Tuesday, 31 October 2017

An Amuletic Autumn at Pitt Rivers Museum

It's been a highly amuletic time at the Pitt Rivers recently. The charm, amulet and talisman collections are one of the most significant, evocative and numerous in the Museum's care and they have been the focus of three very different aspects of staff work in October....

1) First, came the invite from BBC Radio 4 to contribute to a series called The Digital Human, exploring the impact of technology on our lives. Aware of the expansive amulet collection at the Pitt Rivers and our various resources, the producers got in touch for an interview contribution to an episode on 'Protection' to reference some of our historical collections within a wider discussion about how smartphones act as modern-day protective amulets. You can listen to the episode here (specific PRM section from 12:00 - 18:00 minutes):

Marc Ferrez. Negra da Bahia, c. 1885 
© Salvador, BA / Acervo IMS 
Source: http://brasilianafotografica.bn.br

Indeed, there are plenty of parallels. We hold phones close to our body, we charge them every night with electricity, the way amulets get charged with personal proximity and powers of belief. We use phones for protection - against being late, against boredom, against laziness (how many steps have you done today?), against crime, against being disconnected from the world. 

Composite charms act like a collection of apps. The balangandan (or penca) from the Bahia region of Brazil is the perfect example. A fusion of cultural influences, this metal ornament came to South America via the West African slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries and was often worn by female slaves, dangling and jangling from the waist (hence the onomatopoetic name). As a colonial artefact this object is both problematic and challenging but its function is highly relatable; no two balangandans are the same and - just like the apps you choose to download on your phone - they feature various charms deemed relevant and personal to the wearer's life path - perhaps a boat to represent passage across the Atlantic; a fish in a nod to the Christian beliefs of the Portuguese colonial powers; a pomegranate representing fertility inherited from ancient Middle Eastern beliefs; a cashew nut symbolising the candomblé (Afro-Brazilian) god of thunder and lightning; or keys against the Evil Eye.

Balangandan charm, Brazil; 1954.7.15.1

2) October half term is one of the busiest and most hectic weeks of the year for us. Nearly 14,000 people through the doors, many on holiday and looking for some family fun. Being so close to Halloween, we teamed up with the Museum of Natural History next door to offer a 'Bats, Cats, Witches and Charms' extravaganza. They did the Bats and Cats, we did the Witches and Charms. It works :)

Over three days nearly 300 children plus their parents and carers took part in activities such as designing and making their own amulets, working out if witches are who we think they are, and using investigation skills to figure out two truths and a lie about charms in the handling collection. For example, if someone found this object in your garden and told you:
  • It used to be a fish
  • It was fired from a crossbow
  • It protects against lightning
Which one is the lie?

Belemnite, Oxfordshire 2013.23.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Did you guess correctly? It's the second one. It might look like a projectile but this is in fact a belemnite - the naturally occurring fossil stone of a now-extinct cuttlefish. Due to their shape, people thought they were the heads of lightning bolts fallen to earth and, since lightning doesn't strike the same place twice, they were often put in the attic of the home to protect against lightning! Incidentally, they were also used for medicinal purposes - in southern England, they were ground to powder and used to cure diseases of the mouth.

What do these charms do? © Pitt Rivers Museum

Charms bring luck, amulets bring protection and talismans attract certain qualities or virtues. The children got wonderfully creative, making talismans to attract tickle monsters, tranquility, or allow the wearer to talk to cats, as well as amulets to protect against negative events such as being sad, dinosaur attacks and forest fires. What worked best about the activities is that the participants had to use their imaginations - often collectively as a family - to work out what it was they wanted (or needed) protection from. The activities employed effective 'visual thinking' strategies (e.g. cultivating curiosity, truth-seeking or creativity) to engage learners - for example, choosing to use handling objects from Europe helped ensure children understood and self-reflected that the use of charms happens in the UK and in nearby countries as well as more globally.

Handwritten labels accompanying the charms families created © Pitt Rivers Museum

3) Lastly, behind the scenes, the Move Project team are dealing with a numbers game. The Museum houses more than 20,000 objects which are documented as amulets. Just under 4,000 are either on display or stored at the Museum, and the remaining 16,000 are kept in reserve collections in storage. Since most amulets are personal items - kept in a pocket, strung around the neck or held in the hand - they are some of the smallest objects here. The Museum is in the process of moving its largest object store to a new building. You can keep up to date with the move via the team's entertaining Twitter feed.

The move involves transporting the 16,000 stored amulets to a new home. The store houses over 100,000 objects, from these tiny amulets to five-metre-long ploughs and almost everything in between. Unless the location of every object is carefully recorded, there is a huge risk that objects can easily become lost - and trying to find an amulet amongst 100,000 other objects is much harder than finding a plough...

To make sure this doesn't happen, members of the Move Team have been busily documenting the collection at the store. Each amulet is being physically numbered with a unique accession number which links to our object database. So far we are making headway with the Blackman collection of amulets, one of several large tranches of amulets transferred from the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in the 1980s. 

Measuring and labelling an amulet © Pitt Rivers Museum

Each object is photographed and extra information such as a physical description, materials, measurements and any potential hazards are added to the database record prior to packing the object ready for its move. The location of each amulet is also recorded, so we know which box it is in and which shelf that box is on, so if anyone wants to find it we don't have to start looking amongst the ploughs...

Helen Adams, Project Curator and Engagement Officer

with contributions from:

Andrew Hughes, Deputy Head of Conservation
Beth McDougall, Families and Communities Officer

For more about balangandan charms see:
  • Crowley, Daniel J. & Doran H. Ross, ‘The Bahian Market in African-Influenced Art’, African Arts 15:1 (1981), p.p. 56–88 
  • Fözy, Vilma, Balangandan - Afro-brazilian Amulet, Museum of Ethnography, Budapest (March 2016) http://bit.ly/2zTTK39

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