Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

G.E.S. Turner and Materials

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Page from Turner, 'Hair Embroidery', 1955

Page from Turner, 'Hair Embroidery', 1955

Page 31 of Turner, 'Hair Embroidery'

Page 31 of Turner, 'Hair Embroidery'

Plate 1a 'Hair Embroidery, Turner

Plate 1a 'Hair Embroidery, Turner

Geoffrey Turner was born in 1910 and died on 7 September 1984. He was educated at Oxford High School for Boys and Magdalen College School which he left, aged 16. He started work in the secretary's office at the University Museum in Oxford (now the University Museum of Natural History) in 1928 as a junior assistant. His last title was 'Assistant Secretary to the Delegates of the University Museum, Oxford'. The then post of secretary is now known as the Museum Administrator. His early interests were in the natural sciences. For over forty years he was Librarian of the Ashmolean Natural History Society, which he also served as President and President of the Oxford Ornithological Society. He was also a founder member of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalist’s Trust. He bravely faced a lifetime of severe physical disablement.

Turner's involvement with the Pitt Rivers Museum

It is not known when Turner's involvement at the Museum began, he must have known members of staff there from 1928 when he joined the University Museum (the two museums work together very closely, indeed at that time there were elements of joint endeavour). However, his first mention in the PRM Annual Reports is not until over ten years later, in 1939-40. It is becoming clear to this author whilst looking at the contribution of volunteers in the Museum during this period, that Tom Penniman, when he became Curator, involved volunteers and staff in a much wider range of duties than Balfour. Balfour seems always to have controlled displays much more than Penniman (who let other staff and volunteers produce displays, though he presumably agreed their subject). In addition, staff and volunteers were encouraged to catalogue and publish a great deal on the collections.

Turner was no exception, almost as soon as he is mentioned for the first time, his entry takes up more and more space in the Annual Reports and his activities become more widespread and also more integral to the day-to-day working of the Museum. It is hard to see how this was compatible with his paid work for the University Museum, but perhaps some accommodation was reached or arrangements for staff time at that time were different. Not only did Turner obviously spend time researching in the museum, he also catalogued collections, arranged displays and helped with visitors. He also contributed a great deal to the intellectual life of the Museum.

And then he stops being mentioned again. Towards the end of the Penniman reign, there are no more mentions of his activitiess. It may be no coincidence that this happens shortly after he publishes his Occasional Paper, Hair Embroidery. There are no further mentions until nearly 20 years later when again he is mentioned as being an 'Honorary Assistant Curator'. It must be assumed that he continued to volunteer at the Pitt Rivers Museum from 1958 to 1973, but for some reason his activities were not recorded. The final year that he is mentioned is 1976-7 when his honorary title was changed. It is not known which year he resigned / retired from the University Museum, or when he stopped volunteering in the Museum. The annual reports for 1984 do not mention his death.

Here is a full list of the relevant Annual Report entries:

1939-40 Mr. Turner, Assistant Secretary to the University Museum, and an authority on American Indians, suggested that this be displayed on the bust of Plenty Coups, a famous Crow Indian Chief, and supplied us with a full history. The Curator takes this opportunity of thanking him for much valuable information and research on our Indian material, and the Department of Human Anatomy for lending the bust.

1940-1 Much of our older American Indian material is labelled simply “American Indian”. Mr. Turner has been co-operating with Miss Blackwood in assigning accurate provenances and explanations of these fine old specimens of craftsmanship. Notable work involving much correspondence and research by Mr. Turner was done on an exceptional type of ceinture fléchée, on moose-and other hair embroidery, and on the collection of tsantsas from the Jibaro Indians of eastern Ecuador. We thank the Bankfield Museum of Halifax for lending us specimens of moose-hair embroidery, and our former pupil Dr. Marius Barbeau of the National Museum of Canada for much information on the ceinture fléchée and other subjects.
... Mr. Turner is at work on a paper on moose-and other hair embroidery in North America and Siberia, a technique which has received little or no attention in this country. During the year he demonstrated the arts and industries of the Pueblo Indians in the Museum to the Ashmolean Natural History Society, with the aid of specimens, models made by himself, and gramophone records.

1941-2 In the Lower Gallery Mr. Turner has arranged and catalogued our series of moccasins according to the classification of Gudmund Hatt’s paper in the Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association III, 3, 1916. Other of the twenty classes apart from the Eskimo, we have good examples from I, VI, IX X, XI, XII, XIV, and XV. Mr. Turner’s work has been of value in showing what we have and what we ought to collect, and he is already engaged in seeing that some of our deficiencies are supplied.
... Mr. Turner gave a lecture to the Ashmolean Natural History Society on ‘An introduction to the American Indian’.
... Miss Blackwood has arranged the whole of our collection of slides in labelled boxes which we were able to buy as salvage, with the exception of the American series arranged by Mr. Turner, and those for lectures on arts and industries arranged by the Curator.

1942-3 Among other exhibitions we may mention Mr. Turner’s rearrangement and relabelling with much additional information of the case on the Treatment of Dead Enemies, other than Naga
... Mr. Turner has in the press for Man a paper on ‘Counterfeit Tsantsas in the Pitt Rivers Museum’ and a review of Hallowell’s role of Conjuring in Saulteaux Society. He has lectured for the Ashmolean Natural History Society on the Indians of the southwest, prepared a lecture on Brazilian Ethnology for the Anglo-Brazilian Society, identified photographs for the Royal Anthropological Institute, and continued work on moosehair embroidery and identification of American Indian material in the Museum. We offer our grateful thanks in this connexion to Dr. Stirling, Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Dr. Fenton of the Bureau, Professor Speck of Pennsylvannia, and to Mr. Wilston of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Post Manager at Fort Smith for collecting specimens and data for us.

1943-4 Mr. Turner has continued his valuable work identifying and cataloguing North American Indian specimens, and has lectured on ‘The Indian Background of Brazil’ to the Anglo-Brazilian Society in London and on Mexico to the Ashmolean Natural History Society.

1944-5 Mr. Turner published The Indian’s Role in Brazil’s Progress in the LATIN AMERICAN WORLD, XXV, 13, and has in press a review for MAN of Loram and McIlwraith, THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN TODAY [he also donated some lace-making related material]

1946-7 Duplicates from the general Museum collections are being chosen to send to Dr. Douglas of the Denver Art Museum in Colorado, in place of American Indian material which he is choosing to fill gaps in our collection. When he recently visited this country, Miss Blackwood and Mr. G.E.S. Turner went over our American material with him, and have made a survey of our needs. Foreign exchanges are a long and arduous business in the present state of the world, but it seems right to try to get back to normal life, even though there are severe difficulties in the way.
... Further American material of value has been contributed by the Governor and Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company through negotiations with Mr. Turner, by Miss Gibson, who sent from the United States four reels of coloured cinematographic films which she had taken of Pueblo ceremonies and by Mrs. Aiken, who sent pictures of Mexican material which we could not get in this country.
... Once again the Museum owes its thanks to Mr. G.E.S. Turner for his work on the arrangement and documentation of our older American Indian material.
Mr. Turner published reviews of Leighton and Leighton, The Navaho Door (Man, 1947, 35), and Loptatin, Social Life and Religion of the Indians in Kitimat, British Columbia (ibid., 96), and lectured to the Ashmolean Natural History Society on ‘Land Transport of Modern Primitive Peoples’.

1947-8 Mr. G.E.S. Turner, besides helping us with the documenting of American specimens, has published reviews of Mera, Pueblo Indian Embroidery (Man, 1947, 148) and Martin, Quimby, and Collier, Indians before Columbus (ibid., 1948, 61), and lectured to the Ashmolean Natural History Society on the Indians of Brazil. He is collaborating with Mr. Arthur Woodward of the Los Angeles County Museum in a search for data on British hardware, pottery, glassware, clay pipes, buttons, beads, military accoutrements, gun-flints, &c., exported to North America in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. Material of this kind is found in many American Indian sites, and if its period and origin can be determined, throws valuable light on the date of associated Indian remains and the trading relations of given tribes.. Mr. Turner would be grateful if anyone having knowledge of special collections, illustrated catalogues, published studios, or early trade directories likely to assist in compiling a chronology of such manufactures would communicate with him at the Museum.

1948-9 In the past year the Curator and Miss Blackwood have each typed about 4,000 descriptive cards, and at present the Curator is at work on five volumes of collations and on breaking up mass entries, while Miss Blackwood, assisted by Mr. G.E.S. Turner, is engaged on the main Subject Index. The completed catalogue will require an entire room, which the recent alterations have made available.

1949-50 [G.E.S.T. typed about 2,000 card catalogue cards] ... . In connexion with this work on the Subject Index, Mr. Turner has begun a systematic revision of our unassigned American Indian material. Over 50 specimens have so far been allotted to their culture areas or to definite tribes. They include two rare ceremonial sashes, originally feathered, from the Pomo of California, a woman’s fringed apron from the Hupa, and some Hopewell implements. Of historical interest is a cloth ‘fire-bag’ of apparently Cree workmanship, embroidered with the name S. Black and now shown beyond reasonable doubt to have belonged to Samuel Black, a notable Nor’-Wester and later Hudson’s Bay Company trader, who was killed in 1841 by the nephew of an Indian whose death he was supposed to have caused by witchcraft. This specimen is one of several collected in 1841-2 by Mr. E. M. Hopkins, while acting as secretary to Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territories. The Company kindly allowed Mr. Turner to examine, in their London archives, a transcript of Simpson’s original journal which has thrown valuable light on our Hopkins material. Additional information has been supplied by Mr. Clifford P. Wilson of the Company’s Canadian headquarters in Winnipeg, whom we have also to thank for the gift of a set of aluminium tokens, ranging in value from one cent to one white fox, in current use at Eskimo trading posts in the Eastern Arctic.
... Mr. Turner contributed notes on American Indian personal names for an article in the Oxford Junior Encyclopedia, and published a review of The Excavation of Ste Marie I, a Jesuit Missionary site of 1639-49, by Kenneth E. Kidd, in Man, 1950, 185. It is hoped that some further information about material submitted to us from this site may be printed in our next report, when Mr. Turner and Sir Francis Knowles have finished their investigations. Sir Francis has continued his important work for us on stone-flaking techniques.

1950-1 Mr. G.E.S. Turner has continued to aid us with the exact documentation of American Indian material, and has supplied us with slides from his own negatives taken in Barra, South Uist, Harris, and Lewis.

1951-2 Lastly from the Americas, we have to thank Colonel Shirley of Ettington Park in Warwickshire for the loan of an old collection of specimens from the Eastern Woodlands Area of North America. Of these, the finest is a man's coat of caribou skin, cut on eighteenth-century European lines, with painted double curve and other motifs, the pigments being bound with fish roe. Mr. G.E.S. Turner's label reads: 'Said to have been worn by "the King of the Cherokee Indians" at the coronation of George III (I76I), this coat is of the type apparently made only by the Naskapi Indians of northern Quebec and Labrador. No Cherokee attended the coronation of George III, but three chiefs visited London from Carolina in I762, and it is possible that the coat was worn by their leader, Outacity, Ostenaco or Mankiller, although no contemporary evidence has yet been found. Naskapi coats were traded to other tribes. The decoration of this specimen is unusually fine.' Mr. Turner is continuing research on this and the rest of the collection, and we take the opportunity of once more thanking him for the exact documentation of several more of our older American Indian specimens, and for adding the cards to the catalogue.
... A few of the more interesting European accessions may now be mentioned. Through the kindness of Mr. G.E.S. Turner, the Curator was able to enlist the help of Konservator Ørnulv Vorren of the Tromsø Museum in one of the problems arising in his book on ivory, bone, and antler. Some of the sections of reindeer antler cut by the Curator's direction showed so much spongy material that he was puzzled to know how the Palaeolithic hunters could cut such large harpoons with a circular section from them, and it occurred to him that the Lapps domesticate reindeer and castrate them. Accordingly, he asked the Konservator if he could procure specimens of antler showing the effects, if any, of castration. 'I'he Konservator sent specimens of uncastrated and castrated reindeer antler which clearly displayed the yearly increase in sponginess after castration, and also sections which showed that the barren female had a much smaller spongy centre than the lactating female with calf. The Palaeolithic harpoons are, of course, cut from the wild reindeer antler.
... One outside address was given to the Conference of the Museums Association in July 1952 on the History and General Policy of the Pitt Rivers Museum, which will appear in the Museums Journal, and the Curator and staff were at home to members of the Conference on Wednesday, 23 July. As well as representing the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Curator was a Delegate from the University Museum, together with Dr. S.G.P. Plant and Mr. G.E.S. Turner.

1952-3 Mr. G.E.S. Turner is well advanced on Number 7 of our series, and we hope to be able to make an announcement of its publication in our next report. He is dealing with animal-hair embroidery in North America and North-east Asia, including true embroidery, appliqué, coiling, and imbrication, and besides using material from the Museum he has been helped by specimens and information generously contributed by the Hudson's Bay Company (Canadian Committee), through Mr. Clifford P. Wilson, and by Mr. Maurice E. Bastien, proprietor of the Huron firm of Bastien Brothers, Lorette, Quebec. Other help came from Lady Knowles, with the gift of hair-embroidered snowshoe-moccasins worn by Sir Francis Knowles and herself in Canada, which provide a link of some importance in the investigation.
... Afterwards, assisted by Mr. G.E.S.Turner, who acted as Vice-Chairman of the Section on North American Archaeology and Ethnology during the Congress, she [Blackwood] received members of the Congress who visited Oxford.
In addition to work on Number 7 of our Occasional Papers on Technology, Mr. G.E.S. Turner published reviews of Smith, Archaeology of the Columbia-Fraser Region, and King, Cattle Point: A Stratified Site in the Southern Northwest Coast Region, in Man, 1952, no. 170, and of Alvarado, Datos Etnograficos de Venezuela, in Man, 1952, no. 288.

1953-4 Number 7 of our Occasional Papers on Technology has gone to press, and will probably be nearly ready to publish by the time that this report appears. Hair Embroidery in Siberia and North America by Mr. G.E.S. Turner traces the use of moose and reindeer (including caribou) hair as a decorative medium from the Yenisei River by way of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to northern New England, and discusses the interaction of native and European artistic styles on the craft. In addition there is a chapter on the technique and distribution of coiled horse-hair work. Over twenty techniques are analysed and illustrated, and criteria are given for the definitive identification of the various hairs and for avoiding their all too frequent confusion with porcupine quills. On the historical side there is a reassessment of two well-known specimens, one Huron and one Iroquois, from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, now in the British Museum. The paper concludes with a tentative discussion of the relationship between hair work and quill work. The specimens illustrated date from 1709 to 1953. Generous assistance has been given by many people in both Europe and America during the past year, but special thanks are due to Sister Beatrice Leduc, of the Immaculate Conception School, Aklavik, Northwest Territories, and Dr. Randolph L. Peterson, of the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology and Palaeontology, Toronto. Sister Beatrice carries on the craft of hair embroidery and gave valuable information on working methods, as well as specimens of selected moose and caribou hairs. Dr. Peterson drew attention to the technique of identifying hairs by examination of their cuticular scales from impressions taken in plastic film. This method, first developed by American zoologists and further described by Mr. H.V.V. Williamson of the Royal Ontario Museum, was found to be readily adaptable to ethnological purposes and provided a much-needed guide through the uneasy hinterland where moose hairs and porcupine guard hairs overlap in measurements and general appearance. The book will run to between 85 and 90 pages, with 28 text figures and diagrams illustrating techniques and cuticular scale patterns of hair, and I6 pages of half-tone plates with a frontispiece, and will cost I5 shillings. By the time this report appears, it will no doubt be possible to send out a brief prospectus in our usual form.
... Mrs. H. G. Beasley continued her generous distribution of the collections of the Cranmore Museum, which was destroyed by enemy action during the late war. ... A Huron belt of twined Indian hemp, ornamented with false embroidery in dyed moose hair, of the latter part of the eighteenth century will shortly be published in Number 7 of our Occasional Papers. Mr. Turner knows of three other examples only in this country, all in the British Museum.
... Among other interesting gifts has been a balanganda from Bahia in Brazil, from Mr. E. T. Leeds, together with a coloured picture of a woman wearing it on her hip. It is an affair like a silver chatelaine with two bars which open. On each from time to time have been hung silver birds, fishes, animals, pomegranates, grapes, keys, and various other objects, so that the whole weighs about two pounds and represents a sizeable amount of portable wealth. Apparently this piece of jewellery is well esteemed in Bahia. Mr. Turner calls our attention to a samba by Dorival Caymmi called 'Quê è que a bahiana tem?’ which mentions this object in the line 'a que não tem balangandães nao vai no Bomfim', which seems to imply that it is worn by every woman who aspires to be somebody.
Mr. Allen has done and is doing the drawing for the text figures in the same volumes. For Mr. Turner's book, Number 7, he made the impressions of the hairs of moose, caribou, reindeer, wapiti, mountain sheep, and porcupine in plastic film, and drew the microscopic appearance of their cuticular scale patterns. In drawing the technical details of kinds of embroidery for Mr. Turner's paper he had the help of the author's models in cord.

