Thursday, 11 October 2012

For Your Eyes Only

Last week I was lucky enough to be in the old city of Rhodes on the eponymous Greek island at the time of their 'Open Doors' day. This is part of an annual event in late September that is spreading Europe-wide (in England we know it as 'Heritage Open Days'), where places of historical and cultural interest not normally accessible to the public open their doors for free.

In one of the small streets of in the old town, set back behind a wall was a little Byzantine church called Agia Paraskevi. Situated in Chora, the quarter where common citizens lived, it was built around AD 1500 in the free-cross style with a dome. Inside, walls that had been whitewashed during Ottoman occupation had been partially restored to reveal the remains of colourful frescoes.

Agia Paraskevi Church, Ippodamou Sreet, Rhodes © Wikimedia Commons

Paraskevi was a 2nd-century martyr of Greek parentage and a popular Orthodox saint. According to legend, she was brought to trial for her faith before the emperor Antonius Pius in Rome. After surviving submersion in boiling oil and tar she was accused of magic so she threw some of the mixture into the emperor's face, blinding him. She told him he could only be healed by the grace of God so when he pleaded, she restored his sight. Antonius henceforth ended persecutions agains Christians across the empire and Paraskevi became known as the protector and healer of eyes.  

Propped up in various nooks inside the church were painted icons of Saint Paraskevi, showing her holding a cross and a bowl of eyes. Some were adorned with beaten metal ex-voto amulets of eyes and limbs, representing modern-day churchgoers' prayers to the saint to cure afflictions to that part of the body - such as blindness or paralysis. They might also have been placed there as gratitude for recovery.

Icon of Saint Paraskevi adorned with ex-votos

These were very similar to many of the metal ex-voto eyes we found in de Mortillet's collection, although some of these may have been devoted to other saints associated with blindness such as Saint Lucy.

Ex-voto eyes, Algeria and Belgium; PRM 1985.52.389 and 1985.52.754 

Whilst history tells of many miracles taking place at Paraskevi's tomb - the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, and barren women becoming pregnant - it is clear that the search for miracles and divine healing remains part of the Christian faith in some parts of the world through de Mortillet's era more than a century ago and on into the 21st century.


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Pitt Rivers on film

A guest blog by filmmakers Udi Mandel and Alan Mandel

How do you make a film about the Pitt Rivers and represent the work that goes on behind the scenes of the Museum and the people who make this happen? This was the challenge we faced when we were invited to make a film following the Small Blessings project. Now, seven months ad 50 hours of footage later we are concluding our encounter with the Museum and its staff which is depicted in our film 'Artisans of Memory', from which we have posted clips over the last few months.

The idea was to document the stages that objects (in this case, amulets) go through as they circulate through the Museum and its various departments. Each stage – cataloguing, researching, storing, conserving, photographing, displaying – involves particular people, practices and skills and reflects specific experiences and relationships to the Museum and its collections. We approached our film by spending time with the people involved in these stages, as well as those involved in education and interpretation, getting to know what they do, how they work, and how this relates to the overall work of the Museum.

Documentary films, especially ethnographic ones, are always an encounter between the filmmakers and their subject(s). We were lucky to have been given privileged access behind-the-scenes and entrusted to document the work of those working here. We were also fortunate to be guided by our producers, Helen Hales and Kate White, as well as other members of staff who helped shape the film.

Our relationship with the Museum did not start with this film but some years back when I worked as a lecturer on the visual anthropology MA at Oxford University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA) and every week I walked through the Museum’s door to teach in its seminar rooms. Gradually I got to know some of the people working here and was eventually invited to make a film about a visit by the Haida (a First Nation group from Canada) to the Museum in 2008. This was followed by two further films with Alan Mandel as part of the Body Arts project, one on Tattooing and another on Henna painting, after which we got to know the Museum more intimately.

