Getting a Grip: Students at Manchester Museum

Last week 100 University of Manchester first year archaeology students visited Manchester Museum for a series of world archaeology seminars. The students were invited into the Living Cultures storerooms where they handled a wide variety of objects ranging from Nazca ceramics to Mursi lip-plates. The objects spanned several millennia in age and originated from across Africa, Asia and the Americas. The seminars allowed students to develop the necessary skills to interrogate material culture and consider pursuing further object based research.

University of Manchester world archaeology seminar at Manchester Museum, 2014.

University of Manchester world archaeology seminar at Manchester Museum, 2014.

The seminars were organised with university colleague and long-time Manchester Museum collaborator Professor Tim Insoll. Tim regularly uses the African collection in his teaching and has also co-curated exhibitions including Fragmentary Ancestors: Figurines from Koma Land, Ghana http://bit.ly/1Dsqddo. Tim’s recently graduated PhD student Dr Bryn James also used the African collection, specifically the West African medical and ritual objects, in his doctoral research. The exhibition Exploring African Medicine which documents this research and his accompanying contemporary fieldwork in Accra, Ghana, is currently on display in the reception area.

Exploring African Medicine exhibition, Manchester Museum, 2014.

Exploring African Medicine exhibition, Manchester Museum, 2014.

As a university museum Manchester Museum is dedicated to providing access to our collections for student teaching and research. When the newly refurbished third floor of the museum opens in summer 2015 there’ll be a brand new state-of-the-art space dedicated to just that.

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27th September 2014: Big Saturday ‘Discover the Pacific’

September’s Big Saturday event is inspired by the Living Cultures collection – specifically by our important collection of objects from the Pacific. The limited gallery space in the museum only allows us to show a tiny fraction of the museum’s collections, which include over 6000 Pacific objects in the Living Cultures collection alone. A day of activities on the 27th September is set to draw attention to this important area of the collection.

Get up close to objects from behind the scenes - including one of our large textile pieces usually kept in storage.

Get up close to objects from behind the scenes – including one of our large textile pieces usually kept in storage.

Some of the events taking place on the day will be*:

  • ‘The ocean between us’– A short talk looking at how the Pacific Ocean links people to each other and to the rest of the world through history by Professor Karen Sykes, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester.
  • Didgeridoo performances
  • A chance to see one of our large pieces of Fijian barkcloth from the stores. Meet trainee curator Kiera Gould to ask questions and find out more about the manufacture of these impressive textiles.
  • Hands-on craft activities: make a miniature kiwi bird, decorate a boomerang or make a Hawaiian flower lei to wear as you explore the museum.
  • Meet our Curator of Botany Rachel Webster and get up close to some of the natural materials people used to live on remote Pacific Islands.
  • Learn more about our up-coming Easter Island exhibition.
  • Have a go at the traditional Vanuatu art of sand-drawing and learn more about this fascinating cultural practice.
  • Join students from the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences who will show examples of volcanic rocks and demonstrate seismic waves to show how we can understand the structure of the earth.

We hope that visitors will also look out for objects and specimens from the Pacific as they explore the galleries all over the museum. Families can pick up a Pacific Island Trail map at the Welcome Desk and hunt for clues around the museum which will show them the diversity of objects we hold from the Pacific. You might even spot some live animals in the Vivarium which come from this far flung corner of the world!

Why can't kiwis fly? Find the answer as you explore the galleries and spot objects and specimens from the Pacific.

Why can’t kiwis fly? Find the answer as you explore the galleries and spot objects and specimens from the Pacific.

Join us at Manchester Museum on Saturday 27th September to ‘Discover the Pacific’. Activities run 11am-4pm, are free and suitable for all ages.

*The programme for the day is currently ‘to be confirmed’, keep an eye on the blog and Twitter (@KieraRGould) for updates.

Sept Big Saturday flyer FINAL high res

Travel the World Big Saturday: Guest Blog by Sajia Sultana

Travel the World Big Saturday was held on Saturday 2nd of August between 11am and 4pm. The day involved families travelling back in time and across the globe. Families enjoyed world music performances, met curators and saw objects from the museum’s collections and created musical shakers.

Here are the various music performances which were held during the day. Upon arrival families enjoyed Chinese music performances on traditional instruments, the Erhu and the Guzheng. This was performed by Henry Fung and Mei Mei Wu.

