Stories with things: processing materials and generating social worlds
Location British Museum - BP Lecture Theatre
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Amber Lincoln (British Museum) email
  • Julie Adams (British Museum) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

With object in hand as a visual and material aid, this panel invites participants to explore technical and socio-cultural processes associated with making things.

Long abstract

This panel explores the processes of making objects with materials. Tracing materials - their tangible properties and non-empirical traits - as they are manipulated and made into things, fixed, destroyed and reused, conveys histories of objects, but also, it reveals stories of socialisation and enskilment. Following materials in and through objects illuminates how bodies and memories are shaped and how cultural aesthetics and values are formed. This panel asks participants to explore the role materials play in generating social worlds? What can we learn about the processes of socialising children or the refinement from novice to expert practitioner by tracing materials in things? How does direct experience with materials and their manipulation inform anthropological and museological knowledge?

Participants are invited to bring an object or group of materials to the panel in order to consider how processes of making are conveyed in objects and how they might generate social worlds.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Many Hands, Many Voices: making a new suit of Kiribati armour

Author: Alison Clark (University of Cambridge) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses the processes of making a new suit of Kiribati armour, exploring how the materials used can reveal social practices and structures, and how direct engagement with the materials and the process of making in all its stages can inform museological knowledge and practice.

Long abstract

Coconut fibre armour from Kiribati is a distinctive composite object found in many museums across the world. Historically the armour and the weaponry used with it would have taken several months to make. Groups of many people would have been needed to make the twisted, plaited and knotted coconut fibre string used for the armour, and to prepare the human hair string that decorated it. The large scale production of armour ended in the early 1900s due to the arrival of missionaries and British colonial government. In 2016 the Pacific Presences project collaborated with Kiribati and New Zealand artists to produce a new suit of armour for exhibition in the UK. This paper explores that collaborative project which involved not just the project and the artists, but communities both in Kiribati and the New Zealand diaspora, as well as museum conservators and collections managers. This paper discusses the processes of making this new suit of armour, exploring how the materials used can reveal social practices and structures. It also considers how direct engagement with the materials and the process of making in all its stages can inform museological knowledge and practice.

On making a cord

Author: Jasmin Guenther (James Cook University & Aarhus University) email

Short abstract

With objects and materials from recent fieldwork in Tahiti (2017-2018), the paper explores the insights that can be gained from tracing museum artefacts to the moments of their making in 18th century Polynesia - and how learning to plait a cord may help see old connections and tie new ones.

Long abstract

Failing to find safe passage through the Great Barrier Reef, HMS Pandora sank in 1791 after a five-month search through Oceania for the mutineers of the Bounty. Since the discovery of the wreck in 1977, many objects were transferred from the bottom of the ocean to the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Australia, including a range of artefacts classified as Polynesian material culture. The collection is considered significant, because it can be ascribed to a specific time, place and context. However, with the sinking of the ship, knowledge once attached to the artefacts has been lost - and not all materials were able to survive the long time underwater.

Among the objects recovered from the wreck are several fish-hook shanks made from pearl shell. By comparison with similar artefacts, we can assume that they were components of fishing lures for trolling bonito, attached to a shell or bone hook point. Normally, fine plaited cords made of vegetable fibre hold the individual pieces together and help them maintain their form and fulfill their purpose, that is, to resemble small fish when moving in the water that will attract the much larger bonito. In the case of the Pandora collection, these cords have dissolved. Yet, we are able to piece the objects together through research and the exchange of knowledge, especially in Polynesia itself. The paper explores the threads that unfold from tracing artefacts and materials and the importance of this approach for a deeper understanding of both objects and people.

Plaiting baskets and plaiting literacy in Vanuatu

Author: Lucie Hazelgrove Planel (University of St Andrews) email

Short abstract

How do different crafts make us think through craftwork and the act of working patterns and designs? How do we read and make sense of pattern and design work? This presentation explores these questions in relation to pandanus plaiting in Vanuatu.

Long abstract

This paper explores the relationship between processes of making and ways of thinking and seeing. Notably, how workers of pandanus on Futuna Island in Vanuatu think about the patterns and designs they plait into their baskets.

From my experience of preparing and plaiting pandanus with many skilled women during fieldwork for my PhD in 2014-5, it became clear that oblique plaiting requires a particular form of literacy for optimum understanding and an increased plaiting speed. This is only apparent when pandanus workers create patterns and designs within the very fabric of the plait.

This presentation explores how crafts make us think through craftwork and the process of making patterns and designs. It asks how craft workers read and make sense of pattern and design work and highlights the importance of first-hand experience of manipulating materials to our understanding of artefacts.

