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