Documentary films are always partial, we do not claim to have made the film which represents all the Pitt Rivers Museum in all its richness, diversity and complexity – an impossible task. Each visitor and staff member no doubt has their own vision of what such a film would be like. What we did do was follow the work of those working here – the ‘artisans of memory’ – through a moment in time, following the stages of the Small Blessings project as a conduit and guide to life in the Pitt Rivers. Given that this project involved the initiation of two new cataloguers, Alice Carr-Archer and Rosanna Blakeley, into the practices and culture of the Museum, the film also takes the viewer on a journey through their learning and experiences as they become more skilled, confident and contemplative in their work.

Udi and Alan interview and film artist Emma Reynard who
ran a community art workshop as part of the Small Blessings project

As encounters, films are dialogic - the end result of what emerges through conversations. This is clearly seen in the dialogues in the film, notably the voices of the filmmakers and the questions we asked were edited out. Less obviously this is evident in the quality of the conversation which allowed the dialogue to emerge, the tone and texture of the interaction between filmmakers and subjects. Rare are the people who are entirely at ease appearing on film, especially one that addresses their professional lives. Invariably issues of the personal versus the professional surface along with questions of how to do justice to both. As filmmakers we were interested in both these aspects, in the Museum as site of professional practice and social organization, but also as a place filled with people who care about their work and who bring meaning, emotions, values and identities to what they do. As staff warmed to our presence and the film project, and were less daunted by the tasks involved, both of these qualities were more easily seen.

After seven months we have emerged with a film that is a representation of our encounter with the Museum and a number (though not all) of those who work there, partial and dialogic but faithful to our time here. Along the way we had to make some tough editing decisions guided by factors such as film length, a clear narrative thread, and a set of identifiable characters and stories. The film shows the Pitt Rivers Museum as a warehouse of activity, a collection of artisans who care about the multiple and diverse artefacts entrusted to them from numerous cultures across time and space and who are keen to make these come alive, each object and its many stories giving a small glimpse of what it is to be human.

Udi Mandel

Alan Mandel

'Artisans of Memory' is in the final phase of editing and will be available on the Small Blessings 'Multimedia' section next month

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Small Blessings website now live!

Hooray, the Small Blessings website is now live! 

Visit to see the fruits of our 7-month project including:

  • Themed galleries of 49 amulets
  • a biography of de Mortillet
  • the best entries in our amulet photograph competition
  • an amulet Museum trail
  • video podcasts with subject specialists
  • all of our behind-the-scenes film diaries
Happy browsing!  If you can spare us a couple of minutes to tell us what you think of the site, you'd really help us by filling out this quick survey. Thank you.

Small Blessings homepage

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Encouraging Words

Our Comments Book is a great way for us to find out what our visitors think - what they like about the Museum and what they think could be improved. 

I thought I'd share this comment as it is evidently from a fellow amulet enthusiast. Well, when you've got something important to say, you need a whole page!


Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A Charming Send-off

All good things come to an end. Last week the Small Blessings project came to its official close and we saw the departure of both amulets and people from the staff areas of the Museum.

Over the past seven months, more than 3000 objects have been physically numbered, catalogued and photographed. What an achievement! But de Mortillet was no slouch when it came to collecting and there remains a large number of religious 'medals' or tokens that will be processed in due course.

Just a few of de Mortillet's many medals or tokens

Meanwhile, the catalogued amulets have been repackaged and boxed up, ready to return to the stores.

Boxes of amulets in transit to our storage facility 

Originally they were in huge, old-fashioned trunks but with much more economic and organised packing, they are now contained within slimmer archival boxes which take up much less valuable space on our very crowded shelves!

Finding a new home for the amulets

Each amulet has been given a location (a box and shelf number) so will be easy to find should we need to retrieve it for display purposes or a visiting researcher.

We also had to say goodbye to our three contract project staff - Charlotte, Alice and Rosanna. It was a bit of a sad day, despite the copious tea and cake, as they had all become part of the Museum and we will miss them. We wish them well with their future endeavours and hope that they've enjoyed their experience at Pitt Rivers. One thing's for sure - having worked with amulets from around the world to protect against every conceivable disease, misfortune and evil spirit, or designed to bring prosperity, health, fertility and good fortune, there was little need for us to wish them 'good luck'...

