Isabelle, Museums & Migration

As part of our Thematic Collecting project I’ve captured the thoughts and opinions of several of Manchester Museum’s collaborators. First up is Isabelle Cox:

Over the next few of days I’ll upload a couple more, watch this space!

Art from West Papua

Earlier this year, my review of Manchester Museum’s Pacific collection uncovered these two shields, which had been packaged and stored above some cupboards so that Stephen Welsh, our current Curator of Living Cultures, had never seen them.

When we unwrapped the packages, the shields were labelled with their museum accession numbers, and the note ‘Purchased from Asmat Art Depot’. The pigments used on the shields – white made from lime and red made from a riverbed clay – tend to deteriorate and become detached over time, so the quality of the colours on these shields suggested they were fairly contemporary. Looking at the accession register for the collection, it was revealed that the shields came into the museum as part of a group of eleven objects in January 1970.

0.9342-8 A belt from the Asmat region of West Papua, acquired by manchester Museum in 1970.

0.9342-8 A belt from the Asmat region of West Papua, acquired by manchester Museum in 1970.

 

Following some research, I was able to discover a lot more about the circumstances of the acquisition. The Asmat Art Depot was located in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, set up to distribute objects produced as part of an initiative called the Asmat Art Project.

Asmat is an area to the south-west on New Guinea island, in present day Indonesia. New Guinea was divided during colonial times – the west half being controlled by the Dutch, while the east half was split between Britain and Germany. When the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to give up its colonies, the entire eastern half of the island passed to Britain, but was administered by Australia until it gained independence as Papua New Guinea in 1975. The Dutch left New Guinea in 1961, when the western half of the island (previously called Irian Jaya, but now generally known as ‘West Papua’) became independent. However West Papua was taken over by the Indonesian military in 1963, and remains part of Indonesia despite continued movements for independence. Most of the objects in the New Guinea collections at Manchester Museum understandably come from Papua New Guinea, as they were collected by British colonial officials, missionaries and explorers during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

New Guinea island with it's current political divisions. The Asmat region is located in the province of Meraluke in the Indonesian state of Papua. It is a heavily forested area of swamps and mountainaous terrian which prevented many Europeans from visiting until the 20th century.

New Guinea island with it’s current political divisions. The Asmat region is located in the province of Meraluke in the Indonesian state of Papua. It is a heavily forested area of swamps and mountainaous terrian which prevented many Europeans from visiting until the 20th century.

 

When Indonesia took over West Papua (then called West Irian), the United Nations provided money to help support the economic and social development of the country. The Fund for the development of West Irian (FUNDWI), was distributed across different projects in various areas. One of the projects which attracted funding was the Asmat Art Project, a means of reinvigorating the wood-carving tradition which had been losing momentum in this remote area of the country.

Many of the objects traditionally carved by the Asmat people were part of complex rituals tied to their beliefs surrounding the spirits of ancestors and the journey from death to Safan, the world of the spirits. The Asmat believed that all deaths were caused by an enemy tribe – either directly through inflicting injury, or through the use of sorcery to cause illness. Therefore the spirit of the deceased could not rest until their death was avenged by killing and taking a head from the enemy tribe. The rituals of head-hunting and revenge killings, and by association the carving traditions, had been extremely unpopular with Christian missionaries and outlawed by the Dutch government. However due to the remote nature of the area, it had been difficult to eradicate the traditions. Catholic missionaries didn’t have much influence in Asmat until the 1950s, when the old rituals then sharply declined as people converted to Christianity. Without the traditional rituals for which to make carvings, the practice went into decline.

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Asmat people offering a shield for sale. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

The Asmat Art Project sought to reverse this trend by promoting carving and other craft traditions as ‘art’ rather than ritual. An ex-colonial administrator, Jac Hoogerbrugge, was appointed to run the project, along with an Asmat assistant Jeremias Mbait. Between 1968 and 1972, Hoogerbrugge toured Asmat, showing photographs of older carvings to Asmat people and encouraging traditional methods being used in the creation of new pieces. A store was set up in Agats, the capital of the region, where carvers could come to sell their work for a fair price. Hoogerbrugge maintained quality by rejecting clumsy and badly made pieces, or objects which looked ‘too modern’, such as figures carved wearing glasses or smoking pipes. He had a good understanding of what galleries and dealers would buy, and worked hard to maintain this quality. The purchased pieces were shipped to the Asmat Art Depot in Rotterdam, from where they were distributed. Hoogerbrugge made deals with several important museums, so that their curators could take the first pick of the pieces they wanted for their collections. He also wrote to two hundred galleries and dealers internationally, providing a sales brochure and promoting the artistic practice of the Asmat carvers.

