Worcester City Museum Collection has some interesting and mysterious objects within its World Cultures Collection, including this one. It is a Malagan mortuary figure from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.
These carved wooden figures would have been constructed for the purpose of commemorating the death of a male individual and would have featured in elaborate ceremonies and feasts. The term Malagan refers to these rituals and rites, sometimes performed after the funeral of the deceased.
The figures represent a pictorial CV of the person’s achievements throughout the individual’s life. The human and animal depictions portray supernatural beings associated to individual clans, each one representing a certain life force which sustains those clans. After the figures have been displayed for a period of time, they have served their purpose and are then destroyed by either being burnt or allowed to rot.
During the explorations of the 19th century, people often collected them as souvenirs.
This rare example of Tahitian barkcloth, thought to be one of only a few known examples of its type worldwide, is one of the highlights of the Worcester City museum Ethnology collection.
This piece was most likely made in the first half of the 19th century, by female descendants of the women who went with the Bounty mutineers to Pitcairn in 1790.
The barkcloth, or ahu in Tahitian, is of fine quality and a status piece. Barkcloth provided the principle material for clothing throughout the Society Islands, and could also be hung ornamentally, used as a partition or as bed-sheets. This piece was either worn as a type of poncho by a man or as a shawl by a woman.
Barkcloth was produced by women using strips peeled from the soft inner bark of the tree – the Paper Mulberry has been used in this instance, but Bread-fruit and Fig were also used. These strips were then soaked for several days before being beaten together into a continuous sheet using wooden beaters. The finished sheet was left in the sun to bleach, and vegetable dyes could then be pressed into the cloth using leaves and other vegetation to create patterns.
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.