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The Pitt Rivers Museum

Mary Butcher
Zoologist turned Artist Basketmaker

Up the wide, smooth, dipped steps, through the ornate stone-carved entry, with the gloom and smell of polished fusty tile, peering into cases beyond the reflections, surrounded often by silence all around. Turn left, open the church door and, Alice style, enter another world. Grey-green corridor, doors everywhere, noise, clatter, chat, books, jars, specimens on slabs: the Oxford University Zoology Department, 1963, my daily home for three years.

Outside the church door, beyond the bones and stones, my mental home, source of wonder, bewilderment, horror, intrigue: the Pitt Rivers Museum. Whenever possible I side-stepped from my mundane life into that second world beyond the University Museum. My ignorance of anthropology was profound. Did I even know the word? But those display cases, stuffed with textiles, implements, instruments, jewellery, shrunken heads, reminded me of my bedroom shelves with their conkers, tiny furniture, feathers, beads, shells, stones and all the accumulations of the collector child, a hotchpotch of interest. Here was the same, assembled by adults, deliberately, for a purpose. I looked and looked, but never remember looking at a basket with any comprehension at all.

Marshall Island map, PRM 1897.1.2
Fig. 1: Marshall Islands map
PRM 1897.1.2
North Queensland basket, PRM 1893.38.24
Fig. 2: North Queensland basket
PRM 1893.38.24
Later in the USA and visiting a mid-West junk shop, my emotions were those induced by the Pitt Rivers Museum. A clutter of duck decoys, old hunting gadgets, First People regalia, and my first basket, probably Pomo, although that knowledge came much later. I bought it under the influence of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

That influence has strengthened over the years. The University Museum, with its new bright atmosphere, is still somewhere to hurry through in anticipation of the basket treasures beyond. I now look analytically, noting weaves and textures, attachments and forms, always with surprise at the amazing range of intricacies possible with plant materials. Every visit yields a new treasure. My current favourite is the navigation chart from the Marshall Islands (Fig. 1), an apparently simple mesh of tied slats and shells, denoting travel times and wind and water movements. This one has recently inspired larger works. The basket from North Queensland (Fig. 2): an open twined cane carrier of grace and elegance, also draws me back. What will it be next? There will always be something to capture my imagination.

Some work by Mary Butcher:
Travelling; Maker: Mary Butcher (with Tim Johnson) Fish Wier Walk: Maker: Mary Butcher (with Tim Johnson) Willow Cone; Maker: Mary Butcher
(with Tim Johnson)
Fish Weir Walk
(with Tim Johnson)
Willow Cone
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Current Impression: 28-sep-2005