The project had a significant impact on carving traditions in the Asmat region. Carvings changed to be more appealing for galleries – shields began to be made without handles at the back, so they could be hung on the wall as flat patterns. Other pieces without a specific function began to be made, just as art pieces. In the past, young men who were drawn to carving had a long apprenticeship ahead – watching the ‘wowipitsj’ or skilled men until they were allowed to complete small parts of carvings, and eventually make pieces on their own. The Asmat Art Project democratized the process, allowing anyone to sell pieces as long as they fitted with a traditional style.

Museums have always valued ‘authentic’ objects, those showing signs of use and age rather than those produced specifically for sale. The Asmat Art Project aimed to create a market for these ‘new’ objects by promoting their value as contemporary ‘primitive’ art. Despite this aim, the major collections in museums such as Manchester, along with the Pitt Rivers Museum and the British Museum, seem to contain objects collected at the beginning of the project which had already existed and had some ritual life.

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0.9342/1 Jipae mask in the collection of Manchester Museum, acquired from the Asmat Art Depot in 1970.

 

The jipae mask which was one of the objects acquired by Manchester Museum was accompanied by a note which states that it was used in 1967 by its maker, Mbatjam, who had represented the spirit of a woman called Awat. During Asmat mask rituals, men would produce jipae masks inside the communal men’s house. At the time of the ceremony, each man would represent the spirit of a deceased person from their village, often a relation-in-law. The ceremonies took place every few years, so there would be one mask for each person who had died since the last feast. The intention was to reassure the spirit that their affairs were taken care of, and their dependents looked after so that they could go on to Safan, the spirit world. Awat had died leaving three children, so during the 1967 mask feast, her spirit would be shown that they had all been adopted into other families, and she need not worry about their well-being.

Knowing this provenance and story to accompany an object makes it interesting for a museum collection about Living Cultures. The Asmat Art Project collected this object, which had been used, but encouraged the creation of many new pieces. Are these equally interesting? Can such a culturally significant object really be considered as art?

(This blog post is a summary of a talk given at Manchester Museum on Wednesday the 3rd December 2014 as part of the ‘Collection Bites’ series. For details of future events see the Events Calendar and follow the Museum Meets blog).

 

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.

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

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?

Together in Ethnographic Dreams

Last week over 300 UK museums joined forces on Twitter to celebrate Museums Week. It was a roaring success with innumerable museum experiences, challenges, memories, selfies and questions flooding Twitter. I found one particular question I was asked both stimulating and challenging in equal measure:

As a curator I am constantly inspired by the objects and people I work with, and this in turn stimulates countless exhibition ideas. To pick any single exhibition idea would be like testifying to having a single object of interest, impossible! However, over the past several months I have found myself increasingly intrigued by an ethnographic aesthetic embedded in popular music videos. This aesthetic is one based on a popular understanding of ethnic, namely tribal and non-western. My answer therefore was an exhibition on this very phenomenon, and included a link to this sublime video:

Acapella was directed by British team photographer John Waddell and musical director Chris Cottam. Kelis assumes the role of a variegated matriarch lambent in bead, feather, and face-paint as she straddles rainforest and desert with mesmerising ferocity. This is one of a pantheon of contemporary music videos to indulge ethnographically:

Of course this is nothing new, popular culture has for generations consumed and reconstructed the ethnographic in film, fashion and music. There does, however, seem to be a yearning, maybe a as consequence of increasing globalisation, for an escape to a 21st century imagined ethnographic simplicity. Around the world people are increasingly trying to reconnect culturally, whether it’s Mexicans and their Aztec ancestors or Britons and Druids. In this pursuit both music videos and museums play an extraordinarily influential role, both tangibly and intangibly.