Saturday, 13 September 2014

The real thing

The new box emerges…. Photograph by Mike Peckett, Pitt Rivers Museum

The box carving studio—the Pitt Rivers Museum’s seminar room—is a quiet, meditative space: quiet talk, some gossip, some discussion of the box artist’s idiosyncratic features, about having to carve in a particular direction to match the line on the old box. There is a lovely undertone of the sound of chisels, gouges, and extremely sharp knives on wood, and the smell of cedar.

Some of the carving is extremely delicate, and Gwaai and Jaalen are sometimes having to work in ways that are quite different to their usual patterns of creating designs. I’m sitting here at the other end of the room because Museum policy requires a staff member present for research visits—this is just a very long research visit, with chisels involved. I’m quiet too, not wanting to interrupt at a critical moment, respecting the concentration and work going on at the box.

Sometimes Gwaai or Jaalen comes over to the historic box to check a detail, and several times a day there are intense conversations at the historic box as both of them see details in the old box’s design and execution for the first time. This continual discovery from the historic box’s presence occurs despite the fact that Gwaai and Jaalen have been working with the scale photographs of the box for months, have traced the designs, and are very experienced artists. The angle and shape of the carving strokes don’t show in photographs, which flatten relief on objects. Photographs don’t show what direction the carving was done from; the box itself shows an experienced maker this kind of detail. There is room for a much stronger interface between museums and makers, and what I am seeing happening in this room is a reminder that museum digitization projects may not serve makers well in some respects. We need more projects like this, with historic objects and makers in the same room.

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