The Worcester City museum collection contains many wonderful objects that are not only amazing in themselves, but also have meaning and symbolism tied into them.
Take our Kpinga otherwise known as a Zande knife from our Ethnographic collection. It is a multi-bladed throwing knife, made from metal alloy with a patterned handle and is more commonly used by the Azande people of Africa.
They can be up to 22 inches long and have three blades. The blade closest to the handle represents a man’s masculine power. There are different types of these blades, but this variety is found in the region inhabited by the Zande and other groups near-by in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The iron weapon was employed by throwing it with force and the technique used ensured that the blades would revolve around the centre while spinning through the air. This meant that wherever the rotation was at, a super sharp blade would always inflict some damage when it connected.
Traditionally used as weapons, you had to be a real proven warrior to wield it. Which is why when they went out of use as weapons, only select men were able to keep them in their home.
These days the Kpinga is more of a symbolic object, used in ceremonies when honouring the ancestors. They are considered potent symbols of power and nobility.
Not just Worcestershire objects in the Museum collections
Museums Worcestershire has objects from all over the world in its collections. Although these are not developing areas of the collection, many fascinating global objects make up the historic collections.
This wonderful example has come to Worcester City’s museum collection from the Pacific islands and is a highly decorative ceremonial paddle from the islands of Tonga and Fiji, donated to the Worcester City museum collection in 1969.
The paddle is made from a hardwood, is smooth to the touch and after time has developed this polished looking patina.
The decoration is chip carved and covers the entire surface of the paddle. Due to the decoration and the patina, this example most probably dates to the mid to late 19th century.
Mummified animals were common finds in ancient Egyptian tombs and were shipped back to Britain in their hundreds in the nineteenth century by travellers and collectors. It’s thought that they may have been placed in tombs for a number of reasons; as a source of food for the afterlife, as a favoured pet or most likely as a symbol of a particular deity. In ancient Egyptian religious art, characteristics of Gods and Goddesses were often represented by an animal and so the animal was often used to symbolise the deities. So great was the need for these mummified animals that an entire industry arose around their breeding and mummification.
This mummified rat came into the collections of Worcester Museum in March 1851 as part of a collection of ethnographic and antiquarian items which included two hands from the mummy pits at Memphis and a pigtail taken from a disgraced Chinese man. The collection was gifted by Henry Smith Parkes Esq, a diplomat with the British Government who served as a minister to Japan, China and Korea during his career.
The rat is carefully wrapped in strips of linen with the limbs and tail wrapped separately to the main body. The collection also includes a mummified crocodile and two Ibises, one wrapped and another unwrapped.
Some of the most fascinating objects in the museum collections are from different places around the world. Worcester City’s ethnographic collection encompasses a number of items that derive from Africa.
One such object is the characterful ceramic zebra. This zebra shows how skilled the potter was in creating a complicated but stable shape which is decorated with slip made from clay and vegetable pigment.
Many ceramic vessels from Africa are traditionally fired at a low temperature which means they can be incredibly fragile compared to Western pottery. However, in the case of cooking receptacles they are much better at withstanding cooking temperatures.
There are many African vessels in the collection and they vary from region to region. The zebra may have come from West Africa as the vast majority of items in the collection derive from that area.
Some of the most fascinating objects in the museum collections come from places all over the world. They arrived in the collection due to explorers and travellers gathering trinkets and objects of curios during the 19th century. One such object is the Pounamu Toki or the Greenstone Adze from New Zealand. These adzes were used as a tool for daily work as well as being employed in ceremonial form.
We have several in the collection but unfortunately, none of them contain their handles. However, they retain much meaning for the Maori’s, as Greenstone is known as the God Stone. They are imbibed with mysticism and power. Greenstone is a sacred material and rare. It occurs naturally in the South island of New Zealand and is found in several areas and has been discovered in rivers as boulders or pebbles or washed up on the coast.
Maori myth and legend is attached to the greenstone and its origins. The Ngati Waewae tribe tells of a legend about a fearsome Taniwha (sea monster) and a beautiful princess kidnapped by the Taniwha. The princess eventually gets turned to greenstone on the riverbed. This myth tells how the greenstone was created.
