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The University of St Andrews has been awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant for a PhD project based on Mary Burkett’s original research and her felt collection at the Horniman Museum. The grant is for a student to study the contemporary state of felt-making in in the regions where Mary did all her groundbreaking work in the 1960s and 70s.

The student will be based at the anthropology department at St Andrews University, supervised by Dr Stephanie Bunn, and the project is a collaboration between the University of St Andrews and the Horniman Museum, where Dr Fiona Kerlogue will be a second supervisor. The PhD is linked to Mary’s exceptional collection of 87 felt textiles from the Middle East and Afghanistan which she made from 1960-79, and which are housed at the museum. The aim is to contextualize them in the light of regional events in the subsequent 35-40 years. Mary’s collection brought felt to the attention of scholars at a time when it was beginning to fall out of use and considered too mundane to be of significance to museums of the day. Her research was curtailed by the Iran Revolution and Russian invasion of Afghanistan, both in 1979, which is why it is so important to revisit them today.

The aim of the project is to bring Mary’s research up-to-date, focusing on Iran, although given the difficulties of working in this region, the site has to be flexible, but we hope to build on the recent important and unique period of improved relations with Iran, and the resurgence of handicraft production there.

We cannot guarantee who will apply for this PhD, nor what their main interests will be, but I hope they will be sympathetic to Mary’s work and the feltmaking community. Ideally, the student will compare felt production between migrating communities and settled workshops, and between past and contemporary generations, looking at factors such as technique, colour and imagery. Groups may include nomadic Bakhtiari, Lurs, Qashgai, and Kurds along with settled producers in Samiabad, Shiraz and Ardabil, regions which Mary visited. It may even be possible to link material from her collection with specific workshops, journeymen and migrating groups, tracing some textiles and their production to where she collected them, while also showing contemporary and changing practices among groups who still use and produce felt.

mb-kilicli-chest-felt-urfaWe also don’t know what the situation will be like when the student gets there. But one thing which makes me, anyway, think this is worth doing, is looking at Mary’s slides of her visits, and wanting to know what the impact of all the troubles in these regions has been on these wonderful communities, their practices, and their mainly domestically produced textiles ever since. Mary’s image of felts for sale in Kabul bazaar is a source for thought. Is there anything like this happening in these regions today? And the image of chest felting in the Turkish baths, a unique practice which Mary came upon and drew people’s attention to. A great thing about Mary is that she sought out and found special events, historical moments, and other interested researchers, such as Hans Bidder, all of which helped built up a picture of felt-making nearly 40 years ago, and much deeper into the past. This is an important legacy which I really would like the project to honour. If anything can transcend political disturbance and the kinds of problems in communicating with these regions today, it is surely focusing on the positive and creative outputs of such regions, and simple textiles such as felt provide a very important starting point.

It won’t be an easy subject to study, it won’t be easy to visit the region. We have had very little uptake as yet, but I hope that we will find a student who can do this well.

There will be at least one public event such as a study day at the Museum, during the project.