1Families then enjoyed African Storytelling with Chanje Kunda from Zambia. The stories included fables which illustrated to the children how to stay safe. The children also played with African toys and fabrics.

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Our journey continued to Northern India with Kanchan Maradan who performed the Kathak dance. The word Kathak is derived from ‘Katha’ meaning the ‘the art of storytelling’.

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In the afternoon families travelled to Iran with Arian Sadr to enjoy Iranian Frame Drumming.

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At the end of the journey families had a chance to participate in the traditional Chinese Fan Dance (which resembles a field of butterflies) with Mei-Mei Wu.

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You can see some of the performances in the film below:

Children and adults were asked to describe their day at Manchester Museum in one word. Here are their comments:

‘Splendid’ ‘Amazing’ ’Interactive’ ‘Interesting’ ‘Educational’ ’Extraordinary’ Excellent’ ’Brilliant’ ‘Illuminating’ ’Exciting’ ‘Fascinating’ ‘Inspiring’ ’Great’

Visit the following link to find out more about Big Saturday:

http://ancientworldsmanchester.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/easter-island-at-manchester-museum/

Visit our page on Facebook Global Explorer:

https://www.facebook.com/GlobalExplorersmm

Sajia Sultana is a Summer Public Programmes Intern at Manchester Museum and a University of Manchester student.

Pacific Collection Review

Since I joined the Manchester Museum at the end of April 2014, I have been working on the important collection of material from the Pacific, with the aim of improving our collections documentation and the storage conditions for our objects.

Systematically working through the stored collections, I have been making sure that objects have correct locations recorded on our database – a crucial piece of data for good collections management. I have also been photographing objects to add images to the database, which is helpful is allowing us to quickly identify a particular object when we receive enquiries from colleagues, researchers and members of the public.

Indigenous Australian objects in our store.

Indigenous Australian objects in our store.

This approach to reviewing the collection has brought to light a number of issues; how should we look after objects which are secret or sacred in their originating communities? How do we deal with historical terms which have been used to describe objects in the past, but which would be culturally inappropriate or easily misunderstood today? These issues are particularly relevant to an ethnographic collection amassed from cultures which have changed in the post-colonial period, adopting different names for indigenous groups and for their countries as they gain independence or greater recognition.

Two large shields from the Asmat region of West Papua. Large objects like these are challenging to store, especially when they include materials like feathers which are particularly sensitive to insect damage and storage conditions.

Two large shields from the Asmat region of West Papua. Large objects like these are challenging to store, especially when they include materials like feathers which are particularly sensitive to insect damage and storage conditions.

A further issue to contend with in the museum is how to store our collection most efficiently. Many of our stores are now full, and cannot take further material. However Manchester Museum is currently developing its approach to collecting, with the aim of continuing to develop the collections with contemporary material. As I continue through my placement with the Living Cultures collection, I need to think about how our storage space could be used more effectively to incorporate future acquisitions alongside the valued historical material.

Working through the collection has allowed me to identify areas where storage can immediately be improved - these Indigenous Australian dolls have been repacked into new acid-free boxes with the help of our volunteer Eleanor Myers.

Working through the collection has allowed me to identify areas where storage can immediately be improved – these Indigenous Australian dolls have been repacked into new acid-free boxes with the help of our volunteer Eleanor Myers.

While under-taking this ‘behind the scenes’ collections management work, I’m also becoming involved with the public programme at the museum. Using the Pacific collection as inspiration, I’m currently developing a ‘Big Saturday’ event for the 27th September 2014, which will allow visitors to engage with the cultures and environments of the Pacific through a wide range of activities. I’m also hoping to assist in delivering further events over the next nine months to broaden awareness of the fascinating Living Cultures collection and its relevance to contemporary issues.

 

Unstraight Outta Stockholm

Last Friday I attended the Unstraight Museum conference at the Museum of Liverpool, National Museums Liverpool. The conference sought to address the challenges involved in the incorporation of LGBTQ objects, narratives and exhibitions across the cultural sector, and interrogate examples of best practice. Examples included April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady, a collaborative exhibition between the Museum of Liverpool and Homotopia (http://bit.ly/SKrM3U), and the work of Finnish museums, libraries and archives as presented by sociologist Kati Mustola. The delegate body was truly international and representative of a variegated global cultural sector, everything from the Tom of Finland Foundation to the V&A.

