By Hanine Miriam Habig • MA Material and Visual Culture
I’ve been researching objects in UCL Ethnography Collection as an assistant curator since fall 2016. And because I came with some previous experience of object-based research in a museum, I was happy to accept the challenge of a ‘difficult’ object. In the database, the mysterious object is described as a “collection of grass fibres in the shape of a nest, hollow centre. It is possibly a bird’s nest. Original classification: ‘S. Miscellaneous & unclassified objects’.” On the index card all details except the material are followed by question marks.
Starting with not even knowing what it is, the object was in a fluid, intermediate state between man-made and animal-made. A not so classic “whodunit”.
The object makes for a great case study, showing the different directions and depths research can take us to. It also shows how not all research leads to satisfying final results, despite bringing many new things to light.
While I had many immediate ideas about what the object could mean, most of them have not proven insightful beyond assumptions. Instead I had to become a detective following leads away from obvious cues and potentially valuable knowledge.
The first connecting points were simple: during my studies, I had read about the Dani tribes living in New Guinea and watched Robert Gardner’s 1963 documentary about them, which is called Dead Birds. A quick research showed that they hunt birds, are skilled weavers and have a mythical fable about birds (Heider 1970). It was easy to want to connect those dots, but there was no reliable source about Dani practices of collecting bird’s nests or imitating their weaving. And without any clear reference, this track was a potential dead end.
Would people who weave nets like the one in Fig.4, also weave nests?
This is where a connection to Tim Ingold’s writing on string bags and bird’s nests became most striking. “How do human skills differ from those of an animal?”, he asks (Ingold 2000: 361). What kind of skilful technique are we presented with in the grass bundle? Something species-innate or acquired, or maybe even some kind of biomimicry?
But back to the start without skipping of steps! Is this hollow grass-bundle even a nest?
We needed an ornithologist!
Dr. Douglas Russell is the nest and egg specialist at the Natural History Museum and provided us with his insight and knowledge. He was also so kind to visit the Collection1 which lead to interesting conversations not only about the nest in question, but also about feather thieves in institutions, rare ostrich eggs, and how one needs ‘egg hands’ to touch a broken emu egg.
What became clear is that this was a rare opportunity for two disciplines to meet. While many collections are associated with one discipline, they always contain objects that could potentially be valuable to other researchers and their respective fields. There is a wealth out there that remains untapped due to a lack of interdisciplinary connections, and ultimately: time. But I am digressing here…
What we learned is that ‘our hollow grass bundle’ is indeed the nest of a bird, namely by the Baya weaver bird (Ploceus philippinus). It was produced at the helmet stage, meaning it is not fully finished. The male bird will make several nests like this to attract the female. She will inspect them and, if he is lucky, decide on one and thus on him. They will then finish the chosen nest together by adding the access tube.
But, as Dr. Douglas Russell told Delphine Mercier and me, the weaver bird does not inhabit the Island of New Guinea. So we could cross out this part of the original index card.
Beyond that, it proved helpful to regard this piece of first documentation of the object.
I had actually made a beginner’s mistake: I had started the research with the information from the database, but had not looked at the actual physical index card. When I did, there appeared to be two different types of handwriting on all the cards of the objects which belong to the Rawlings collection. This hints that at least two people organised the objects into the paper inventory. Could there have been a mix-up?
Additionally, I had first looked at the object standing alone instead of considering it in relation to the other objects it is connected to. As Alfred Gell teaches us in Art and Agency, objects should also be viewed as being part of a corpus, which in itself is made up of many connected parts (Gell 1998: 167). The nest is one of 18 objects collected by G.S. Rawlings. It is part of that corpus and yet it stands out, because only on the index card of the nest do his name and the provenance have a question mark. So possibly, the nest was allocated the Rawlings collection for the lack of a clearer allocation. In fact, it does not correspond with any of the other objects from this collection. There are axes, ritual stones, belts, woven nets, penis sheaths, speers, arrows (Fig.8 + 9). These kind of objects fit with the New Guinea context—the nest does not.
The nest, as we already found out in our meeting with Douglas Russell, must have originated elsewhere. Where could that be?
And who is G.S. Rawlings?
