Syadei: sacred objects

These are syadei, made by members of the Nenets people, an Indigenous community in North Siberia.

It's difficult to describe what a syadei is accurately in English, because they are part of a very different way of viewing the world. For Nenets people, syadei were and are alive. They see, feel, communicate and act, and are part of the way Nenets people communicate with their landscape, reindeer, game and ancestors. They might be considered the material version of a god, spirit guardian or ancestor.

Hegeso's tombstone

How can we give voice to an anonymous slave who died two thousand years ago?

It is notoriously difficult to view the ancient world through enslaved eyes. Our classical Greek sources are written by elite men, largely for elite male audiences; no enslaved person’s personal account has been discovered. This stele, or tombstone - of which a plaster cast is now in the Museum of Classical Archaeology - shows two female figures. One of the women is seated and bigger, with a name – Hegeso, daughter of Proxenos, of Melite – carved above her head.

Portrait of Kanguagiu

This is a watercolour portrait of Kanguagiu, an Inuit woman who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

Kanguagiu was 60 years old when Royal Navy officer John Ross painted her portrait in the 1830s. We know a surprising amount about her and her family, thanks to Ross's paintings and book, Narrative of a Second Voyage to the Arctic.

1924 (bertha no. 2)

Who was Bertha? And how did she know Ben?

Ben Nicholson's painting 1924 (bertha no. 2) is displayed prominently at Kettle's Yard. It depicts the head and shoulders of a young woman, Bertha. She is painted larger than life-size with an emphasis on strong sculptural forms and planes that give her sense of solidity and monumentality.

While we know a lot about Ben Nicholson, we know nothing about Bertha. Who was she? How can we tell her story? And what happened to Bertha No. 1?

Eliza Spindel, Curatorial Assistant at Kettle's Yard, tells us more.

Finch and Baines

In the Fitzwilliam Museum's grand Gallery 3, two portraits, of John Finch and Thomas Baines, hang facing each other. They were painted as a pair in the 17th century by Carlo Dolci.

Finch and Baines, both trained physicians, met while studying at Cambridge in the 1640s. They were inseparable throughout a relationship that lasted 36 years, and were buried together in a joint monument in Christ's College.

The two men were consistently referred to as the "greatest of friends", while they themselves thought of their relationship as a kind of marriage.

Spectacles

What can a pair of eighteenth-century spectacles, or eyeglasses, tell us about evolving attitudes to disability?

These spectacles, now in the collection of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, were handmade. They were designed to sit on the wearer's nose, and then fold away neatly into their case. 

Would you think of them as a disability aid? How have attitudes to disability changed over time?

Josephinia imperatricis

This plant isn't a humble nettle, but josephinia imperatricis, named after Empress Joséphine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Joséphine (1763-1843) filled the Malmaison Palace in Paris with exotic plants from the lands her husband Napoleon had conquered.

What can this botanical watercolour by Pierre-Joseph Redouté tell us about the relationship between empire and science?

Hettie Ward, Assistant Keeper in the Fitzwilliam Museum's Department of Paintings, Drawings and Prints, tells us more.

Iron prosthetic hands

Two iron prosthetic hands in the Fitzwilliam Museum's Armoury speak of the dangerous life led by high-ranking knights and master gunners in the sixteenth century. 

The advent of gunpowder warfare in the 1500s saw soldiers sustain horrific injuries and more amputations than in previous centuries. Prosthetic hands like these (which were very, very expensive) contained complex mechanisms to allow for some movement. 

Vicky Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, tells us more.

Figurine from Naukratis

This tiny object is less than 3cm tall, but it reveals the complexity of modern relationships with ethnicity and multiculturalism - and how we perceive the past.

The terracotta figurine head was excavated from the site of the ancient city of Naukratis in Egypt. It dates to the time of the Roman Empire, when Naukratis was an important Roman trading centre.

The Museum of Classical Archaeology's catalogue describes the subject as an "African man". But is that how a viewer of the Roman era would have described it?

Phyllis Wager's typewriter

When Phyllis Wager travelled to East Greenland as part of a British expedition in 1935, it was so unusual for women to travel to the Polar regions that special permission was needed from the Foreign Office.

What can her Remington Home portable typewriter, which travelled with her on the expedition, tell us about the contribution of women to polar science; the untold stories of the Inuit people who travelled and worked alongside the British team; and how we think of polar expeditions more generally? 

Charlotte Connelly, Curator of the Polar Museum, tells us more.