A lucky cuppa © The Moon's Hobby Store and More


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Vials, Boxes and Envelopes: De Mortillet's Storage System

As we come to the end of the project and the amulets are nearly ready to be put into storage, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on some of de Mortillet's own storage methods and how they differ from those we use in the Museum today. At first glance the containers that he stored some amulets in appear to be utterly random, perhaps things that he simply had lying around his office or house. However, on closer inspection, you begin to ask, 'are they'?

Some amulets have been stored in cardboard pen-nib boxes. For example, this one contained ten discs of bread or ‘small loaves’ with religious figures moulded onto them from Copacabana in Bolivia. You can easily imagine that de Mortillet would have had several pen-nib boxes on his desk. In addition, they are well suited to housing small amulets!

1985.52.1735. 1-.10 © Pitt Rivers Museum 

We've also found a number of amulets inside envelopes, such as this one here, addressed to ‘Monsieur A, de Mortillet’ written in beautiful handwriting and with a wonderful stamp on it. The envelope contains a religious picture made from daisies and wood from the hazel tree where Christ appeared to St. Margaret Mary of Alacoque. Again, it's more than likely that de Mortillet would have had an abundance of old envelops that he could slip amulets into.

1985.52.2693 © Pitt Rivers Museum

However, it's striking how many pharmaceutical or medicinal boxes and glass vials de Mortillet used as storage containers, and I would suggest that this is significant. Many of the amulets in the collection have medicinal qualities and have connections with health issues. Therefore, the choice of these objects to store some of the amulets becomes less random, even though the objects are not directly related to the containers they are stored in. We can only guess at what de Mortillet’s actual intentions were. 

Firstly, lots of objects are stored in glass test tubes, vials or jars. This test tube with a cork stopper contains seven fragments of shell from Algeria. 

1985.52.190 .1-.7 © Pitt Rivers Museum

And this glass 'Grains de Vals' jar contains lead pellets from the Holy Land, yet it would originally have contained herbal medicine for constipation. Grains de Vals have been a used as medicine for a long time (as both the jar and this advertisement from 1934 suggest), and they are still sold today. 

1985.52.2279 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Grains de vals, 1934 (Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, de Mortillet used various boxes and tins that once contained medicine or cures for various ailments, and which now are very sought after 'vintage' items. For example, there is a cardboard liquorice paste (Pâte de Réglisse) box containing a clay plaque described in the catalogue as a medieval wizard’s talisman. The label translates as: 

'Liquorice Florent. Vanilla flavoured liquorice paste. Delicious tasting, this paste facilitates digestion and expectoration. It cures colds, hoarseness, influenza, stomach upsets and effectively combats ailments of the chest. Made in the great liquorice factory of Cantarel - Avignon (France).'

1985.52.1064 © Pitt Rivers Museum

There is also a ‘Le Rénïol’ metal tin containing eleven iron pyrite crystals. The box would originally have contained pills or small pastilles for a head cold made up by 'PHARMACIE RENGNIEZ, 56 Rue de Passy, Paris'.

1985.52.2337 © Pitt Rivers Museum

We use different packing practices in the Museum today to ensure that objects are stored in a stable environment. The amulets are stored in acid-free boxes, which are lined with jiffy foam (a neutral packing material). Each amulet is placed in it’s own individual sealable plastic bag, which can also be lined with jiffy foam if an object is a little bit fragile. We stack the objects in the boxes with the heaviest items at the bottom, and it’s important not to overfill them. It is essential to label each box and to make a corresponding note about the location of each object on the computer database so that we always know where it is and it can be found easily. 

De Mortillet amulet boxes in the Museum's on-site store room

De Mortillet used a range of containers to house the amulets he collected. They often seem merely random or expedient, but they are incredibly interesting objects in their own right and some are visually very appealing. On one level they provide insight into the type of things, especially pharmaceutical items, common to French households at the time. But on another level, if the use of these medical boxes and glass vials was intentional, perhaps de Mortillet was trying to say something much more significant? Discovering what his intentions were might help us to understand more about his motivations for collecting certain objects. 


