Friday, 29 April 2016

Assessment of a likembe: K.0025

(Left) Front of likembe. (Right) back of likembe.
A likembe is a hand held African instrument played by depressing and releasing the keys or lamellae. This likembe has eight lamellae made of long, thin pieces of wood or cane of different lengths. The lamellae are lashed to a wooden board using plant material and the board has been attached to part of a turtle shell which acts as a resonator – a rare example of such use. There are two wooden or cane bars placed beneath the lamellae on either side of the lashing and two circular sound holes have been drilled: In the wooden board and in the turtle shell. The join between the wooden board and the shell is filled with a loop of plant material which has then been covered with a dark brown adhesive into which bead fragments have been set.
Diagram showing components of the likembe.

The likembe is part of the lamellophone family which is abundant across most of sub-Saharan Africa. These instruments have been made and used in a variety of different ways and first began to appear at the time of the colonisation of the Congo at the end of the 19th century (Willaert 2011, 63-64). Lamellphones are often associated with the colonisation as they were played to accompany those on trade missions to pass time and keep rhythm (ibid). They were also used socially in every-day situations as well as is rituals and divination 9 Berliner 1978, 14-17). Some lamellophones could also be symbols of status or be reserved for use during a certain ritual (ibid).

Lamellophones were made by the person who would play them (Brincard et al 1989, 75) and as such have a very personal connection to the owner. This instrument has been created with great care and there is evidence of repairs possibly being made by the original owner.

This likembe has suffered many losses of the dark adhesive which has become desiccated, resulting also in loss of some bead fragments. The turtle shell has lost two and half scutes and the remaining scutes are lifting from the bone in areas. There is evidence of previous attempts to consolidate the dark adhesive and scutes. The wooden board is stained and scratched, with surface dirt gathered beneath the lamellae. The lamellae exhibit use wear at the ends which are played. One lamella is loose and the far right lamella is missing where the plant material has broken. Another lamella has split across its length at one end and looks to be made from a different material to the others.

Diagram showing damage of likembe.

All images by the author. Please do not use without permission.


Berliner, P., 1978. The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. London: University of California Press.

Brincard, M., Bourgeois, A., American Federation of Arts, 1989. Sounding Forms: African musical instruments. New York: American Federation of Arts.

Willaert, S., 2011. The growth of an ‘exotic’ collection. African Instruments in the Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels (1877-1913) in Annual Meeting of the International Committee of Musical Instrument Museums and Collections: CIMCIM 2001 – Tervuren: Reports. [Online] Available at [Accessed 27/03/2016]

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Two sets of picture postcards from Formosa

This consists of two sets  of picture postcards depicting Formosa under Japanese rule, in the forms of albums. They are currently stored in the Material Culture Room in the Anthropology Department, UCL. 

The first set, accession number Z0001a, is a concertina folded album, with hard, decorated, black fabric covers and grey, wood-ground paper leaves. It mesures 23.5cm long, 19cm wide and 4.8cm high, and consists of 45 leaves (90 pages) and 107 postcards. The postcards were mounted on both sides of the leaves  (two on each side). The album is in good condition except of some  abrasion on the surface and the yellowing of the postcards. 

The second set, accession number Z0001b, measures 24cm×18cm×4.5cm. It consists of 50 leaves (100 pages) and 163 postcards. Z0001b has blue fabric covers with Japanese-themed figures and the words ‘绘枼書’ (postcard) painted on the surface. The inner leaves are brown, probably acidic, suggesting that the paper is in a marked deterioration process.  The paper turned so fragile and brittle that the leaves exhibit large amount of tears, losses and detachments caused by creasing or handling. The postcards from this set are also mounted on both sides of the leaves, with two on each side. The major damage of the postcards is yellowing due to the deterioration of the paper bases. Some of the postcards in this volume have written inscriptions, stamps and seals.