Researching the collector of an object can be an important cue, and sometimes, the only possible one. Objects have their own biography (Kopytoff 1988), and this biography is often tightly bound to that of a person or family. If establishing a connection between an object and a person is not possible, it stays a lot more ‘unsocial’, anonymous, unclassified, and puzzling.
Looking into the person that was George Shirley Rawlings (1939-1963) proved to be fascinating, but revealed a nothing but normal life. An Englishman born in Japan into a missionary family, he spent most of his life in Asia, speaking four Asian languages, living in China, India, Malaysia, and what was then Formosa. In the early 1960s, he was a Divisional Commissioner for the UN on the Island of Biak, north of New Guinea. But he also spent some time on the main island, where he befriended a local Dani chief from whom he was gifted several of the objects (Rawlings 1945; Saltford 2000; Rawlings, W.: during visit 2017). He could have obtained the nest in Malaysia or India, where the Baya weaver is native.
It took some patience, but after several attempts Delphine Mercier and I were able to get into contact with Walter Rawlings, one of George Rawlings’ sons. And in May 2017, six months after the first glance at the nest, we met with him.3 As it turned out, it was him who had donated the objects to UCL Ethnography Collection, after his father passed away in 1963. He was able to identify most of them and tell us fascinating stories of how they came into his father’s possession. Being a well-travelled and knowledgeable man, he immediately recognised our nest to be a weaver bird’s nest but he did not remember it being part of his father’s collection.
So in the end, we stand with fairly little added information. By process of elimination, we confirmed that our object is indeed a nest and that it is not from New Guinea. It might or might not have been collected by G. S. Rawlings. From where and in whatever way exactly it made it to the collection, remains unknown. But one thing is clear: it made it into an ethnographic collection and not a life science collection. While this could be just accidental, I like to believe it has meaning. Humans and birds have longstanding relations, whether that may be African honey-hunters that communicate with local birds to find honey, or the Chinese culinary practice of bird’s nest soup. According to Dr. Douglas Russell, weaver bird’s nests are sometimes used as makeshift baskets by locals in some areas (see also Craig 2017). With the male bird producing more than one nest, this means there is always a surplus.
Beyond that, there are also compelling analogies between human weaving and bird weaving – ‘nest building’ has found its way into human vocabulary and life, a synonym for an integral need to build, link, nurture, and dwell.
1Dr. Russell visited UCL Ethnography Collection on 31.03.2017. Present were: Delphine Mercier and Hanine M. Habig.
2Picture by Dr. Raju Kasambe, used under CC BY-SA 4.0. Available at: <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baya_Weaver_Ploceus_philippinus_Nesting_by_Dr._Raju_Kasambe_(5).JPG> (last accessed 04.03.2018)
3 Walter Rawlings visited UCL Ethnography Collection 25.04.2017. Present were: Delphine Mercier and Hanine M. Habig.
4 Hefer: Webpage 2017. Available at: <http://www.animal-farm.co.za/?p=34> (last accessed 12.12.2017)
I want to give thanks to everybody who was involved with and supported this research. I am particularly grateful to all the members of the Rawlings family who made it possible for me to learn about George Shirley Rawlings’ extraordinary life. That is: Walter Rawlings, Guy Rawlings and Jane Sacchi. A big thanks to Delphine Mercier for providing the ground, inspiration, and support to ‘dig deep’. And thank you to Dr. Douglas Russell from the Natural History Museum, Jane Pettitt, Darryl Lundy and Paul Whyte for their support of this research.
Craig, A. (2017). Baya Weaver (Ploceus philippinus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.
Gell, A. (1998). Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hefer, P. (2017). Webpage. Available at: <http://www.animal-farm.co.za/?p=34> (last accessed 12.12.2017)
Heider, K.G. (1970). The Dugum Dani: A Papuan Culture in the Highlands of West New Guinea. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.
Ingold, T. (2000). Of String Bags and Birds. In: Ingold T., The Perception of the Environment: Essay in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.
Kopytoff, I. (1988). The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process. In: Appadurai, A. (ed.) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rawlings, G. S. (1945). Malaya. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Saltford, J. F. (2000). UNTEA and UNRWI: United Nations Involvement in West New Guinea During the 1960’s (Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Hull). Electronic document. Available at: <http://papuaweb.org/dlib/s123/saltford/phd.pdf> (last accessed 12.12.2017)