Friday, 17 August 2012

Volunteer is our own 'small blessing'

This week, a chat with our project collections volunteer, Kristyn Maguire.

Where are you from Kristyn?
Australia, but currently living in Oxford.

Why did you volunteer at the PRM? 
I was interested in the Wellcome collection of amulets and saw the job vacancies for the ‘Small Blessings’ project when I was in Canada. I'd already decided to study in Oxford (MSc in Applied Landscape Archaeology) so I thought that if I could still be involved with the project in some capacity I could find out more about the development of belief systems and ritualistic behaviours by getting to see a wide range of amulets and objects from different cultures around the world.

What have you been doing at the Museum?
I’ve been volunteering up to two days a week for several months, trying to fit it around my working life. I’ve been assisting with the project documentation process. The cataloguers Alice and Rosanna take a photograph of every amulet (several thousand of them) and I’ve been optimising these in Photoshop - cropping, colour correcting and so on. I’ve been double-checking the file names to match the images to the records so people access the right image when they’re browsing the online database. I’ve also been transcribing some of the collector’s original catalogue entries into the database - again, so all the information is stored together.

What have you enjoyed most about being here?
I really like the Museum – it’s unique. It’s been fascinating going behind the scenes. I worked for almost two years in the museums sector in Canada so it’s been nice to build on my experience by continuing here in the UK where it’s so hard to break into the industry.

What will you do next?
I start my Masters course in October, part-time for two years. I then hope to do a PhD. I will be in Oxford for a while so I’d be open to any further voluntary opportunities here at the Pitt Rivers!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Capturing Fresh Perspectives

We've been busy putting together the third and last of our podcasts. Our previous DDF project on Body Arts was the first time we really focussed on multimedia resources as a way of communicating new voices and insights into the collections. We talked to a variety of people, many in the form of audio podcasts. This time, for Small Blessings, we decided to go one better and create video podcasts (or 'vodcasts').

We decided to keep costs down and boost in-house skills by doing it ourselves. A handful of staff, including myself, had begun to learn the basics of film-making and editing by attending courses and watching online tutorials, so through trial and error we built our confidence with the equipment and technology.

PRM technician Alan getting to grips with the camera

Who would feature in these podcasts? We wanted a variety of opinions and thought about the sorts of people who might have dealt with amulets. We approached Andrew Graham-Dixon, one of the world's leading art critics, in particular because he had recently done a TV series with the British Museum looking at medieval Christian art; Feclicity Powell, an Oxford-based artist who'd just curated an exhibition of Pitt Rivers' Lovett amulets at the Wellcome Collection; and finally, Fr Joseph Welch, a priest at the local Oxford Oratory Catholic Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga who we thought might be interested in the reliquaries in the de Mortillet collection in view of the substantial collection of relics cared for by the Oratory.

Relics displayed in the Oratory's Relic Chapel 

All three experts expressed an interest in the project. On each occasion we invited the person to the Museum to have a look at some of de Mortillet amulets; we were very grateful that Mr Graham-Dixon drove up from London to accommodate us amid other commitments and a heavy cold!  We then had an open session, sharing what we knew - substantial research in some instances, very little in others - and eliciting responses and ideas that might make for interesting content in an interview. For example, Mr Graham-Dixon ruminated on the eclectic nature of de Mortillet's collecting habits and how many of the amulets captured popular art styles and religious beliefs.

Andrew Graham-Dixon with Charlotte, Helen & Rosanna

Felicity Powell talked about the individual lives and stories each object represented and even brought in her own poignant amulet - a battle-damaged button that had belonged to her father.

Felicity Powell with her father's Second World War memento

Our most recent visit was from Fr Joseph Welch at the end of July which yielded interesting and reflective discussions about historical and current modes of devotion. We followed this up by filming the actual podcast in the wonderful surroundings of the Oratory church this week and capturing the weekly veneration of their relic of St Philip Neri.