These postcards were printed in Japan in the early 20th century. They were probably transported to Taiwan and collected by the family of Dr. James Laidlaw Maxwell, Jr., who worked in Sin-Lau Hospital in Taiwan from 1900 to 1923. After that, the albums are assumed to have been donated to the Presbyterian Church of England, in which the father of Dr. Maxwell, Jr. served. In 1972, they became part of the United Reform Church collections when the Presbyterian Church of England was merged. And then the branch of URC in Marchmont Street gave them to the Library of Anthropology Department of UCL. The two volumes are of great historic and research value, especially for individuals or organizations interested in Formosan history and Presbyterian history. The picture postcards depicting the historic scenes of Taiwan are important visual documentations for ethnographic research. The association between the objects and the Maxwell family, who are important for Presbyterian and medical development in Taiwan, increases the objects’ significance to Formosan history.
The front cover of object Z0001a

The leaves and postcards of object Z0001a

The front cover of object Z0001b

The leaves and postcards of object Z0001b

The written inscriptions on the back of a postcard

The hand-coloured postcard 

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Conservation of Basketry Masterclass

University of Cambridge Museums is organising a two-day course in the care and conservation of objects made from basketry materials taught by Barbara Wills.
Dates: 22 & 23 June 2016
Venue: The Fitzwilliam Museum and the Brighton Building Conservation Lab, Cambridge
Cost: £240 for both days, or £120 for Day 1 only
The course will cover the care of basketry and related materials, including practical hands-on sessions. 
On the first day participants will look at different types of baskets and their preventive care. This workshop is aimed at conservators, curators, museum assistants and technicians.
The second day will offer more specialist information, concentrating on mechanisms of deterioration and object treatment, with a focus on ancient Egyptian basketry. This day will be more suited to practical conservators. 
For the course programme and to book please visit:…
For further information about the course please contact Joy Martin at

A Yam Wooden Mask from the UCL Ethnography Collections

Figure 1: A Yam wooden mask from UCL  

This  painted wood mask (M.16.a) is from the Abelam tribe of the east Sepik River district of Papua New Guinea. It was donated to UCL by Phyllis Kaberry around the 1960s.
The mask is an important item in this teaching collection. In its original context in Abelam, the mask would be an important yam ceremonial spiritual object, but would probably also be perceived as a symbol of  phallic power. It is a  rare and precious example of oceanic art.  

The mask is carved out of wood (see Figure 1). After being carved and polished, it was painted with various pigments (mainly ochre, black, orange, yellow and white) in order to  depict a human face.

Figure 2: Sketches indicating cracks  and side view

The mask measures about 330mm × 230mm × 96mm. It has the shape of an irregular ellipse.  Each ear has a small hole. On the top rim of the mask, there is also a hole.
The central part of the mask is relatively flat (see Figure 2). But the reverse is concave  and has a rough surface (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: The inside of the mask

By researching the origin of the mask, a range of raw materials can be hypothesised. The wood is heavy and cut from a one whole piece - this suggests that a large section of the trunk of a mature tree might have been used here. In terms of pigments, I found that the black was probably obtained from charcoal or soot. White might have been obtained from clay, limestone or sea shells. The yellow pigments might have come from turmeric, etc.

Figure 4: Cracks 

The mask is in stable condition but would profit from specialist conservation attention. There are old cracks spreading through the surface and the pigments are flaking and powdery. 

Figure 5: Scratches on the surface

There are also some scratches on the painting (see Figure 4 and 5). Because of the friability of the paint layer, the mask should be handled as little as possible.  

Photographs by author. Please do not use without authorization.  


Baraldi, P. et al. 2012. Study of the Technique and of the Materials of a 19th-Century Polychrome Wood Mask from Papua New Guinea. Archaeometry, 56(2), Pp.313-330.

Coupaye, L. 2013. Growing artefacts, displaying relationships : Yams, art and technology amongst the Nyamikum Abelam of Papua New Guinea. New York : Berghahn Books, Pp 8-20.

Coupaye, L. 2009. Ways of Enchanting. Journal of Material Culture, 14(4), Pp. 433-458. 2016. Abelam Yam Mask Blue Pigment Oceanic Art Papua New Guinea Art. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Mar. 2016].

Florian, M., Kronkright, Dale Paul, & Norton, Ruth E. 1990. The conservation of artifacts made from plant materials. Marian del Rey, California: Getty Conservation Institute. Pp. 14-23

Greub, S., & Tribal Art Centre. 1985. Authority and ornament : Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea. Basel: Tribal Art Centre, Edition Greub. Pp. 19-31

Hill, R. 2001. Traditional paint from Papua New Guinea: Context, materials and techniques, and their implications for conservation. The Conservator, 25(1), Pp. 49-61.

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