The name of conference referenced the ongoing Unstraight Museum project (http://bit.ly/UI0LQk), which began in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2007. This virtual museum is described as ‘a site dedicated to presenting the stories of Unstraight individuals and their contemporary reality’ and it does this in a particularly playful fashion. The traditional curatorial preoccupation with category and definition is abandoned in favour of a collective appreciation of experience and emotion. Visitors to the museum are encouraged to upload images of their Unstraight objects with accompanying narratives.  This opportunity was afforded to each of the conference delegates as one of our tasks was to bring along an Unstraight object and help create a pop-up exhibition within an hour. Images of these objects and their associated narratives, some of which were filmed, will soon be uploaded to the Unstraight Museum.

Delegates were keen to know how exactly how the museum defined Unstraight and put the question to its curator Nicolas Hasselqvist, he responded just as the video above does in that the museum wants its users to ‘be part of defining unstraight’. With the addition of each new object, narrative, and experience, the definition of unstraight expands exponentially. I find this particularly exciting as it allows for the creation of a multi-verse of perception and interpretation, that perhaps only a virtual museum is capable of capturing. It’s reminiscent of the fascinating work on multiple ontologies being conducted by anthropologists such as Dr. Martin Holbraad, University College London, which emphasises the need for multi-layered interpretation and multiple methodologies. Museums globally are increasingly recognising this need, just as Prof. Yashiaki Nishino has done at the University Museum, University of Tokyo, with the Chamber of Curiosities. This installation has no explanatory text or object labels but simply asks visitors to view, experience and react to the very many encyclopaedic objects around them.

Such innovative methodologies will increasingly encourage museums to recognise that interpretation is a perpetual process and the need also to incorporate multiple modernities, as described by Prof. Thomas A. McCarthy, Northwestern University, in his book Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development, 2009. In this way the Unstraight Museum provides a crucial interpretative vehicle to access other modernities beyond that of the heteronormative. Interestingly, McCarthy also states in the same book that the virtuosos of reflexivity invariably originate in the margins of society. Perhaps then the Unstraight Museum is a tangible example of museological reflexive virtuosity in action, and a wonderfully irreverent approach to documentation and display that the sector globally could learn from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japan in Manchester & Beyond

Yesterday I attended the Researching and Using Japanese Collections in Museums study day at the Palace Green Library, University of Durham. The Library is currently host to the V&A exhibition The Seven Treasures: Japanese Enamels from the V&A and their own in-house production Off the Wall: The Art of the Japanese Movie Poster, both well worth a visit (http://bit.ly/SKf9WH).

The day was filled with fascinating papers from both UK and Japanese colleagues that addressed the wide and varied nature of Japanese collections in the UK. Such collections which can be found in museums, galleries, libraries and stately homes are testament to the UK’s relationship with Japan politically, economically and industrially over the past several centuries. I was intrigued to hear about historic and contemporary industrial connections between England’s north-east and Japan, as presented by  Andrew MacLean, National Trust.

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Battleship Yashima on the River Tyne after fit out in 1896. It was built for the Imperial Japanese Navy by Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co Ltd.

Dr. Yoshi Miki, Curatorial Consultant and Visiting Professor, detailed his experience of compiling the recently published Survey and Analysis of the Database of Japanese Collections in the UK and Ireland, in which Manchester Museum’s internationally important Japanese collection is included. This comprehensive publication, as funded by the Inter-University Research Institute Corporation National Institutes for the Humanities, scrutinises access to UK Japanese collections on-line. This publication is a must for anyone interested in Japanese collections and access to museum databases on-line.

It was exciting to hear further news about Manchester Art Gallery’s forthcoming East Asian exhibition by Janet Boston, Curator: Collections Access at Manchester City Galleries. Development of the exhibition has led to a fundamental reappraisal of Manchester Art Gallery’s Japanese collection and stimulated contemporary collecting. We’ll be loaning several pieces from our Japanese collection to support the exhibition.

There are almost 2000 Japanese objects in the Living Cultures collection. They range from large pieces of furniture to intricately carved netsuke. The majority of the collection belongs to the 1958 Robert Wylie Lloyd bequest, an industrialist who also bequeathed his butterfly collection. Interestingly the Japanese collection bequest was split between us and the British Museum. Damian Scully, Objects in Mind Project Lead, recently shot a short film of one of the objects included in the Lloyd bequest which you can see below.

