Tuesday, 31 October 2017

An Amuletic Autumn at Pitt Rivers Museum

It's been a highly amuletic time at the Pitt Rivers recently. The charm, amulet and talisman collections are one of the most significant, evocative and numerous in the Museum's care and they have been the focus of three very different aspects of staff work in October....

1) First, came the invite from BBC Radio 4 to contribute to a series called The Digital Human, exploring the impact of technology on our lives. Aware of the expansive amulet collection at the Pitt Rivers and our various resources, the producers got in touch for an interview contribution to an episode on 'Protection' to reference some of our historical collections within a wider discussion about how smartphones act as modern-day protective amulets. You can listen to the episode here (specific PRM section from 12:00 - 18:00 minutes):

Marc Ferrez. Negra da Bahia, c. 1885 
© Salvador, BA / Acervo IMS 
Source: http://brasilianafotografica.bn.br

Indeed, there are plenty of parallels. We hold phones close to our body, we charge them every night with electricity, the way amulets get charged with personal proximity and powers of belief. We use phones for protection - against being late, against boredom, against laziness (how many steps have you done today?), against crime, against being disconnected from the world. 

Composite charms act like a collection of apps. The balangandan (or penca) from the Bahia region of Brazil is the perfect example. A fusion of cultural influences, this metal ornament came to South America via the West African slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries and was often worn by female slaves, dangling and jangling from the waist (hence the onomatopoetic name). As a colonial artefact this object is both problematic and challenging but its function is highly relatable; no two balangandans are the same and - just like the apps you choose to download on your phone - they feature various charms deemed relevant and personal to the wearer's life path - perhaps a boat to represent passage across the Atlantic; a fish in a nod to the Christian beliefs of the Portuguese colonial powers; a pomegranate representing fertility inherited from ancient Middle Eastern beliefs; a cashew nut symbolising the candomblé (Afro-Brazilian) god of thunder and lightning; or keys against the Evil Eye.

Balangandan charm, Brazil; 1954.7.15.1

2) October half term is one of the busiest and most hectic weeks of the year for us. Nearly 14,000 people through the doors, many on holiday and looking for some family fun. Being so close to Halloween, we teamed up with the Museum of Natural History next door to offer a 'Bats, Cats, Witches and Charms' extravaganza. They did the Bats and Cats, we did the Witches and Charms. It works :)

Over three days nearly 300 children plus their parents and carers took part in activities such as designing and making their own amulets, working out if witches are who we think they are, and using investigation skills to figure out two truths and a lie about charms in the handling collection. For example, if someone found this object in your garden and told you:
  • It used to be a fish
  • It was fired from a crossbow
  • It protects against lightning
Which one is the lie?

Belemnite, Oxfordshire 2013.23.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Did you guess correctly? It's the second one. It might look like a projectile but this is in fact a belemnite - the naturally occurring fossil stone of a now-extinct cuttlefish. Due to their shape, people thought they were the heads of lightning bolts fallen to earth and, since lightning doesn't strike the same place twice, they were often put in the attic of the home to protect against lightning! Incidentally, they were also used for medicinal purposes - in southern England, they were ground to powder and used to cure diseases of the mouth.

What do these charms do? © Pitt Rivers Museum

Charms bring luck, amulets bring protection and talismans attract certain qualities or virtues. The children got wonderfully creative, making talismans to attract tickle monsters, tranquility, or allow the wearer to talk to cats, as well as amulets to protect against negative events such as being sad, dinosaur attacks and forest fires. What worked best about the activities is that the participants had to use their imaginations - often collectively as a family - to work out what it was they wanted (or needed) protection from. The activities employed effective 'visual thinking' strategies (e.g. cultivating curiosity, truth-seeking or creativity) to engage learners - for example, choosing to use handling objects from Europe helped ensure children understood and self-reflected that the use of charms happens in the UK and in nearby countries as well as more globally.

Handwritten labels accompanying the charms families created © Pitt Rivers Museum

3) Lastly, behind the scenes, the Move Project team are dealing with a numbers game. The Museum houses more than 20,000 objects which are documented as amulets. Just under 4,000 are either on display or stored at the Museum, and the remaining 16,000 are kept in reserve collections in storage. Since most amulets are personal items - kept in a pocket, strung around the neck or held in the hand - they are some of the smallest objects here. The Museum is in the process of moving its largest object store to a new building. You can keep up to date with the move via the team's entertaining Twitter feed.

