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!


Thursday, 14 June 2012

A Bit of Support

Sometimes the best thing we can do to help an amulet is simply to give it some better packaging or more support.

All the materials we use for packaging are inert and stable. This means that the packaging materials themselves aren’t going to deteriorate or give off harmful gases and they don't have any chemical residues. Any gases etc., which a packing material might give off, could increase the deterioration of the artefacts they are trying to protect.

The plastic boxes we use for storage are made of Polypropylene or Polystyrene, which are very stable plastics. Both are easily available on the high street. We tend to use materials such as Plastazote, Jiffy foam (both Polyethylene foams) and acid free tissue to cushion around objects. Correx board (corrugated Polypropylene sheeting) or acid free mount board is used to support them.

In the image below, amulet 1985.52.10 (a bronze ram’s head pendant from Russia) has been cushioned using black and Plastazote and then placed in a crystal (Polystyrene) box.

Ram's head pendant (PRM: 1985.52.10)

Amulet numbers 1985.52.504 and 1985.52.505 (both textile scapulars from Italy) needed more support, so they were placed on a Jiffy foam lined piece of Correx board with a window cut in it and then another Correx board on top.


Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Blackman Amulet Collection

A guest blog from the Pitt Rivers Museum's Researcher in World Archaeology, Dr Alice Stevenson:

When the pioneering female anthropologist Winifred Blackman first approached Henry Wellcome in 1926 for funds to support her ethnographic research in Egypt she promised to collect for him a ‘number’ of interesting amulets in return. That ‘number’ turns out to very large indeed and I’ve taken on the rather daunting task of tackling it. Like the de Mortillet collection that is the focus of the Small Blessings project, the Blackman collection is one of several large tranches of amulets that were transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum in the 1980s.

At least it is well documented. As Blackman wrote in a letter to Wellcome’s assistant in 1929:

“I have taken no end of trouble about accuracy – I did not work under Mr Balfour for over eight years in the Pitt Rivers Museum for nothing, and you know what a master of accuracy he is!”

Given Blackman’s close association with the Pitt Rivers Museum through years of volunteer work and study for her anthropology diploma (awarded in 1915), it is very fitting that her amulets are now stored here. As Blackman’s letter indicates though, it’s not just the physical objects that were collected: there is also a mountain of notes to go with them.

These record what each amulet was for, who she acquired it from and where they got it in turn.

Blackman wasn’t the only one to bring such accuracy to the recording of these objects. Wellcome’s own cataloguers also devoted many years to numbering these artefacts. The legacy of such labours are hundreds of tiny items that are now almost obscured by the sheer number of labels that surround them.

My project is primarily a scoping exercise in the first instance that aims to get a better sense of this material. I’m also getting it into a more manageable order for future cataloguing (yes more museum numbers!). And order is beginning to emerge from the chaos of hundreds of bags of pebbles, shells, animal teeth, beads and other rather odd smelling things that Blackman took such care to acquire. So too are the many stories entangled with these little fragments, from the amulet to render a thief invisible, to the charm for a woman who wishes to be loved by all the people and the camel that needed protection from the Evil Eye. There’s an amulet here for everyone and everything.

The Blackman project is kindly funded by the John Fell OUP Fund, University of Oxford.

Alice Stevenson

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Fragile Bodies: ex-voto artefacts and art

We've come across plenty of votive offerings and charms relating to body parts. Here, we concentrate on a female body part in particular, starting with this account from Andrew, a PRM conservator, whose recent work on a broken object highlights the decisions made about preservation when it comes to object care... 

"A wax breast ex-voto, recently catalogued in the Small Blessings project, came to the conservation lab. It was in nine separate pieces and the cataloguers had assigned each piece a unique number (1985.52.1198.1-.9). My goal as a conservator is to find the best way to protect an object. In this case, the object is made from wax which, after 100 years, becomes quite a fragile and difficult material. The wax is probably beeswax, so if it gets too warm it will become easily distorted; too cold and it will easily break if dropped. 

Wax ex-voto breast in fragments (PRM: 1985.52.1198.1-9)

The damage to the object probably occurred when it was dropped or packaged badly some time in the past, and not as a result of its use. All the separate pieces had been kept and when pieced together, there were only extremely small fragments missing. I had a choice to make. If I did not reassemble it and kept it as a separate fragments, there is the danger that with handling and transport, the edges of the wax would get damaged, squashed, and abraded.  Also, as separate fragments, it is difficult to ascertain what the object actually is without having to reassemble and hold some of the pieces together which would cause more damage - especially if repeated over time. So I decided it would be better for the object if it was reassembled and packaged more suitably.

The reassembled wax breast (PRM: 1985.52.1198)

I adhered the pieces together with a conservation grade adhesive, which has good aging properties meaning it won't discolour, crack, or become brittle for a long time, and can be removed easily if necessary. Now the object can be easily identified and handling is much easier and safer. We have now dropped the (1-9) sub-parts of the accession number so it is referenced as just one object. If, at some point in the future, there is a need to disassemble it back into its parts, then the special adhesive I've used means this can happen without causing any harm to the object."

We have found a lot of ex-votos in the de Mortillet collection and some of these will be added to the online gallery when it is published this summer. Ex-votos (from the Latin phrase ex-voto suscepto, meaning ‘from the vow made’) were – and still are – used to solicit divine intervention or give thanks for granted wishes, prayers and intentions. They are placed as visible symbols of devotion and gratitude in churches and chapels following recovery from illness or injury and often take on the form of the diseased / affected body part, e.g. arm, leg, eyes, etc. The object shown above was one of a series of wax ex-votos from the Notre-Dame de Hal church in Belgium. It was probably made in relation to an affliction such as breast cancer although we do not know the particulars about the sufferer or what happened to her. 

The Peres-Maldonado ex-voto painting (unknown artist), oil on canvas, 1777

A similar scenario is depicted in this late 18th-century Mexican votive painting, now cared for by Wellesley College near Boston but once owned by the French Surrealist painter André Breton. It shows an aristocratic woman, Doña Josefa Peres-Maldonado, undergoing rudimentary breast cancer surgery. She's attended by a monk, a surgeon, his assistant and her household retinue. Her calm expression may indicate how her faith and piety are helping her overcome the pain. The painting follows the usual format for these devotional artworks: usually done on on canvas or tin, the scene is horizontal with central images illustrating the petitioner and the nature of his or her illness or ailment (as here, often in graphic detail); an image of a saint or holy figure near the top (here, atop a private altar); and a written description and testimony below. Written in Spanish, it tells of the woman's gratitude for the successful removal of six cancerous tumours from her breast. However, below this in smaller text was added the following sometime later: "Although the wound closed perfectly on 26th July 1777, other accidents befell her from which she died on Friday, 5th September at 3pm." 

The tradition of Mexican ex-voto paintings, introduced by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, continues today and many are to be found in Mexican churches. The subject matter remains largely connected to issues of health and well-being, but the context is often more modern and personalised - for example, requesting miraculous intervention in cases of alcoholism, bankruptcy, natural disasters or car accidents.