University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box


By: and Leana Reich

November 9, 2018

In 1912, the Penn Museum purchased a birch bark box (object number NA 3851) decorated with intricate quillwork from British collector and antiquities dealer William Ockleford Oldman. During the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Oldman sold thousands of ethnographic materials to private collectors and museums (including the British Museum and Museum of the American Indian, among others) through his business “W.O. Oldman, Ethnographic Specimens, London.”[1] Objects sold by Oldman, however, often have minimal provenance information, since he worked both as a collector and a trader. The bottom of this box holds a mystery; a stamp reading “Oldman London 26324” surrounds a handwritten “Lady Franklyn.” Oldman refers to the collector, London refers to the city in which he was based, and 26324 refers to the collection number assigned to the artifact. Why did Oldman mark the name of Lady Franklyn on this box? How did he acquire it?

Leana Reich and Penn Museum Academic Engagement Coordinator Emily Moore examine a Mi’kmaq birch bark box (object number NA 3851). Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

The original Museum inventory card identified this box as “Huron;” in 1991, that was corrected to reflect its Micmac—or, in the more culturally accurate spelling, Mi’kmaq—origins. Birch trees are abundant in both Huron and Mi’kmaq territory, but, in terms of artistry, 19th century Huron and Mi’kmaq decorative art shows a prominent divergence. The Mi’kmaq are well-known for their quillwork, while the Huron are known for embroidery that utilizes dyed moose hair.[2] Huron birchbark objects (e.g. trays and small cases) tend to utilize motifs from nature rather than the geometric designs present on this Mi’kmaq box. Such is the nature of the medium; porcupine quills are more suitable for geometric designs utilizing angular lines than for delicate floral motifs.[3]

The box in the Penn Museum collection is constructed from two layers of white birch bark, joined with spruce root, secured to a wooden base that is fitted inside the quilled exterior. The exterior is covered with dense decoration of brightly colored red, purple, yellow, turquoise, and black dyed porcupine quills, arranged in geometric designs that include chevrons on the sides, and an eight-pointed star on the top. These intricate geometric patterns are consistent with Mi’kmaq quill boxes in the collections of other museums, particularly a set of boxes in the collection of the McCord Museum in Quebec.[4] These similarities include: the oval shape, the multi-colored chevron pattern surrounding the sides of the box, and the vertical natural-colored pieces of bark interspersed with white horizontal weaving. The top of each lid varies between these two samples; while both the McCord Museum and Penn Museum boxes are decorated with a traditional eight-pointed star, each central symbol is supplemented by its own collection of geometric motifs.

Top of the birchbark box showing the eight-pointed star motif. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

The eight-pointed star, which is common in Mi’kmaq art, can be interpreted a number of different ways. In their language, called Mi’kmaw, the symbol is interpreted as an eight-legged starfish, called kagwet.[5] One explanation is that the eight points of the star represented the seven geographic districts that make up the Mi’kmaq nation, with the eighth point representing their alliance with Great Britain.[6] During the 17th and 18th centuries, the star was used by Catholic missionaries among the Mi’kmaq as an ideogram representing Heaven, or “the place of happiness.”[7] Regardless of the meaning of the motif, the eight-pointed star (or eight-legged starfish) represented the Mi’kmaq nation on tourist objects made for sale.

The creation of quillwork birch bark boxes for the purpose of sale to tourists began in the 17th century as a result of trade between French colonists and the Mi’kmaq nation. Over time, as these objects were shipped back to France, they became increasingly desirable as commodities. By the 18th century, the main market for this type of quillwork box was in Europe. As Mi’kmaq quillwork increased in popularity in the European markets, objects were made specifically with patterns and colors that would appeal to their buyers. French buyers were especially impressed by Mi’kmaq porcupine quills “dyed in red of the most vivid flame colour.”[8] The process of decorating the object is incredibly elaborate and the resulting product can be fragile, so it makes sense that these types of boxes were often made and shipped as part of a nesting set of multiple boxes.[9]

Detail of porcupine quillwork on Mi’kmaq box.

Whether due to age or frequent usage, the box in the Penn Museum shows obvious wear patterns. There are broken pieces of birch bark on the lid, particularly in the cross-hatched patterns that line the longer edges of the oval and within the four purple squares in each corner. There is clear fading in the colors on the lid, such that the bright blue dye has faded. There are also wear patterns on the rim of the base, and the lid no longer fits exactly, suggesting that the box was opened and closed frequently and became warped over time. What kinds of treasures were stored in this finely quilled container?