If you have enjoyed finding out more about our collections in storage and our curatorial expertise, you may be interested in booking onto some of our behind-the-scenes events. These take place at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum and at the Museums Worcestershire Collections Centre. The full listing for 2017 can be found here.
The first talk, taking place on 7 February at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, will be a highlight of the year as Garston Phillips, curator since 1969 and a mine of knowledge, shares some of his best stories.
Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum is also the site for our series of lunchtime talks about the collection, which take place on the second Tuesday of each month (except January). A pdf download (400kb) of 2017 bite-sized talks can be found here.
We hope you will be able to join us to discover more about the work we do!
The queue hairstyle (or pigtail) was worn by Chinese men between the 1600s and the early 1900s. The queue was a hairstyle in which the front and sides of the head were shaved and the rest was plaited into a braid, this was originally a Manchu (a north-eastern Chinese region) hairstyle. In 1644, a Manchu army conquered China and thus the Qing dynasty born. It was then ordered that all Han Chinese* men had to shave and braid their hair (except for Buddhist monks and Taoist priests). The queue was originally a symbol of submission but was also a sign of repression; the Qing Dynasty used this to show their dominance in China.
Traditionally, Chinese men and women grew their hair long and then styled it in elaborate ways; the queue denied them their cultural right to grow their hair. Many men refused to shave their heads, to show defiance to the Qing rule, but were executed. The policy of the Qing dynasty’s queue was “lose your hair, keep your head; or lose your head, keep your hair”. Not shaving your hair was treason against the emperor and was punishable by death. So a Chinese man without a queue was the same as a dead man.
In 1873, California, the Pigtail Ordinance was enforced; this meant that all prisoners had to have their hair cut within an inch of their scalp. This would have significantly affected Chinese immigrants, as keeping their queue was the only way to secure their chance of returning to China.
* Han Chinese: a Chinese ethnic group that originated from the Han dynasty, 206 BC- 220 AD.
Malagan refers to a culture that conducts ceremonies and practices to ensure that a deceased member of the culture will be prepared and assisted for their journey to and in the afterlife. The word Malagan originates from the Nalik language at New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Possibly mid-19th century, funerary carvings such as the one shown would be used in the numerous funerary ceremonies that were carried out by the living to honour the deceased.
When a member of the Malagan culture died, there would be a time of mourning for them. Whilst many ceremonies for the individual would be planned, the actual funeral would not take place until months or even years after their death! People would paint each other black as a symbolic reference to death and mourning. They also were forbidden to do specific activities in this time.
In New Ireland, people would compete to obtain the right to have the greatest number of Malagan objects and carvings at their final funerary ceremony. This was to boast their status and power as well as the achievements that they did in life. The funerary carving shown also includes animal beings which are representative of an individual tribe.
Eventually however, when the funerary rites are completed and those living come out of mourning, the Malagan items are unfortunately destroyed or occasionally were sold on.
This object from the Worcester City Museum Collection was researched and written about by David Prince.
This item in the Worcester City collection comes from Northern Canada, Alaska or Greenland. It was a waterproof outer coat for use in a kayak and was made from seal intestines.
Women sewed these parkas from untanned strips of dried seal gut, using sinew thread. It took the intestines from one of two seals to make each garment. They made the seams waterproof by joining the strips with folds and stitching that did not entirely pierce through the material – a little like taped seams on Western waterproofs. The parkas were kept moist to keep them pliable; a gut parka could be rolled into a small bundle for easy carrying on hunting trips.
To keep dry, the wearer could tighten drawstrings on the parka’s sleeves and hood. He tied the bottom of the parka around the top of his kayak, to keep rain and water splashes from getting him wet. An active hunter would get through two or three parkas a year – although waterproof, the gut fabric is delicate.
This parka is over a century old, brought back to Worcester by a traveller as a memento of their trip. The traditional craft of making parkas from seal gut continues today in some Native Alaskan communities.