A little while back the Horniman invited us to cover an event they were hosting exploring amulets and amuletic practice. I wasn’t sure what an amulet is so it was fascinating to see and explore the amulets from the Horniman collection that ranged from a First World War intricate heart shaped tin keepsake to a necklace made of human teeth.
Speakers at the event included representatives from the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall as well as anthropologists from UCL and international artists.
As a non-specialist observer it was interesting to hear those involved debating what it is that makes something an amulet, which was one of the key questions that we wanted to answer when we were first asked to cover this event. For some it seemed it can be anything that we might use as a lucky item. Although I am not immune to superstition I realised that I don’t have any amulets myself but I do wonder how many people do hold special or lucky items with them, particularly for special occasions.
I was keen to do this as the project is very large and we have heard several times at events we were filming just how many people were working on the project but I think it can be difficult to grasp who they are and what they are doing, as well as to some extent why they are doing it from a distance. So we got up close but not too personal.
I was welcomed to the Museum’s store which is where all the objects not on display are held. As you walk in it feels quite cramped as the ceilings are fairly low in the stairwell and leading into the staffroom. I arrived in time to sit on (and film clips of) a catch up meeting for people involved in the project. This was very interesting as it let me get a bit of an insight into how they worked, communicated and kept links with the Forest Hill site where the curators etc are based.
When I was taken into the stores it was a very different environment to the offices and galleries in Forest Hill. There were cases for mummies, buddha statues and boxes beyond boxes of objects in large halls. Off the main halls were rooms with Victorian cabinet cases in them. In the middle of one of the halls a special office and photography studio had been set up and this was where I began my main filming.
I interview Kirsten Walker, Director of Collections Management & Special Projects, who is overseeing the whole project with Dr Sarah Byrne who appears in several of the CPS videos. She gave me an overview and then let me talk to (a different) Sarah and Rachel who were part of one team doing, what they called, The Physical Review.
The Physical Review, in many ways, could be seen as quite mundane and repetitive as they have to go through many boxes each day and review: look at, check and photograph many objects. Luckily these guys are precise, love objects and are working with a fascinating collection. I was only there briefly and saw a range of Hindu amulets and figures that were gorgeous but I wasn’t allowed to touch them as I didn’t have gloves on.
It is also these guys who are often responsible for many of the objects found on the very popular blog the review has on Tumblr. Do take a look!
Then I spoke to the Project Photographer, Dani, who explained all the various kinds of photography the project involves, she showed off her whizz Photoshop skills and I was fascinated watching her climb up and down the huge trolley which she has set up, surrounded by boxes of artifacts, to photograph large objects from above.
I filmed a conservator repairing a broken boar’s tusk charm, documentation managers and the collection manager, who I managed to track down and interview in the Armour store. While I was there I got some quick snaps of a Suit of Armour, poking out from under a dust sheet and the spears which were the backdrop to our interview.
I spoke to the Deputy Natural History curator, Paulo, who explained how he had assisted his colleagues on the anthropology review by identifying the skull of a vulture that was part of a Nigerian charm. I had actually seen the charm on the tumblr page already:
In person though I was really impressed by the size of it which I hadn’t really appreciated from the tumblr page. Paulo showed me a variety of skulls from Birds of Prey in a room full of deer heads and horns. This is him holding the charm and, for reference, he has big hands.
It was a great day full of some very interesting sights and passionate people.
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There were more passionate people when Chris and I visited the Museum again the following week to interview the Anthropology curators who are heavily involved in the review.
They were all absolutely fascinating and clearly really enjoying the project and having the luxury of time and resources to re-evaluate the fantastic collection in their care. We got philosophical but also I wanted to try and eek out of them the practicalities of what being a curator is, which I hope I managed to some extent… I certainly felt that I left with a better impression of what that day-to-day role is.
We spent a lot of time walking up and down a warren of offices with piles of papers, folders and precariously balanced objects (ok, not so precariously balanced!) . Messages of respect for the objects’ cultures of origin were clear from everyone and as was a shared inquisitive character. A common sense of cultural exploration and a hope that anthropology and museums can really help people try to see the world in a new way seemed to be at the forefront of their minds.
It was fascinating and exciting to hear them talk about how this was possible and I fear if I say anymore I shall start to spoil the video which will be coming soon!