Label on bottom of Mi’kmaq box.

And who is the mysterious “Lady Franklyn”? She is very likely Jane Griffin Franklin (1791-1875), well-known as “Lady Franklin.” Wife of the famous English explorer Sir John Franklin, she was one of the most famous and determined English women of the 19th century. When Sir John vanished after his 1845 sailing voyage through the Canadian Arctic archipelago to seek the “Northwest Passage” to the Pacific, Jane funded seven expeditions in her intensive (but sadly futile) effort to find him.[10] She also traveled widely on her own, collecting cultural objects in Alaska, Hawaii, Australia, and elsewhere during her travels; many of these objects ended up in Oldman’s collection.[11]

This much is clear: the bark on this box has seen a great deal of travel, from the time when it was part of a tree in the forest, before being peeled and carved and stitched through with porcupine quills in the hands of a skilled Mi’kmaq artisan. As a tourist object designed for the European trade, it made its way into the hands of Lady Franklin, and then into the collection of a dealer in London, before traveling back across the ocean to Philadelphia, where it has lived for over a century, and where it rests today.

Footnotes:

[1] Robert Hales and Kevin Conru. W.O. Oldman the Remarkable Collector: William Ockleford Oldman’s Personal Archive. Gent, Belgium: Graphius 2016.

[2] Frank G. Speck, “Huron Moose Hair Embroidery,” American Anthropologist New Series Vol. 13, no. 1 (Jan. – Mar. 1911): 1-14.

[3] Ruth Holmes Whitehead, Micmac Quillwork: Micmac Indian Techniques of Porcupine Quill Decoration, 1600-1950, Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1982, 77.

[4] See images of a birchbark “Container with Lid,” in the section “Tradition, Change and Survival: Mi’kmaq Tourist Art,” McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

[5] Andrew J. Hebda, “The Mi’kmaw Bestiary: A Compendium of Documented Mi’kmaw Terms and Phrases Relating to Animals.” Curatorial Report 103, Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, 2014.

[6] Janelle Young, “Reimagining Mi’kmaq-State Relations: Facing Colonialism at the Mi’kmaq-Nova Scotia-Canada Tripartite Forum.” Master’s thesis, Dalhousie University, 2015, 61.

[7] Whitehead, Micmac Quillwork, 180.

[8] Whitehead, Micmac Quillwork, 66.

[9] Whitehead, Micmac Quillwork, 58.

[10] Ken McGoogan, Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History, Toronto: Harper Collins, 2005. Her fame was such that more than 100 ships (e.g. clipper, packet, merchant sail, brig, canal boat, etc.) have been named after her. See “Lady Franklin” on ShipIndex.org.

[11] See, for example, a Tlingit rattle collected in Sitka, Alaska, by Lady Franklin, purchased by Oldman, and sold to the British Museum in 1949. Some of the objects she collected in Hawaii are listed in William Ockleford Oldman, “The Oldman Collection of Polynesian Artifacts.” Memoir #15, Supplement to the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 50 (1941): 78-81. It’s not clear whether she ever visited Mik’maq territory in person.

Sources Cited:

Hales, Robert, and Kevin Conru. 2016. W.O. Oldman the Remarkable Collector: William Ockleford Oldman’s Personal Archive. Gent, Belgium: Graphius.

Hebda, Andrew J. “The Mi’kmaw Bestiary: A Compendium of Documented Mi’kmaw Terms and Phrases Relating to Animals.” Curatorial Report 103, Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, 2014.

McGoogan, Ken. 2005. Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History. Toronto: HarperCollins.

Oldman, W. O. 1941. “The Oldman Collection of Polynesian Artifacts.” Memoir #15, Supplement to the Journal of the Polynesian Society. Vol. 50: 78-81.

Speck, Frank G. “Huron Moose Hair Embroidery.” American Anthropologist New Series Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar. 1911): 1-14.

Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. 1982. Micmac Quillwork: Micmac Indian Techniques of Porcupine Quill Decoration, 1600-1950, Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum.

Young, Janelle. 2015. “Reimagining Mi’kmaq-State Relations: Facing Colonialism at the Mi’kmaq-Nova Scotia-Canada Tripartite Forum.” Master’s thesis, Dalhousie University.


This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles, edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With  Liliana Gurrey. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”



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