Turning in circles: Twisting, coiling and spinning in Iron Age Britain

Author: Julia Farley (British Museum) email

Short abstract

Although archaelogical textiles from prehistoric Britain rarely survive, spinning animal and plant fibres to make yarn for weaving was an essential task. This paper explores the process of spinning, and argues that ideas of 'twist' and 'circling' were also applied in other materials and practices.

Long abstract

Archaeological approaches to material culture generally divide objects according to material, e.g. pottery, lithics, metalwork. Wood and textiles rarely survive in acidic northern European soils, and are studied primarily through scientific analysis of trace remains. Whilst these divisions allow specialists to develop in-depth knowledge of the properties and techniques associated with particular materials, they can also make it harder to look for connections between crafts.

This paper takes an alternative approach, focussing instead on a particular way of processing: twisting. Adding twist to plant and animal fibres through the process of spinning would have been an essential everday task for households in prehistoric Britain, producing the threads used in weaving textiles.

After examining the objects and gestures used in the act of spinning, this paper will move on to consider the ways in which similar approaches were also applied in working with wood, ceramics, and metal. In Iron Age Britain practices such as metalworking, pottery, and house construction drew on a shared lexicon of movements and processes: adding strength to materials by binding, twisting and turning in circles. Pots were coil-built, and houses and roofs constructed according to a circular 'roundhouse' model.

Metalwork decorated with 'Celtic' art is often considered the pinnacle of Iron Age artistry. This paper will argue that these objects should not be viewed in isolation; when these gold and bronze objects are considered in the context of other craft practices, they can be seen to reference the processes of twisting and weaving associated with organic materials.

Talking while making: the material culture field research experience

Author: Erna Lilje (Museum van Wereldculturen) email

Short abstract

This paper will consider the local effect and experience of material culture field research with indigenous cultural experts. The material focus will be on fibre skirts from southeast coast Papua New Guinea.

Long abstract

This paper will consider the local effect and experience of material culture field research with indigenous cultural experts. The material focus will be on fibre skirts from southeast coast Papua New Guinea. The people of this area experienced rapid social change with missionary and later colonial entanglements beginning in the 1870s to becoming, part of, an independent nation a century later. For this reason, people living today can recall when the people in their village started to wear western-style clothes or when they collectively lost the knowledge of which plant could be used to make a certain blue or when the first school was built. The researcher's own background as both Papuan and outsider casts an idiosyncratic light upon these research engagements.

Mudcloth and the making of social and artistic fabric

Author: Anja Veirman (Luca School of Arts Ghent/ La Cambre Bruxelles) email

Short abstract

My presentation will articulate itself around a series of mudcloth, that is part of the interactions and research during my project 'Mudcloth and the making of social and artistic fabric' in which we research, document, expose and stimulate the making process of mudcloth.

Long abstract

My paper will be based on my actual project 'Mudcloth and the making of social and artistic fabric. The interrelation between ritual, artistic and collective textile making, departing from a Senufo context (Burkina Faso, Mali).

This project is focused on the relation between textile and ritual practices, artistic innovation and social cohesion. The making of fèrègèfani mudcloth is a process that requires different makers, with different skills and social roles, and during its ritual and festive use it engages different social groups. The making and wearing of fèrègèfani is not only the expression of a social collaboration, it creates social cohesion through the manipulations and specific features of the materials and techniques involved.

Guided by an interdisciplinary method, we combine the perspectives of art historical and anthropological research with an artistic approach through a makers perspective. This includes documenting making processes and exploring different forms of audiovisual co-creation. Partners are het Senufo Centre Rénée Fournier, a museum/study center in Burkina Faso, the Malinese multimedia artist Tiécoura N'Daou, and LUCA School of Arts from Belgium. By developing new - transcultural? - research methodes, we want to go into a deeper understanding of the dynamics of making processes and the aesthetics of the makers and wearers of Fèrègefani - and explore the possibity to share this experiences and concepts by the making of multimedia-installations. The installation 'Intimicy-Visibility' is the first that will be on display in February 2018.

An Embroidered Being: Story Cloths, Ontologies, Entanglement, and Craft in a Hmong American Community

Author: Don Duprez (University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

Hmong embroidered crafts provide a means by which to examine the nature of what it is to be Hmong and Hmong American while offering an opportunity to better understand the nature of multiple ontological expressions and matters of entanglement.

