Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Cataloguing Hildburgh’s amulets

W. L. Hildburgh. Image: V&A
Walter Leo Hildburgh was a prolific collector of amulets from all over the world. When he died in 1955, he left his collection to the Wellcome Museum, and from there it was transferred in 1985 - along with thousands of other amulets including those collected by Lovett and de Mortillet - to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Wellcome Collection in London is currently engaged in a major revamp, and their new Reading Room will have fresh display spaces, for which they want to loan a number of the amulets now in Pitt Rivers. Some of the Wellcome staff visited Oxford recently and made a selection from the Hildburgh, Lovett and de Mortillet collections. While Lovett and de Mortillet have been the subjects of recent documentation projects, much of the Hildburgh collection remains uncatalogued. It was my task therefore, over the course of a three-month project, to ensure that the documentation for the selected objects was up-to-date, and that a digital image was provided for each.

Amulet for animals
© Pitt Rivers Museum, 1985.53.409
I started by completing the documentation of the Japanese section of the collection, which had already been started by two of my colleagues. From 1900, Hildburgh began a prolonged tour of Japan, India and China. He had a keen interest in anthropology and folklore - particularly magic and superstition. Many of the Japanese amulets are papers, printed with inscriptions and sometimes pictures, which you can buy at Shinto shrines and Japanese Buddhist temples. They can be for protection from various aliments, good luck, or for averting a particular calamity. Animals don’t have to go without protection, either: this amulet, from Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, is for cows and horses.

Other amulets take the form of objects. They can be natural objects which are ascribed magic or amuletic properties, or they can be figures of deities or animals associated with good luck. One of these, the ‘maneki-neko’, the beckoning cat, is well-known outside Japan and can often be seen enticing customers to enter a Japanese restaurant. It does not bring luck exclusively to business owners, but to anyone who owns such a figurine. 

Maneki-neko and pig amulets
© Pitt Rivers Museum 1985.53.696 and 1985.50.154

Around 20 of Hildburgh’s Japanese amulets are going on display at the Wellcome Collection. To these are added some examples from Italy, Tunisia and Algeria. Amulets from these countries are often meant to be carried on the person for protection and double up as ornaments, e.g. pendants and brooches. This mother-of-pearl pig from Italy is a particularly pretty example. In his ‘Notes on Amulets’, Hildburgh writes that the pig stands for tranquility, an easy life and ‘all desired’.

Amulets are a particularly fascinating and pleasing subject. They are usually small, often beautiful, and come from all over the world, with interesting tales behind them. My project was only a very short one, and whilst I was able to complete the documentation of the Japanese section alone, much of Hildburgh’s collection awaits future projects to uncover the rest of its stories.

Elin Bornemann

Friday, 12 April 2013

Art exhibition on amulets and child loss

During the Small Blessings project we received a research visit from artist Marie Brett, who was in the development stage of a project looking at the sensitive subject of amulets as signifiers of pregnancy and infant loss. With support from Arts Council the artist worked with bereaved parents and three national hospitals in Ireland.

Marie also entered our amulet photo competition with this entry:

Now Marie's exhibition is ready. 'Amanesis' will be showing at the Waterford Central Library in Ireland until May 3rd.

Even after the official end of the Small Blessings amulet project, it's great to learn of these ripple effects and additional outcomes that it contributed to. It was a pleasure to meet Marie and we wish her every success with her exhibition and future projects.


Monday, 8 April 2013

'Charmed Life' exhibition at Winchester

This week is the last week you'll be able to see Charmed Life: the Solace of Objects, an exhibition featuring amulets from the Pitt Rivers' collections and curated by artist Felicity Powell. Hosted by the Winchester Discovery Centre, this is a second outing for the exhibition that originally ran at the Wellcome Collection in London last year.

Exhibition finishes on 14 April 2013, FREE entry.

Read this great article about the exhibition from the 'Come Step Back in Time' history blog.

Watch our video interview with Felicity Powell discussing her inspiration for, and approach to, the project.

Read our past blog entry about the deinstallation of the exhibition at Wellcome by Pitt Rivers staff - a process about to be repeated next week!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Hearts in Mind

Ah, February 14th. Will you be sharing heart-shaped cards with your beloved, or sitting alone on the sofa in your pyjamas eating chocolate and settling for heart-throbs on screen? Either way, Valentine's Day is all about hearts and here are two very different ones from our collections:

First up is this Sacred Heart from the de Mortillet amulet collection. What began as a vision by a 17th-century French nun, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, of Jesus Christ showing her his heart entwined with thorns and flames turned into an active cult of worship in France. There is a Sacred Heart feast day, the symbol was adopted for protection during the French Revolution, and of course there is the famous white church of Sacré-Cœur Basilica at Montmartre in Paris.

PRM 1985.52.33

Next is a rather more gruesome heart object - a preserved human heart in a leaden case, discovered in the medieval crypt of a church in Cork, Ireland and collected by General Pitt Rivers in the 1860s.

PRM 1884.57.18

For an interesting account of the history and significance of heart ablation and burial separate from the body, see this article on one of our project sites. Alternatively, this object features on our gallery audio tour and you can hear the entry here (3 mins):

Monday, 11 February 2013

Popes and amulets

Today's surprising news that Pope Benedict XVI has announced his retirement has got us thinking of all things papal.

Left: medallion, PRM 1985.51.528 and right: scapular, PRM 1985.52.2836

Here are two devotional items from two rich amulet collections covered before in this blog - the Edward Lovett collection and the Adrien de Mortillet collection. Both were originally acquired by Henry Wellcome and subsequently transferred to the Pitt Rivers from the Wellcome Medical Institute in the 1980s. More than 300 of the Lovett amulets were selected by artist Felicity Powell for her 'Charmed Life' exhibition at Wellcome last year, which you'll have another chance to see when it opens at the Winchester Discovery Centre this weekend. 

On the left is a circular gilt medallion stamped with a likeness of Pope Pius IX on one side and the Virgin Mary on the reverse. Pius was the longest-reigning Pope to date, holding office for almost 32 years (1846 - 1878). He convened the First Vatican Council in 1869, which decreed papal infallibility.

On the right is a scapular in wool and cotton. Scapulars (from the Latin for 'shoulder') were introduced by the Carmelite monks in the Middle Ages and later formed part of the habit of various monastic orders. They evoke the shape of an apron - denoting one's commitment to serve - and offer protection, both in life and after death. Pope John Paul II wore one all his life. The flaming heart, or Sacred Heart, is a common design on scapulars, along with printed images of Mary and Jesus.  This example from the de Mortillet collection is said to have come from St Peter's in Rome.

When shall we see the white smoke rise up from the Vatican, signalling the election of a new Pope? We wait and see!