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

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an interesting article! We are displaying a Hildburgh Japanese amulet - small paper and wood house with tiny phallus inside - in an exhibition of Wellcome's erotic collection in Exeter in April-June 2014.

    Jen Grove (University of Exeter)