Showing Fr Joseph some amulets, including a book of scapulars (foreground)

Fr Joseph examines a miniature crown of thorns and a reliquary

Fr Joseph brought along some useful texts and helped us with our
research into a special amulet purporting to contain a splinter
from the Crown of Thorns (PRM 1985.52.911)

It's been wonderful to meet all three of our guests and hear the fascinating and thought-provoking things they've had to say about this collection. We appreciate them giving up their time to be involved with this project. We're now working hard to get the films finished so they can be added to the Small Blessings website which will be launched soon. We hope you'll enjoy them too!


September 2012 update: These films, called 'Understanding 'Amulets' will be available to view at:

Friday, 3 August 2012

Caring for Fragile Fabrics

These are three ribbon amulets from Bolivia, which were sent to Conservation for treatment. 

Flaking decoration (PRM 1985.52.1726)

As you can see, the gold decoration over the text was flaking off, so I had to consolidate it. This means fixing it more securely to the surface using an adhesive. I did this under the microscope, so that I could watch very carefully if any colours on the ribbon started running.

Stuck together (PRM 1985.52.1729)

Two of the ribbons were folded over on themselves and had become stuck where they'd been painted. I had to decide whether to attempt to open them up or leave them as they were.

I tried releasing them very gently using a scalpel and managed to unfold the crimson one, but the white one was much too firmly stuck and the action would have caused quite a lot of damage to it, had I continued trying. As we already had two from the same area with the same decoration, it seemed unnecessary.

PRM 1985.52.1727

They all have a small amount of ‘shattering’ which is when the fabric becomes brittle and falls apart. This is mainly at the centre of each ribbon around the painted text and image. To stop the fabric breaking apart, I gave it a backing of silk crepeline, which was dyed to the same colour as each ribbon. This was then placed over each break like a plaster.

Once treatment was completed each ribbon will need to be stored properly. It’s best if it doesn’t get folded, as over time folds become breaks, so I wrapped each ribbon around some conservation grade foam and interleaved it with some acid free tissue to prevent any more sticking problems in the future. I then made a couple of small boxes out of conservation grade corrugated plastic to stop them getting crushed.


Tuesday, 31 July 2012

In the Frame

You can now access our series of Small Blessings films, entitled 'Artisans of Memory', via the Multimedia section on the Pitt Rivers website. This is a great jumping off point to explore a range of videos, podcasts and lectures created by the Museum over the past few years. You can even find digitised archive film recorded by anthropologists in the field from the 1930s! 

In the Small Blessings section scroll to the bottom to check out the latest episode that follows Alice and Rosanna as they learn about conservation and conservator Jenny at work. There are now five films available with several more coming in the next few weeks so do check back regularly. We'd love to find out what you think so if you have any comments or questions, feel free to reply to this blog or email us. 

Film-makers Alan Mandel and Udi Mandel filming artist Emma
Reynard talking about the Small Blessings community art project

The final filming session in the Museum is next week when we will be sharing some of our learning curves and thoughts about the project as it draws to a close at the end of August. Look out for a guest blog entry by the film-makers soon...

Finally, don't forget about our amulets competition - we've had some really interesting and varied entries from all around the world so far. There's not long to go now so if you've got a lucky charm and a camera phone, why not send us a photo? You could end up on our website or even win a prize!


Monday, 23 July 2012

Not Long To Go

Last week we were very pleased to welcome two Arts Council England guests - Oxford ASPIRE's Relationship Manager, Michael Cooke and Designation Development Fund representative, Sarah Waldron.

We showed Michael and Sarah some elements of the project such as cataloguing and conservation work, the community arts display, researched stories about amulets, plus some of the digital outputs including as-yet unreleased film footage and a glimpse of the proto-website to be launched in August. Here's a taster as to what it will look like!

The homepage of the Small Blessings site in its development phase

This project only has about six weeks to go. We hope our visitors enjoyed their visit and left knowing that these 'Small Blessings' are nonetheless having a relatively 'Large Impact' in terms of what we hope to achieve. 


Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Conclusion of Community Art Project

Local artist Emma Reynard recounts the final weeks of the amulet art project she undertook with participants from Mind, a mental health charity. The pieces they created have now been installed in the Museum (on the top floor, the Upper Gallery) for visitors to see.

"Session 4
At this point ideas started to be realized: Gerry turned out the first part of his two-part mould and managed to free the original object without too much damage. He then built up the clay and did the second pour for the top part of the mould. Hopefully, next week it will be ready to cast. He also made a start on trying to retrieve the cast of a hand. Unfortunately the plaster hadn’t managed to get all the way down to the fingers, but we thought it would be good to try and invent a story around the cast - maybe it could be from an animal foot? Gerry looked to add other materials to his casts such as an arrow-head made from metal sheeting and a piece of textile with beads and leather thong.

The hand cast that became an animal paw to 'bring safety from wildlife'

John turned out his medal/coin casts. The Siligum (silicone moulding paste) created a detailed impression and worked really well. John used an oil-based gold rub to highlight the detail and also to make the medals look more authentic. He then experimented with some sheet aluminum, tracing an image of a bird and cutting it out with scissors. He then used various tools to make textures into the metal, and finally placed it on a mini anvil and used a copper hammer was used to bash out the obvious scissored edges. To take the newness out of the metal, either oil paint or the gold rub could be added.

Susan turned out the cast of the two babies. Again, these worked well with the Siligum and all the detail was evident. Susan used gold leaf to cover the plaster. Which gave a great effect. Using the gold leaf also inspired me to try this on the arm and leg casts that I have been working on too. I went back into the museum and took more photos of the metal amulets, to see if I could expand on what I have been doing.

Session 5
This week I encouraged the group to start writing a short explanation about their piece(s). Then we started to t
hink about presentation - will it be in a box, a specimen bag, will it have a label, a number or a story about it? I had some books on superstitions and the like for people to consult and find inspiration.

Literature provided some of the inspiration for the imagined stories
and purpose behind amulets we made.

Session 6
Today was the last of the workshops related to the Small Blessings amulet project and we focused on the presentation of the finished pieces. Right at the start of the project we visited the conservation rooms at the museum and saw how the collections are catalogued, labelled and presented at the Museum. We tried to keep our work along the same lines as to fit in with the rest of the displays and decided to create hand-written labels and number them all. The labels were edged with aluminum and copper and crimped, to give a similar feel to the labels in the Museum. All the specimens from the project have gone through conservation to check for any infestation and put through the deep freeze. This will protect other objects in the Museum from potential contamination.

Making ''Pitt Rivers style' handwritten labels with metal edges

This has been a wonderful, unique project to work on, not only because it was based at the Pitt Rivers Museum but I got to meet people from MIND, a local mental health charity. Together we’ve explored different materials and techniques, including mould-making, clay and metal. It has been interesting discovering and learning all about the amulets collections and creating our own amulets, charms and votives.

Finally, working on this unique project has inspired my work a great deal. It has led me to try out new techniques, such as mould making and casting and also to consider ways of presenting my work (see some of my finished amulets). I hope to continue to develop some of these ideas in my future work and I’m looking forward to eventually seeing the work displayed in one of the cases at the Museum."

Emma Reynard

Update: Installation
Last week PRM technician Ady prepared a selection of the crafted amulets for display in the Upper Gallery, next to the display of the amulets from the historic de Mortillet collection. We do nearly all our display work 'in-house' and the technicians always prepare a 'mock up' of the display to determine spacing, arrangement, mounting requirements and colour schemes....

Ady's 'mock up' display

Ady installing the display
The temporary display is now complete and if you're in Oxford over the next couple of months please do come in and have a look!


Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Amulet or Accessory?

Amulets can occasionally be found in surprisingly modern settings. These might take the form of straightforward reproductions, such as the miniature Eiffel Towers to be found in any souvenir shop in Paris and, apparently, in jewellers too... 

