|W. L. Hildburgh. Image: V&A|
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
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.