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Exhibition scratches at surface of forgotten art

17 February 2022

Scrimshaw: scratching the surface

Everyday art scratched into eggshells, whale teeth, and bullock horns is the focus of a new exhibition which opens this Saturday 19 February at Hamilton’s Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.

Scrimshaw: scratching the surface showcases elaborately illustrated objects handcrafted by sailors, whalers, and prisoners throughout the 19th century. A work of scrimshaw is made by hand-etching and inking designs into bone or shell, a common practise for people at the time wanting to share the sights of their travels.

The exhibition includes a rare early example of scrimshaw: an ostrich egg from 1775, decorated with ships traversing South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

Developed by Waikato Museum curator Dr Nadia Gush, Scrimshaw: scratching the surface features nearly 30 scrimshaw objects brought together from Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, MTG Hawkes Bay Tai Ahuriri, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and the collection of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.

“Scrimshaw is an everyday art born from the most extraordinary of circumstances,” says Gush.

“Travelling for months by sea or settling in a distant country, the usual artistic materials just weren’t an option. Carving into the surface of commonplace, durable items like shells and horns was the solution. They would make their own ink by mixing carbon with whale oil, or tea, or berries, or even squid ink. A scrimshaw wasn’t a piece of fine art intended to be hung in a gallery – it was a memento or keepsake, made by an everyday person, rarely a professional artist.”

“Each scrimshaw tells a story – about an experience or a location, or even about the scrimshander themselves.”

Waikato Museum Director, Liz Cotton, welcomes the opportunity to shine a spotlight on this overlooked historical art form.

“It has been a pleasure to collaborate with museums across the motu to show these scrimshaw works as a group,” says Cotton.

“It demonstrates how the objects in our collection here at Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato are an important part of the history of Aotearoa New Zealand as a nation and the connections we can make through collections.”

Scrimshaw: scratching the surface is at Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato until Sunday 26 June 2022, daily from 10am to 5pm. Entry is free.