Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas Related Artefacts

The Pitt Rivers Museum's English collections do not have many objects specifically related to Christmas. This is perhaps surprising as this season is perhaps the season most widely celebrated throughout England even today. Indeed English, European and North American Christmas traditions have now spread throughout the world, and can be seen as almost divorced from its purpoted religious connections to Christianity. Christmas Day, 25 December in the Anglican and Roman Catholic calendar, was supposed to be the day when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It has been a public holiday in the United Kingdom for a very long time, in the nineteenth century it was one of only two days on which workers had a statutory right to be absent under the Factory Act of 1833 (the other was Good Friday)[David please link Good Friday to the Good Friday part of the Easter object biography]. [Hutton, 1996:112]
Hutton makes the point that a midwinter festival had probably been celebrated in Britain from 'the dawn of history'. [1996:34] Christmas, in England, occurs at the darkest time of the year, when days are at their shortest. It is also during the cold winter, when food would have been more scarse and life (before the twentieth century) much harder for most people. As Hutton remarks, 'the Christmas season is the most important complex of festivals in the modern British year and contains by far the largest number of customary practices. [1996:112]


1945.6.124 Desk presented to Miss S.U. Powys
Christmas time is a time for exchanging or giving presents to family and friends. Gifts are sometimes also given to employees, or employers or people to whom the person feels an obligation. The next object, which is Christmas-related, is an oddity, it is described as:
'A hideous [sic] fitted desk, 1 ft 2 inches x 10 inches x 9 inches, veneered with bird's eye maple and with brass ornaments, and an inscription on brass: "Presented to Miss S.U. Powys by the members of the Bournemouth Central Workers' Club, Christmas 1877". Tout à fait typique.'[1945.6.124]
It was donated by William Horace Boscawen Somerset in June 1945. It is not known why Bournemouth Central Workers Club felt it should give Miss Powell the desk at Christmas, or why the anonymous accession book recorder in 1945 should feel that the desk was so 'hideous', though there is a rather unattractive underlying note of snobbishness in the final sentence 'tout à fait typique' (loosely translated as 'entirely typical'). This object was not given to the Museum because it was a Christmas gift (indeed the motivation for giving it to the Museum or accepting it seems unclear as it was considered so 'hideous'). The museum has been unable to find out anything more about either Miss Powell or the Bournemouth Central Workers Club and would be grateful for any information on either.
Gift-giving, before the nineteenth century, had traditionally been associated with New Year rather than Christmas Day but during that century, the date gradually changed to Christmas Day, where it has remained. [Hutton, 1996:116] As Hutton points out, dislike of the perceived commercial nature of Christmas started early, 'George Bernard Shaw started an enduring myth in 1897 by declaring that 'Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press'.' [1996:116]

This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch, 


Friday, 4 December 2015

Topping-out at the Pitt Rivers Museum

On 24 February 2006 Dr John Hood, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, donated a ceremonial trowel and tankard in presentation boxes to the Pitt Rivers Museum [PRM]. 

The topping out ceremony, John Hood receives his ceremonial trowel

These gifts had been given to him on 9 February 2006 during the topping-out ceremony for the new extension to the PRM. The photographs on this page show the extension being built, the ceremony itself and the subject of this biography, the ceremonial trowel. John Hood is wearing a brown coat in the photographs, and the bearded man is Michael O'Hanlon, director of the museum. Other men are representatives of the builders, Sir Robert McAlpine.

Topping-out ceremonies

Topping-out is a ceremony traditionally held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building, or these days, the last iron beam. The ceremony marks the overall completion of the building's structure (the building is not completed, or ready for transfer to the owners or clients, it is a stage during the building process). According to wikipedia, such ceremonies are common in England, Germany, Poland and the United States.
2006.78.1 Ceremonial trowel given to John Hood at the PRM topping-out ceremony
A tree or leafy branch is placed on the topmost beam, often with flags or streamers tied to it. A toast is usually drunk and sometimes the workmen are treated to a meal.' []
According to Simpson and Roud [2000, see "building trade" in further reading list below for source]:
What passes for building trade lore nowadays are ‘official’ customs such as cutting the first turf, laying a foundation stone, and topping out. The latter has been particularly popular since the 1960s, and few major construction projects are completed without a gathering of company officials, local dignitaries, and newspaper photographers on top of the new building to perform some ceremony such as laying the last brick. This custom has some roots, as there are earlier references to the workers hoisting a bush, or a flag, to the roof of a completed building.
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.

Alison Petch,