The move involves transporting the 16,000 stored amulets to a new home. The store houses over 100,000 objects, from these tiny amulets to five-metre-long ploughs and almost everything in between. Unless the location of every object is carefully recorded, there is a huge risk that objects can easily become lost - and trying to find an amulet amongst 100,000 other objects is much harder than finding a plough...

To make sure this doesn't happen, members of the Move Team have been busily documenting the collection at the store. Each amulet is being physically numbered with a unique accession number which links to our object database. So far we are making headway with the Blackman collection of amulets, one of several large tranches of amulets transferred from the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in the 1980s. 

Measuring and labelling an amulet © Pitt Rivers Museum

Each object is photographed and extra information such as a physical description, materials, measurements and any potential hazards are added to the database record prior to packing the object ready for its move. The location of each amulet is also recorded, so we know which box it is in and which shelf that box is on, so if anyone wants to find it we don't have to start looking amongst the ploughs...

Helen Adams, Project Curator and Engagement Officer

with contributions from:

Andrew Hughes, Deputy Head of Conservation
Beth McDougall, Families and Communities Officer

For more about balangandan charms see:
  • Crowley, Daniel J. & Doran H. Ross, ‘The Bahian Market in African-Influenced Art’, African Arts 15:1 (1981), p.p. 56–88 
  • Fözy, Vilma, Balangandan - Afro-brazilian Amulet, Museum of Ethnography, Budapest (March 2016) http://bit.ly/2zTTK39

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Estella Louisa Michaela Canziani (1887-1964)

Estella Canziani is renowned as a folklorist, artist and writer, particularly in relation to her work in Italy. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery have a web page about Canziani as an artist with images of her tempera paintings, and the Folklore Society have recently published a page about her life and her work with the 'Pearlies' of London.

1941.8.017 Wood pipe donated by Canziani
Canziani was a major collector of European material in the first half of the twentieth century, and a frequent donor to the Pitt Rivers Museum. She contributed over 700 English objects to the museum on eleven different occasions between 1933 and the final bequest following her death in 1964 (though she began sending Alpine objects to the museum in 1914 and contributed to the museum's worldwide collections on over twenty occasions). In 1963 she appointed Beatrice Blackwood as an executor and trustee, noting that 'apart from any of the desirable qualities, & including these qualities - that it would be best, also to have a woman.'
1961.1.089  Vinaigrette donated by Canziani [open]
1961.1.089 Vinaigrette donated by Canziani [open]
This comment suggests that gender had some importance for Canziani, and her donations are part of those that contribute to an increase in contributions by women to the museum's collections in the mid-twentieth century (see page noting this). Canziani seems to have formed part of a network of female traveller-folklorists, often connected through the Folklore Society (FLS). Blackwood and Canziani served together on the council of the FLS and Canziani's 1963 letter asking Blackwood to act as her trustee suggests she does not need to reply as they will meet at 'Council' on the 11th.

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Chris Wingfield,

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas Related Artefacts

The Pitt Rivers Museum's English collections do not have many objects specifically related to Christmas. This is perhaps surprising as this season is perhaps the season most widely celebrated throughout England even today. Indeed English, European and North American Christmas traditions have now spread throughout the world, and can be seen as almost divorced from its purpoted religious connections to Christianity. Christmas Day, 25 December in the Anglican and Roman Catholic calendar, was supposed to be the day when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It has been a public holiday in the United Kingdom for a very long time, in the nineteenth century it was one of only two days on which workers had a statutory right to be absent under the Factory Act of 1833 (the other was Good Friday)[David please link Good Friday to the Good Friday part of the Easter object biography]. [Hutton, 1996:112]
Hutton makes the point that a midwinter festival had probably been celebrated in Britain from 'the dawn of history'. [1996:34] Christmas, in England, occurs at the darkest time of the year, when days are at their shortest. It is also during the cold winter, when food would have been more scarse and life (before the twentieth century) much harder for most people. As Hutton remarks, 'the Christmas season is the most important complex of festivals in the modern British year and contains by far the largest number of customary practices. [1996:112]