Silver-tone Eiffel Tower drop earrings from River Island
and Eiffel Tower mascot (PRM 1985.52.150)

The fashion industry is constantly shifting and looking for something new and different. It looks to past trends, cultures and even the natural world for inspiration, to the extent that many of the clothes that we see in our high street stores echo trends from past d
ecades…although I’m fairly sure there are a few items of clothing we thought, or rather hoped, would never make a comeback! Jewellery is no exception to this and I was amazed to see how much of the jewellery currently being sold in shops mirrors the objects being catalogued as part of the Small Blessing project. In turn, this got me thinking, how much of the original meaning behind the creation of these amulets still remains? 

The image of the human skull, for example, has been used for centuries in works of art, religious representations and, in more recent times, the fashion world. Known in Latin as memento mori ("remember your mortality" or “remember you must die"), such imagery represented death and served to remind people about the transience of life. It could be argued that the use of skulls in the fashion world has lost this historic symbolism and has become representative of danger and rebellion instead. 

Wooden skull drop earrings from River Island and
Death's head amulet from Naples (PRM 1985.52.43)

Other objects, such as the ancient Italian corno (horn) amulet and the hamsa (hand of Fatima), are just two of many items that were worn to protect against the Evil Eye, which in many cultures was thought to cause injury or bad luck. Once again there seems to be an abundance of these on the high street – but do people still believe in protecting themselves against the Evil Eye or are they simply interesting shapes well-used in adornment? 

'Henna Hand' necklace from Topshop and
Hand of Fatima amulet (PRM 1985.52.1385)

It is fascinating that certain amuletic symbols have not lost their curiousness or appeal over centuries of use, no matter how far their modern versions may have evolved from their original meaning. So the question is, when does an object stop being an amulet and start being a fashion accessory?


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Amulets, Art and Outreach

Back in April, local artist Emma Reynard was invited to take the Small Blessings project out into the community. She decided to work with a group of adults from Mind (a mental health charity) to discover more about the amulets, charms and votives in the de Mortillet collection and create their own pieces, which are now being prepared for display in the Museum. 

Here Emma recounts some of the first days of the collaboration:

"The de Mortillet collection belonged to Adrien de Mortillet (1853-1931) and contains examples from all over the world. I am trying to find out more about de Mortillet, but so far have not been too successful. I do know that he had many careers including a perfumer and a balloonist!

From observing the amulets, charms and votives at the Museum they are mainly made out of the following materials:

  • clay
  • plaster
  • wax
  • natural materials such as seeds, bark, fruit, grasses
  • parts of animals and human including hearts, bone, teeth and skin
  • metal
  • textiles
  • food

  • Plaster moulds with wax casts on display

Magic bundle for laying a curse on a village (PRM 1928.69.1584)

I decided to try and keep to these materials...although I won't be using any human hearts! Initially, I will be experimenting with plaster moulds, clay, metals and textiles and see where that takes me. It's an exciting project to be involved in and I am looking forward to seeing what we come up with.

Day One 
The members from The Mill arrived at the Museum, ready to begin the new project. The session started off with a quick slideshow of some of the charms and amulets in the de Mortillet collection, from coral hand charms to wolf's tooth teething amulets and even skin from a hanged man! The objects in the collection are small in scale, no doubt mainly because these things would be worn or carried about the person. We need to keep this in mind when we come to create our own pieces.
Emma's 'ephemera'

After digesting some of the stories behind the other amulets on display, we had a short discussion with the group to see if they had any charms of their own. One person said he always has a penny in his pocket and Susan (the museums' Community Education Officer) described how, when she got married, she wore her grandmother’s wedding ring (who has been married for almost 50 years).

We then had a very interesting tour of the Cons
ervation areas upstairs. It was wonderful to see what goes into the cataloguing and documenting of all the objects. Approximately 5000 objects form this collection and each one had to be unwrapped and identified (and researched if necessary), then the object was given a unique number, photographed and then wrapped up and stored. If any of the objects show signs of pests or corrosion, they are put into deep freeze and cleaned or restored to enable the object to survive a longer life in the Museum. It really makes you think about all the effort that goes into one tiny object!

