along one long edge of the strip indicate that it was originally pasted onto something else, similar to the way that the differently coloured barkcloth strips are pasted onto the cape.

Remains of paste along the top edge of the strip

Closer investigation of the cape was difficult, as the Mourner's costume is currently on display in 'exploded' form.  However, we managed to take the hat and cape out of the case and examine the damaged black barkcloth stripe - there was no doubt that it was identical to the piece I had found.  Slightly puzzling was the fact that the loose strip was about 10cm too long to have been the missing part of this black stripe.

Expected position of barkcloth strip on Mourner's Costume cape

Looking at the cape, it appears that there is an entire stripe of barkcloth missing, as the pattern of stripes is broken near the top.  Lifting the remaining barkcloth strips, it's possible to see the underlying piece of barkcloth to which they are all pasted.  There, just where I had expected, were residues of a line of paste, with fibres of black barkcloth embedded in them. The length of the missing stripe corresponded  to the length of the barkcloth strip that I'd found in the store.  There is no doubt that the missing strip of barkcloth was the piece I had found, which must have been separated from the costume for over 120 years.

Actual position of barkcloth strip on cape

When the Mourner's costume is taken off of display in preparation for remounting as part of a new Cook-voyage display after the end of this project, I will reattach the strip of black barkcloth and reunite the pieces of the cape.