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, 


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