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An Exhibition of Fractured and Mended Art

Gourd  from South Sudan with a stitched plant fiber repair incorporating glass beads (1979) (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)
Gourd from South Sudan with a stitched plant fiber repair incorporating glass beads (1979) (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)

The conservation of artifacts already in museum care is highlighted more often than the repairs creators make to their own objects. Preserving What is Valued, a small display that opened last month at the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, focuses on the global history of material culture’s care.

Gourd vessel from Kenya or Tanzania  with a long, vertical, crack in the neck repaired with metal staples (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)
Gourd vessel from Kenya or Tanzania with a long, vertical, crack in the neck repaired with metal staples (1996) (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford) (click to enlarge)

“Our collections illustrate the diversity of technological solutions to the same universal problems, encouraging visitors to reflect upon what unites us as humans, as much as on what separates us by culture,” Heather Richardson, the museum’s head of conservation, told Hyperallergic. “Focusing on the original repairs is just one more way of doing this.”

Preserving What is Valued was curated by the museum’s conservation department, concentrating on objects in its reserve collections. “The ways of mending are actually quite limited, but the materials used to achieve the mend can tell you about what was readily available in each place,” Richardson explained.

A netted bag from Papua New Guinea was stitched with marsupial hair, contrasting in gray against the original pink and green fiber, while a Canadian Inuit knife made of walrus ivory and whalebone was stitched with either seal or walrus sinew. A ladle from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, was bound with highly valued copper, while recycled tin — the warning “highly inflammable” still visible — fixed a broken, wooden food dish from Southern Sudan.

Netted bag from the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. The bag was darned with string made of grey marsupial hair (2001) (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)
Netted bag from the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. The bag was darned with string made of gray marsupial hair (2001) (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)
Ivory and bone knife (Inuit, Canada) demonstrating damage to the ivory repaired with animal sinew (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)
Ivory and bone knife (Inuit, Canada) demonstrating damage to the ivory repaired with animal sinew (1886) (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)

“The repairs give an extra dimension to the object’s life, often helping to explain how it was used, while also telling you something about the person who owned it,” Richardson stated. Most repairs are aimed at keeping an object useful, but aesthetics are sometimes considered, such as an African gourd with glass beads in different colors wound into its binding, while another gourd has orderly staples winding along the break. And then there are examples of Japanese kintsugi ceramics, on loan for the display, where gold powder in urushi lacquer accents, rather than hides, its scars.

“From early times, imperfection has been the subject of aesthetic appreciation in Japan, particularly with regard to the repair of valued items that have suffered in the course of their daily use,” Richardson said. With examples from across all continents, Preserving What is Valued asks viewers to consider why an object was kept rather than replaced, whether that was spiritual or out of necessity, those repairs adding to the item’s intangible history. As Richard stated: “As conservators working with anthropological collections when we find examples of repairs from originating communities we feel it gives the object a deeper resonance and is something we strive to preserve.”

Three arm ornaments from Africa demonstrating different repair methods. (1930, 1939, & 1903) (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)
Three arm ornaments from Africa demonstrating different repair methods (1930, 1939, & 1903) (courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford)

Preserving What is Valued continues at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford (South Parks Road, Oxford, England) through January 3, 2016. 

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