Long abstract

Since their arrival in the US beginning in the 1970s, the Hmong of Highland Laos have continued to produce stunning embroidery works that capture the essence of what it is to be Hmong and Hmong American. The embroidered cloths and the traditional nature of the craft stand as a nexus of the people and places that refine the contours of Hmong life, craft, and art, and in doing so connect individuals to shared pasts and a communal present. Moreover, within these delicately embroidered works the complexities of Hmong communities, culture, and ontological interpretations unfold to reveal pronounced issues of gender, personhood, ethnicity, and the dynamic essences of Hmong spiritual life. Furthermore, those engaged in the production of the craft are positioned as stewards of these diverse images and elements while also propagating future projections of Hmong needlework and art as traditional Hmong craftwork.

Drawing from my fieldwork and extensive time with the Denver, CO Hmong community, this paper seeks to explore the connections between various Hmong ontological perspectives, namely those of traditional animism and Christianity, personhood, identity, and Hmong embroidery as it is situated in a contemporary Hmong American experience. Furthermore, this paper wishes to question matters of entanglement and the phenomenological characteristics which culminate through individuals entwining their own perspectives and experiences with those represented through the embroidered works of the Hmong so that we may better scrutinise how the nature of the object, its haecceity, comes to be present and understood through the process of craft and presentation.

Alma Siedhoff-Buscher's Kinderzimmer Cabinet: The Present, The Pocket and Object Permanence

Author: Brittany Richmond (Victoria and Albert Museum) email

Short abstract

The cabinet by Siedhoff-Buscher expresses Bauhaus ideology and progressive childhood ideas. The pedagogic cabinet's modern surface, creation of volume and void, and construction and modularity link to the modern movement in architecture and the developmental stage of object permanence.

Long abstract

Walter Benjamin claimed 'the most extreme concreteness of an epoch... appears now and again in children's games, [or] in a building'. Bauhaus buildings have frequently been examined as an expression of the modern times, and Siedhoff-Buscher's children's toy games have been exonerated by few scholars to also be an expression of the time. This paper argues to include her children's furniture design into this category; the cabinet as another art piece that reflects a pivotal moment of history, capturing the unfolding relationship between modern children and modern design in the context of mass society. After World War I, children, as vulnerable individuals of future society, were the impetus to create critical design interventions, and new pedagogies. Siedhoff-Buscher combined Bauhaus pedagogy, design, and architecture to create an educational, modern structure for children. She experimented with exterior and interior relationships on a material object, combining an artistic and social breakthrough in design. By examining the cabinet as a volumetric form in space, Siedhoff-Buscher showed how furniture was the living extension of architecture. The volume of the cabinet, like architecture, transforms through constant building and imagination. A furniture cabinet is an empty hard-shell case, a protective covering, a pocket waiting to be filled, a present waiting to be opened. Through the architectural-based cabinet design, children would be encouraged to think beyond the seemingly simple surface of the cabinet to re-order and re-claim the space, navigate through forms and voids to gain a new sensibility of object permanence in building the world around them.

Story of Zari: The Golden Thread and Dynamic Life of a Tamil Sari

Author: Kala Shreen (Centre for Creativity Heritage and Development) email

Short abstract

This paper examines zari, a golden thread used as surface embellishment in the indigenous Kanchipuram silk sari of Tamilnadu, India and examines how it mediates the dynamic life of the sari.

Long abstract

Several studies on material artefacts have focused on the movement of objects and images through space and time and comprehend them through their multiple and changing values, status and meanings (Appadurai: 1986; Kopytoff: 1986; Davis: 1997; Shreen: 2010; Shreen: 2015; Shreen: 2016; Basu: 2017). Building on that approach this paper studies zari, a golden thread used as surface embellishment in the indigenous Kanchipuram silk sari of Tamilnadu, India and examines how it mediates the dynamic life of this textile.

The contemporary repertoire of zari design, comprising repetitive reproduction of ancient motifs as well as innovative patterns, adaptations and appropriations mediate a fluid boundary between traditional dress and modern fashion. The zari designs also become a space that exhibits the creativity and artistic ingenuity of the designer and the dexterity and craftsmanship of the weaver, leading to the concomitant redefinition of such saris as masterpieces and some have been conferred prestigious awards. The material composition of the zari thread, in terms of its silver content, co-relates to its valuation as authentic or fake zari. Therefore, saris made with authentic zari ornamentation, claiming a high silver content, are priced at a premium and perceived as luxurious apparel and cheap imitations are manufactured with fake zari.

Thus tracing the trajectory of sari through zari dynamics, this presentation, accompanied by a display of the saris under discussion, will conclude with a one minute teaser of the author's musical film, on zari aesthetics and valuation, rendered in classical (Carnatic) South Indian style.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.