 

All this talk of Japan stimulated me to read again a captivating article called A Samurai at Oxford published in the Manchester Evening News 2nd December 1982. The article details the exploits of Mr Nori Shibahara described as a ‘sort of unpaid Japanese consul’ , a gift shop owner on Brazenose Street, whose ancestor Saburo Ozaki arrived in the UK in 1867 dressed in full samurai attire. Shibahara arrived in Manchester in 1966 when the article claims there were only two other Japanese people ‘a judo instructor and a nurse’. Shibahara was conscious of the lack of understanding about Japan and it’s people, culture and history when he first arrived. He stated that ‘I’ve been to bookshops in Manchester to find books on Japan and when I’ve opened them, they’ve shown hairstyles 100 years out of date’. As chairman of the North West Japanese Society Shibahara promoted greater understanding of Japan across the region. In this vein, with our ever popular Japanese display in the Living Cultures gallery, we’re continuing to promote further understanding and interest in Japan across Manchester.

 

 

Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings

I’ve just joined Manchester Museum as Trainee Curator in Anthropology as part of the Future Curators programme at the British Museum. A couple of weeks ago, Stephen Welsh and I attended a symposium at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, organised to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The symposium was entitled ‘Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings: Current and future curatorial challenges’. The programme brought together curators and academics from across the world to discuss the intellectual and practical challenges which surround exhibition making with ethnographic collections. There were many fascinating papers, but here I’m going to highlight just a few of the projects discussed.

In a session entitled ‘Experiencing exhibitions ‘at home’ and abroad’, Gaye Sculthorpe, Section Head for Oceania at the British Museum spoke about the project she is currently working on to develop exhibitions about Indigenous Australia to be shown in London and Canberra in 2015. The major temporary exhibition at the British Museum will be an outcome of a five year research project which has sought to engage indigenous communities across Australia. Many of the objects will then travel to the National Museum of Australia for a related exhibition. Gaye spoke of the intense emotional reactions she’d witnessed from indigenous visitors when faced with objects which represent the contentious history of Australia.

This shield was collected in Australia when Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770. It represents the first contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians and will return to Australia in 2015 for the first time since it was collected as part of a loan from the collection of the British Museum. This is likely to have a huge emotional impact on Indigenous audiences for the exhibitions in London and Canberra.

The emotional power of objects was also addressed by Noelle Kahuna who spoke about the loan of Kū figures to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. This was the first time in over 150 years that three monumental carvings of the god Kū had come together. The carvings from the collections of the British Museum in London, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and the Bishop Museum are thought to be the last remaining examples of this quality and size in the world. Kū is a god known is several Pacific cultures associated with procreation, prosperity and warfare. In this exhibit, the lenders agreed that the objects could be dressed in loincloths called a malo, honouring traditional beliefs and acknowledging the power of museums to explore issues of cultural identity.

The three Ku figues on display at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Hawaii in 2010.

Many speakers addressed the need for exhibitions to be more than geographical or typological arrangements of objects, and suggested ways that displays could use concepts drawn from indigenous cultures. Aristoteles Barcelos-Neto spoke of how a new framework had been developed for Amerindian studies which contributed to a change in anthropological approach. His ethnographic film about the Amazon’s Wauja community made in 2007 shows atujuwa masks, the manufacture of which was revived as a cultural practice in 1997. Fourteen masks have been made to go into private collections in Paris and Lisbon, as they would not exist for long in the humid rainforest climate. Exhibitions of the masks were developed around the Wauja concept of apapaatai, which are spirits thought to cause illness. This type of illness will not kill but can only be cured by a shaman, and once cured allows the person to take on the power and protection of that spirit.

The range of papers presented across the three day symposium was vast, and raised many questions which will require further thought going into the future. In the opening remarks, it was suggested that anthropological museums need to begin to address environmental issues as these concerns are of particular relevance to many indigenous communities as well as to the wider world. While climate change and deforestation have been easily incorporated into displays within museums of natural history or science, these issues are yet to be tackled in ethnographic museums. This theme was not revisited for discussion during the symposium, but presents an interesting challenge to curators: in a time where many institutions do not have the capacity to continue collecting contemporary objects and need to make our historical collections relevant, how can we use them to provoke discussion around environmental concerns?

Several speakers also discussed the role of the curator – as a guardian for collections, but also as a translator, to let people know what they’re looking at and why they should want to look at it. Do they also have the responsibility to ask questions and provoke reactions?