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.
Worcester City Museum & Art Gallery have a small selection of Native American items. I was lucky enough to see them in storage when I was writing my dissertation. It was strange to be writing about North America in rural Worcestershire but looking closely at the bead work and imagining the beading in The Antelope Wife helped me to get closer to my subject matter. Recently the museum thought it would be interesting to get them out of storage and make a display of them, with some taxidermy animals; red fox, porcupine and skunk. They invited me to do a workshop that would use Native American stories to inspire poetry and artwork. It was a beautiful day, summer solstice with hot sun glinting through the windows. The group of people came up with some wonderful ideas that translated into vivid written images and some stunning artwork.
Ruth Stacey was born in Worcestershire in 1977. She graduated from Bath Spa University in 2001 with a degree in English and Creative Writing. After different temping jobs she ended up working as receptionist at a website design agency and this led into a career in copy writing and web design.
After the birth of her three children she returned to study for a masters degree at Worcester University in Literature, Politics and Identity. She graduated in 2013 and has since focused on leading creative writing workshops and working as a private tutor.
Kerry Whitehouse is the Skills for the Future Trainee at The Infirmary and George Marshall Medical Museum
Recently as part of the Skills for the Future Traineeship, we were all encouraged to try a week placement elsewhere. I opted to work at Worcester Museum and Art Gallery for the week. I wanted more experience with collections and they were kind enough to let me play with the collection at the museum stores (located in a secret offsite facility – honestly I can’t tell you, I’d have to kill you…). My first day was an introduction and tour of the stores which are vast and full of lovely objects. From big horse drawn carriages to the smallest piece of Iron Age pottery, it was all there.
After tea break, I was introduced to the pods which is a structure built within the store to enable better environmental monitoring. The more delicate objects that are susceptible to deteriorating quickly due to rapid changes in the temperature are put in these stores and checked regularly, as there has been in the past a moth infestation. The team have been working hard and have procedures in place to combat the problem, and it has been treated successfully. There are 4 pods in total and I was working in the 2nd pod, which held the costume and ethnographic objects.
The museum has a fascinating collection of objects from around the world and it was like Christmas as I opened each box to discover the delights within. I found that I had a real interest in weaponry! There were about three boxes with all sorts of daggers, swords, knives and axes, as well as objects from my beloved New Zealand. In fact Deborah (Curator of Natural History and Archaeology) commented that it was a boon to have a Kiwi in for the week to be able to identify certain objects such as the ceremonial spear we found on the shelf. It was great to be able to share with them what the spear would have been used for.
So what was I doing with these objects? We were there to keep an eye on the infestation problem and to check that it wasn’t progressing, so the objects were taken out of their boxes, carefully looked over and wrapped back in acid free tissue, and placed within plastic bags. These were then returned to their boxes with a vapona strip (insecticide) sealed and put back on the shelves. Any detected moth activity (activity was in the form of moth carcasses found in the boxes or tissue as we found no live ones), the objects were placed within plastic bags, sealed and depending on what they were made out of, put directly into the freezer just to be sure.
Towards the end of the week, I saw how archaeological archives were stored and how they were brought into the collection. I assisted with making a list of a deposit from an archaeological unit and saw some examples of how they were presented. This was great for me to see as I hope to assist a local archaeologist deposit his archive at the Worcester Museum and it was helpful for me to see the procedure. Once I had got to grips with it, it was straight back to the ethnography!
I spent most of the week working with this fascinating collection, and lunchtimes were spent outside (it was glorious weather) discussing everything from collections, museology to Flight of the Conchords. I realised I was working with an extremely dedicated, professional and talented group of volunteers and staff who made me feel really welcome and were very complimentary to the work I was doing with them. The staff shared with me their career pathways and offered me great tips and advice to further my own career. One of the aspects of the Skills for the Future traineeships is the ability and time from our placements to go to other museums, either as a visitor or to work to gain an understanding of how other organisations operate. I shall be indebted to this traineeship in that respect as I may not have this opportunity again. As one of the staff said last week when I was opening the boxes and cooing over the contents, “Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again”.