After this tour, I explained to the group about the things that we would be doing during the project. I asked for people to bring in anything which they may have at home which they feel would be relevant.

Day Two 

We had a new member today. He arrived already knowing quite a bit about the project and showed me an amulet he made when he was at school and which he'd had with him ever since. It was an etching on tin of a pentagon (he told me he was pagan). The project seems to be evoking a lot of personal stories, which is really nice to listening and share.

Another member brought along two coins/medals that belonged to his grandad. One was dated 1902 with King George V on the front. I suggested that next week we could take a mould from it and have a go at casting. He said he'd also bring along some old fob watch keys.

We started by having a look at some books that I had brought in, including Superstitions of England and Ireland, Saints, Signs and Symbols, Inspirational Objects, and The Language of Flowers plus two books from The Foundling Museum in London. We also had a look at two scrapbooks from the 1950s, which contained old wedding cards, birthday cards, and tokens such as a silver '21' key. Looking at these objects encouraged the members to talk about their own personal and family possessions. 

Emma's drawings

Next we did some drawing, I had made some folded sketchbooks for everyone to use. I kept them small scale to fit in with the project but also I thought it would be less intimidating than using large pieces of paper. We used fine-liner pens and pencils, and some people also photographed objects that they didn’t have time to draw. I encouraged people to write down the information about each object they drew/photographed. We finished off the session by printing out some of the photos and the group seemed really pleased with what they had done. 

We’re all looking forward to the next session, which will be a messy one - I have purchased my own 'ingredients' and we'll have a go with the plaster and the clay!"

Emma Reynard, artist

Monday, 18 June 2012

'Field Collectors' and 'Other Owners'

Adrien de Mortillet compiled the collection of amulets that we are currently cataloguing, but some of the objects were originally collected or owned by other people. We have two categories on our collections database to account for such people: ‘field collectors’ and ‘other owners’. Finding out more about these individuals helps us to build up a better picture of how de Mortillet acquired these amulets, and how he might have been connected to other collectors / owners.

One example is this Zuni Native American amulet carved from stone. It resembles an animal and could possibly be a hunting or war amulet.

Zuni stone amulet, 1985.52.875 © Pitt Rivers Museum

It was acquired by Colonel James Stevenson (1840–1888), who starting collecting objects from the South West Pueblo Zuni people after he led an expedition to New Mexico in 1879, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute. He was accompanied by his wife Matilda Coxe Stevenson, who became a respected anthropologist in her own right. De Mortillet acquired this object in 1888, the year that Stevenson died. It is possible that de Mortillet benefited from the disposal of some of Stevenson’s collections preceding or – through his wife’s actions – following his death. It is one of five Zuni amulets that de Mortillet collected but the only one to make it as far as the PRM (a large chunk of his collection is in Paris).

Necklace, 1985.52.330 .1- .2 © Pitt Rivers Museum 

Another example is this necklace with a silver relic box and hands of Fatima (hamsas) attached to it, which was once owned by the French actress Marie Leonide Charvin (1832-1891). Charvin was a successful theatre actress under the stage name of 'Madame Agar'. However, she was blacklisted in Paris after performing in a benefit concert organized by the revolutionary and anarchic Paris Commune in 1871. Hamsa amulets like this were common across North Africa and indeed, Mme Agar died in Algeria where her second husband Georges Marye was the curator of the Museum of Antiquities in Algiers.

Portraits of 'Mademoiselle Agar' a theatrical roles
© Paul Dube and Jacques Marchioro 2001-2012

Eugene Boban (Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the other owners or field collectors mentioned include Eugène Boban (1834–1908), a French antiquarian and dealer who collected Mexican objects, and Paul Maurice Pallary (1869–1942), a French-Algerian zoologist who collected objects from Algeria.

Finding out the stories surrounding the people linked to these objects adds more to the seemingly never-ending layers of interest in this collection!