1945.6.124 Desk presented to Miss S.U. Powys
Christmas time is a time for exchanging or giving presents to family and friends. Gifts are sometimes also given to employees, or employers or people to whom the person feels an obligation. The next object, which is Christmas-related, is an oddity, it is described as:
'A hideous [sic] fitted desk, 1 ft 2 inches x 10 inches x 9 inches, veneered with bird's eye maple and with brass ornaments, and an inscription on brass: "Presented to Miss S.U. Powys by the members of the Bournemouth Central Workers' Club, Christmas 1877". Tout à fait typique.'[1945.6.124]
It was donated by William Horace Boscawen Somerset in June 1945. It is not known why Bournemouth Central Workers Club felt it should give Miss Powell the desk at Christmas, or why the anonymous accession book recorder in 1945 should feel that the desk was so 'hideous', though there is a rather unattractive underlying note of snobbishness in the final sentence 'tout à fait typique' (loosely translated as 'entirely typical'). This object was not given to the Museum because it was a Christmas gift (indeed the motivation for giving it to the Museum or accepting it seems unclear as it was considered so 'hideous'). The museum has been unable to find out anything more about either Miss Powell or the Bournemouth Central Workers Club and would be grateful for any information on either.
Gift-giving, before the nineteenth century, had traditionally been associated with New Year rather than Christmas Day but during that century, the date gradually changed to Christmas Day, where it has remained. [Hutton, 1996:116] As Hutton points out, dislike of the perceived commercial nature of Christmas started early, 'George Bernard Shaw started an enduring myth in 1897 by declaring that 'Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press'.' [1996:116]

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 


Friday, 4 December 2015

Topping-out at the Pitt Rivers Museum

On 24 February 2006 Dr John Hood, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, donated a ceremonial trowel and tankard in presentation boxes to the Pitt Rivers Museum [PRM]. 

The topping out ceremony, John Hood receives his ceremonial trowel

These gifts had been given to him on 9 February 2006 during the topping-out ceremony for the new extension to the PRM. The photographs on this page show the extension being built, the ceremony itself and the subject of this biography, the ceremonial trowel. John Hood is wearing a brown coat in the photographs, and the bearded man is Michael O'Hanlon, director of the museum. Other men are representatives of the builders, Sir Robert McAlpine.

Topping-out ceremonies

Topping-out is a ceremony traditionally held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building, or these days, the last iron beam. The ceremony marks the overall completion of the building's structure (the building is not completed, or ready for transfer to the owners or clients, it is a stage during the building process). According to wikipedia, such ceremonies are common in England, Germany, Poland and the United States.
2006.78.1 Ceremonial trowel given to John Hood at the PRM topping-out ceremony
A tree or leafy branch is placed on the topmost beam, often with flags or streamers tied to it. A toast is usually drunk and sometimes the workmen are treated to a meal.' [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topping_out]
According to Simpson and Roud [2000, see "building trade" in further reading list below for source]:
What passes for building trade lore nowadays are ‘official’ customs such as cutting the first turf, laying a foundation stone, and topping out. The latter has been particularly popular since the 1960s, and few major construction projects are completed without a gathering of company officials, local dignitaries, and newspaper photographers on top of the new building to perform some ceremony such as laying the last brick. This custom has some roots, as there are earlier references to the workers hoisting a bush, or a flag, to the roof of a completed building.
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 


Monday, 16 November 2015

A Dorset Hag Stone

1884.56.3 is an object, described by a museum worker as a 'stone with natural perforation, found fixed on a nail to the cottage-door of Kimber, a carter in General Pitt Rivers' employment, to keep away witches'. This is particularly interesting as it must have been acquired between 1880, when Pitt Rivers first inherited the Rushmore estate, and 5 April 1881 when he sent the stone to South Kensington Museum (where his collection was then displayed).
PRM 1884.56.3

The documentation held at the Museum states:
Accession Book IV entry - 1884.56.1 - 100 Charms Magic etc. - Naturally perforated stone, nailed to a cottage door against witches by a carter Rushmore nr Salisbury
'Green book' entry - South Kensington Receipts, 5 April 1881 - Collection of objects as per list attached nos 293 to 639 540 Holed stone used for the purpose of keeping away witches Rushmore nr Salisbury

Detailed Amulet card catalogue entry - Amulets ) O. Inscribed P. Talismans in cases Q Uninscribed single R Collars, necklets, armlets, rings S-T Juju [sic] U-W Stone X. Dance Y. Unclassed. - Naturally perforated stones Gt Britain Description: Stone with natural perforation, found fixed on a nail to the cottage-door of Kimber, a carter in Gen'l Pitt Rivers' employment, to keep away witches. Dimensions 100 x 64 approx Locality: Rushmore nr Salisbury How Acquired: P.R. coll 540 / 12191
The original documentation does not mention the name of the carter and it is not clear where the information came from, it first appears in the Ettlinger account, she thanks the then curator of the Museum, Tom Penniman, for information so he may have given her the reference, it is irritating that it was not recorded where it was obtained, as that source might have more information about the artefact.

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch,