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Mysteries of the Phantom wooden shield: Putting together the pieces

Conservator Catherine Williams is investigating one of Te Papa’s recent acquisitions – a painted wooden shield from Papua New Guinea featuring The Phantom – from a conservation perspective, and blogging about it along the way. If you missed her first post, read it here.

Uncovering the mysteries of a collection item such as the Phantom shield is a constant back and forth. The tangible and visible features of the shields’ surface are guided by information gathered through reading and conversations with cultural experts.

The process is far from linear, especially when I combine my conservation work with my additional roles as a Loans & Acquisitions Advisor, and a Visitor Services Host.

One of my puzzles is the holes which cover a large portion of the shield surface.

War shields from Papua New Guinea were often decorated with lashings, the holes of which still remain in the wooden surface.

Is this what happened here? Maybe. Perhaps they were purely decorative. They look like small stitching holes, and form lines over the surface of the shield.

Their approximate shape is shown below in black outline.

Black lines following holes in the painted wooden surface, suggesting the probable pattern of lashing from a historic decorative scheme. Graphic by Cat Williams; Shield (painted with the Phantom character), 1970-80s, Papua New Guinea, maker unknown. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (FE013021)

But what can this tell us?

These lines look intentional, which means there is probably some reason for creating this type of design. New tangent! Cue for further literature research to be done.

Whether it was lashing or another feature, the material is no longer there. It has been removed at some stage. But when? And why?

The top layers of paint, most noticeably the yellow and blue, are not interrupted near these holes.

Detail of the painted shield surface showing the relationship between the sequential lashing holes and paint application. Photograph by Cat Williams; Shield (painted with the Phantom character), 1970-80s, Papua New Guinea, maker unknown. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (FE013021)

If the paint had been applied while the material was still in place there would be a disruption to the uniform paint layer. It would have pooled, dried against the edge of the material, or be missing entirely.

But it is smooth. The paint reaches right up to the edge of the holes and sometimes inside them.

This leads me to think the material was almost certainly removed prior to the distinctive Phantom image being applied.

But what did it look like earlier?

A visual inspection with the naked eye already indicates areas of red and white fill the shapes outlined by the sequences of holes.

Hand coloured representations of red and white block painted sections reflecting the pattern of the removed lashings. Image by Cat Williams. Shield (painted with the Phantom character), 1970-80s, Papua New Guinea, maker unknown. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (FE013021)

Unravelling the pieces of this puzzle is slow, but so fascinating. My combination of computer overlays and messy highlighter scribbles is revealing.

They are beginning to indicate what the Phantom shield probably looked like during an earlier period of time.

A few steps forward has raised a whole bunch of new questions, but this also helps to guide the next steps of my research.

From here I want to look at this with a UV lamp and see how the different paint surfaces fluoresce. When I do I will pay particular attention to the lashing lines, and see if more is visible than with the naked eye.

Afterwards, I would like to take paint samples and look at the pigments under high magnifications.

Although I am always reading, now I will zone in on details about lashing. When skimming information on paint I will read closely when red or white paint is mentioned.

Hopefully I will pick up some more hints along the way. Ones which will help me understand the history and life story of this collection item.

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