1954-5 This year saw the publication of Mr. G.E.S. Turner's Hair Embroidery in Siberia and North America as number 7 of our Occasional Papers on Technology, with 83 pages of text, 26 text- figures, 2 maps, 16 pages of half-tone plates, and a frontispiece, at 15s. The book discusses the use of moose and reindeer (including caribou) hair from the Yenisei River by way of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to northern New England, and the interactions of native and European artistic styles on the craft, analysing over twenty techniques, with criteria for the definitive identification of the various hairs and for avoiding their confusion with porcupine quills. There is also a chapter on the technique and distribution of coiled horse-hair work, and an historical reassessment of two well-known specimens from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane in the British Museum, as well as a discussion of the relation between hair and quill work. Specimens illustrated date from I709 to I953. Last year's report mentions the many people, both in Europe and in America, to whom we are indebted for generous assistance in the preparation of the book. The preparation of the line drawings and photographs was the work of Mr. K.H.H. Walters and Mr. I.M. Allen of our own Staff.
... Among other gifts from America, we are glad to record gifts of hair embroidery from the Canadian Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company, moosehair prepared for embroidery by Mrs. Bert Edge, moccasin vamps embroidered with moosehair from Mr. Maurice E. Bastien, moosehair embroidery from Sister Beatrice Leduc, and embroidered moccasins from Sir Francis G.W. Knowles and the late Kathleen, Lady Knowles. These were collected for Mr. Turner's book on hair embroidery, and appear in his book as illustrations.

1957-8 We do not as a rule record in this report those who have visited us, however distinguished, but wish here to make a rare exception. In July the Museum was pleased to welcome Mr. Mungo Martin, the carver of the 100-foot Centenary Totem Pole presented to Her Majesty the Queen by the people of British Columbia, and his granddaughter and interpreter, Mrs. Helen Hunt, in the lovely costume of their people. Mr. Martin, whose hereditary native name, Naka’penkim, means ‘Ten times Chief’, was born 79 years ago on the Kwakiutl Indian Reserve at Fort Rupert, Vancouver Island, and has been a carver for a great part of his working life, latterly doing much work for the University of British Columbia. He was shown round the collections by Miss Blackwood, Dr. Butt, and Mr. Turner, and we are grateful to him for giving us additional information on some of our under-documented specimens from the Indians of the North-West Coast.

Long gap until

1973-4 Once again it is a pleasure to acknowledge with gratitude the indispensable work of our three Honorary Assistant Curators, Miss B. M. Blackwood, Mrs. E. Sandford Gunn, and Mr. G. E. S. Turner, and of our Honorary Archivist, Mr. Stephen Bach.

1974-6 We acknowledge with gratitude the continued assistance in an honorary capacity of Miss B. M. Blackwood, Mr. Stephen Bach, Mrs. E. Sandford Gunn, and Mr. G. E. S. Turner.

Mr. G.E.S. Turner, whose advice on North American ethnology has long been valued, has accepted a change of title, from Honorary Assistant Curator to Honorary Consultant in North American Indian Ethnology. To Mrs. Sandford Gunn and Mr. Turner, and to others who have given the museum voluntary help for shorter periods, we offer grateful thanks.

