Charlotte Dixon, Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student, British Museum and University of Southampton
Since closure of the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange, the exhibited objects, including a model boat made from hundreds of dried cloves, have been returned to storage. However, out of sight does not mean out of mind…
The world of clove models is a mysterious one: little is known about these exciting, unique and strongly scented objects. This leaves us with questions such as what are they, where did they come from, when and why? Very little was known about the British Museum’s clove boat model before it was displayed, including its origins. Research was thus carried out to start to piece together information, but many questions are still unanswered. Intrigued by these objects research continues and you are invited to be a part of it!
Through this blog I will highlight what we currently know about these models before moving on to explore what we are yet to learn and, importantly, how you can help.
What were they for?
It can be suggested clove models would have been made as souvenirs. Research has shown it was not just model boats that were made from cloves but other items such as a horse and cart, baskets, and even a tea cup were produced in the Molucca Islands in Indonesia.
So what do we know about the British Museum model?
This model can be identified as a kora kora, an Indonesian boat used for trade and warfare, and is thought to broadly date between the 18th and 20th centuries. Further evidence for the origins of the model can be seen in the materials used, as cloves are native to the Moluccas in Indonesia, also known as the Spice Islands.
Using examples of other models in museums, such as Kew Gardens and the Ashmolean in the UK, Tropenmuseum in Holland and the Kunstkamera in Russia for example, we can start to build up a broader picture of the art of clove model making. However, there are still many unanswered questions such as when did this practice start, how many were made, who were they for and how many exist today?
Benefits of social media
Despite these unanswered questions, a blog post by Verena Kotonski, Conservator for Organic Artefacts, invited readers to help determine the positioning of clove figures on the model which sparked international interest. The responses have been very insightful and revealed clove boat models in private collections in the UK and Australia, confirmed one of the models had been collected as a souvenir and encouraged the only known collector of clove boat models, Loed van Bussel, to get in touch and share images of his fleet with us. In addition, a current website shows some clove models are still being made today on Ambon Island in the Moluccas.
The British Museum clove boat model was clearly not a one off specimen; there are various models of boats, as well as other objects, in existence in museums and private collections internationally. However, these evidences are still few and far between.
Can you help?
Do you own a clove boat model or know someone who does? If so, do you know anything about the model and how it came to be in your possession? Or perhaps you have seen such models in a museum that has not been mentioned or in a shop window or auction house. If you have any information about clove boat models please do get in touch by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. With your help we can start to understand how many models like this really are out there which may, in turn, help us understand this particular form of craft and trade.
Further research: a world of model boats
Whilst I am fascinated by clove boat models my research as a doctoral student is not wholly concerned with these objects. I am instead using a whole range of model boats from the Indian Ocean, from East Africa through to Western Australia, to see what we can learn from them in terms of boat building, maritime cultures and collecting. Working collaboratively with the British Museum and University of Southampton I get the opportunity to go behind the scenes and explore museum collections and have been fortunate enough to see many weird, wonderful and intricately crafted boat models. Through my research I hope to promote the use of boat models for research and display, including those made from cloves.
My thanks go to Dr Sarah Longair, curator of Connecting continents, and Verena Kotonski for their continued help and enthusiasm during and after the exhibition. Thank you also to Imogen Laing, Museum Assistant in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, for access to the model and to my supervisors Dr JD Hill, Dr Lucy Blue and Dr Helen Farr for their continued support.
Charlotte’s research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.