One of my favorite aspects of my job here at the Museum is to take a moment, walk through the rooms and look – look at not only the objects, but at the reaction a volunteer or fellow staff member has when seeing an object for the first time. Since my job keeps me in the collection storage rooms I get to experience these moments all the time, and love sharing them with people who don’t. These are some of the pieces I get asked about, that are consistent conversation starters for many of us here in the Curatorial Department.
Before new interns start in Curatorial, or when we give a tour, one of the most asked questions is “do you have any weapons down here?” The answer is yes, we do… over 5,000. In this collection of weapons we have bows, arrows, swords, and knives. One of my favorites is a sword from the Gilbert Islands, which are located in the Pacific Ocean. This sword is something that I show people who ask about weapons because they are usually expecting a sword with a metal blade. This sword is actually made of koa wood, a kind of twine material, and shark teeth. There is usually the phrase “oh cool” somewhere in their reaction.
Another question I often get “what is the weirdest thing you have in the collection?” For me this is the “bread baby,” also known as a Tantawawa, from Bolivia. This piece is weird to me because many poeple, including myself, don’t think of bread as being something that a museum should collect. Also, bread is not the easiest thing to preserve. Fortunately for me, there are only a handful of “bread babies” in our collection, and many were coated with a sealant before they were accessioned.
The last piece I want to share is a Javanese mask. I like to show our mask collection to people because we have several from a variety of cultures. To the best of my knowledge, we have never put all of them together for a cross-cultural comparison, and have them simply as examples of specific cultures, art, or rituals. Masks mean different things to different cultures – they can be a way to hide identity, portray someone else, or represent some aspect of a ritual. The mask shown here was possibly used in a dance drama. It is hand-carved wood that has been painted.
Next time you see an object that strikes you as interesting, find out what it is and where it came from, just like I encourage all of my interns to do. It might have an interesting story that speaks to a culture or to an individual, and it could be a way to make a unique connection.
Karen Lacy, Collections Manager