Turner's special interest

His special interest was in the ethnology of North America and his willing and frequent help to the PRM was recognized by the title ‘Honorary Assistant Curator (later Consultant) in North American Indian ethnology. He also served as the President of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. It is clear from the Museum's Annual Reports that he helped catalogue, research and display the North American collections at the Museum from 1938 until at least 1977.

Turner was not a trained ethnographer or anthropologist. Because so little is known of his early life it is not clear where he obtained his interest and knowledge of North American material culture from. However, by 1955, Blackwood and Penniman were able to say of him, 'Mr Turner has been closely associated with the Pitt Rivers Museum for many years, and has been of great service to us in the identification and documenting of our American Indian specimens, especially those brought back by the earlier travellers and collectors. During this time he has been in regular correspondence with principal Americanists both in the Old and in the New World, and has made many valuable contacts with people who practise arts as well as with those who write about them'. [Preface to Turner, 1955]

Turner describes his motivation for writing the Occasional Paper thus:

Two or three years ago an antique dealer in an English Midlands city was offered for sale a piece of 'geniune Elizabethan petit-point' at a suitably modern price. What in fact he had was a typical piece of Huron Indian moose-hair embroidery on birchbark, such as tempted many a dollar from Victorian travellers to Niagara Falls. And yet, while wider of the mark than most, the dealer erred in good company. It is the common fate of moose- and caribou-hair embroidery to live in museums under an involuntarily assumed name, usually that of 'porcupine-quill work'. Two of the primary objects of this paper are to establish the right of hair embroidery—a craft which spans two-thirds of the northern world—to separate recognition, and to assist museum curators in distinguishing the different sorts of hair from one another and from quills. [Turner, 1955: 13]

It may be that Turner's interest in this question arose because of his unlikely combination of professionally working in a 'natural history' museum (without ethnographic artefacts) but being interested in his 'leisure' time in ethnography. He remarks that 'thanks to the zoologists, a relatively simple microscopical method is now available by which the hairs and quills can be identified with certainty in cases where the more immeiate criteria of size and texture leave room for doubt'. This zoological expertise was presumably readily available to him during his normal working week. The pages of the book are quite specific about the various species of animals that provide hair and quills for embroidery, another reflection of his dual role.

He also seems to show some practical knowledge. He opens the Paper by describing the practical considerations for choosing hair for embroidery:

To be suitable for use as an embroidery medium a hair must combine certain characteristics by no means common to those of all mammals. It must be long enough for easy handling; thick enough to be readily visible; white, or only very lightly pigmented, so as to accept dyes: and capable of being folded, flattened or creased sufficiently to obscure the thread used for stitching. This near-plastic quality is perhaps the most important of all, and certainly the least frequently encountered. In biological terms it implies a hair with a relatively thin-walled cortex and a wide, large-celled medulla easily broken down under pressure. [Turner, 1955: 16]

Turner encourages his reader, 'the recognition of the various materials described in this paper is in most cases relatively easy, once the investigator has been made aware of the alternative possibilities. The clues afforded by the appearance of the medium itself will, in most instances, be supplemented by the ethnological evidence. Thus the form and materials of the object decorated, the style of the design, and the presence or absence of dyes will usually establish its tribal or geographical provenance, and conclusions can then be checked against the recorded distribution of the decorative media'. [Turner, 1955: 18]

Turner's donations

Turner gave a total of 93 artefacts to the Museum; as you might expect, some of them relate to his special interest in North America and specifically to his interests in hair embroidery. However, they were not all from North America, there are items from Brazil (collected by Davi Maybury-Lewis), Sweden, and England (mostly lace accessories)

Further Reading

Obituary, Anthropology Today, Vol. 1, No. 6. (Dec., 1985), pp. 21-22
1955/ 1976 / 1996. Turner, Geoffrey E.S. Hair Embroidery in Siberia and North America. Occasional Papers on Technology, 7. Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford
1979. Turner, Geoffrey. Christianity: a brief history of the present-day church London: Edward Arnold
1979/ 1992 Turner, Geoffrey. Indians of North America. Poole, Blandford / New York, Sterling.
Oxford University Museum Annual Report 1928.

 Technologies & Materials