Museum Treasures

Coronavirus Relief for the World Ethnology Collection


On June 15, 2020,

the National Endowment for the Humanities notified the Museum that it received $150,000 in a Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) grant. That grant partially offset the salaries of 10 Science Division staff members during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Under the terms of the grant, we focused on inventorying, rehousing, photographing and researching the Museum’s World Ethnology Collection, which includes objects from Central and South America, Africa and other parts of the world. It also includes a small but significant collection of paintings, prints and sketches from ethnographic cultures around the world.  

From June 15 through Dec. 31, Department of Anthropology and Integrative Collections staff worked furiously in the World Ethnology storage room, tucked away behind Ricketson Auditorium in the northwest corner of the Museum’s first floor. There, collections managers Dominque Alhambra and Jeff Phegley unwrapped and measured each object, created digital images of each and noted any special attention that they might need.  

Once measured and photographed, the objects were transported to the Museum’s state of the art Avenir Collections Center in the Morgridge Family Exploration Center on the south side of the Museum. There, in a task that would ordinarily have been conducted by Museum volunteers, Alhambra and Phegley made custom storage mounts out of archive quality materials for each object, which then got placed in our wonderful preservation facility. Museum Photographer Rick Wicker took beautiful images of the most important and beautiful objects, and Conservation Assistant Kathryn Reusch tackled problematic objects that needed more detailed attention to mend breaks, engage in specialize cleaning and propose more extensive treatment options that will be conducted in the future.   

Anthropology curator colleagues, Michele Koons, Ph.D., and Erin Baxter, Ph.D., and I, conducted research on the collections. I focused on the collection from Africa, Koons on the Latin American collection, and Baxter on the flat art collection. One particular challenge was that none of the curators had much prior experience with these collections—we had to learn as we went!  

Luckily for us, Science Division Business Support Specialist Courtney Scheskie has a master’s degree in African Studies, so she was able to lead the charge in researching the African collection.  

Finally, Director of Integrative Collections Melissa Bechhoefer, Koons, Alhambra and others spent a tremendous amount of time cleaning up digital data in our specialized collections database in order to understand the history, purpose and meaning of artifacts for which there are far fewer historical records, if any.

In the process of this work we (re)discovered many wonderful objects that are worth sharing. 

Phegly, an artist and woodworker during his spare time, fell in love with a clever folding chair from East Africa. Curiously, it has a sharp metal, serrated blade attached to the top of its long side. Why would you want a serrated knife edge on a folding chair? Because the chair is a coconut grater! After a coconut is cut in half with a machete, the user can sit down with his or her rear end against the short side of the chair, allowing them to scrape the inside of the coconut on the serrated blade. Once collected, the coconut shavings are steeped in hot water to make coconut milk, which is commonly used in Eastern African cuisine to create sauces, curries and desserts. This remarkable hinged wooden seat was carved from a single piece of hardwood and can be folded flat for efficient storage. Phegley, notes approvingly “The other cool thing is that the blade can be removed for sharpening or to replace it with a new one. I love it when the maker thinks of those functional issues when designing/making an object.”  

As seemingly curious a combination as this is, it got us to thinking—what devices in modern American society have remarkably dual functions? We call the computers we hold in our hands “phones,” but they’ve been doing far more than just making phone calls for almost two decades.  

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A clever combination of coconut shredder and chair, from East Africa.(DMNS Catalog No. A564.1; photograph by Rick Wicker.) 

Following along this food processing theme, Koons’ favorite object from the Latin American ethnographic collection is a manioc press  from near Urucura, Brazil. It’s a woven basketry cylinder used to press bitter and toxic prussic acid from manioc (cassava) tuber pulp. After it has been grated and soaked in water, the manioc pulp is stuffed inside the woven tube and then the entire apparatus is hung from a tree. The manioc press is then pulled and twisted, squeezing the water and prussic acid from the pulp. Then the pulp is boiled, dried and made into flour or cakes. It’s an ingenious way to get nutrition out of a dietary staple that is otherwise poisonous to humans.  

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A woven manioc press from Brazil. (A526.1)

Wicker, who is responsible for the wonderful photographs that grace the cover of Catalyst, has an eye that emphasizes the aesthetic and artistic over the anthropological, which is great, for it adds another dimension to our work. One of his favorite objects is a wooden figurine from Ghana, called Akua’ba. These figurines are usually created by a male carver for a woman who is having a difficult time getting pregnant. The wooden figure symbolizes an ideal, if abstract, femininity. The large head represents knowledge, the rings around the neck represent rolls of fat that are seen as an indicator of good health and the ability to bear children. Protruding breasts referencing a woman who has not yet borne and breastfed children.   

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An Akua’ba figure from Ghana.  (A1290.6)

Scheskie, with her scholarly background in African studies, is just as interested in the stories behind the objects as she is in the objects themselves. One of her favorite objects is a beautiful wooden carving made by R.O. Osagicde, an Igbo man who lived in southern Nigeria in the 1960s. The subject is Akenzua II, the Oba (traditional ruler) of the Edo People in the Kingdom of Benin, who ruled from 1933 to 1978. The Edo’s traditions, including the cultural significance of the Oba, have remained significant to some Nigerian people in spite of attempts by colonial powers to destroy them.        

This carved wooden statue is one of only a few pieces in the African Ethnographic collection for which we can name the artist. It is important for us to record, whenever we can, as much as we can about the people who created the objects in our collection. In addition to their aesthetic qualities, these objects may have cultural, historic, economic, religious significance that adds depth to their meaning. Put another way, the intangible cultural heritage surrounding these objects is at least as important as the objects themselves. 

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A wood carving by R. O. Osagicde from Nigeria. (A1402.1)

Last but not least, Baxter’s favorite object is, believe it or not, a fake shrunken head from South America! It had never been catalogued, so it wasn’t in our database and we weren’t expecting to find it while going through the storeroom.  

The practice of creating Tsantsas (shrunken heads) originated with the Shuar people from South America. Anthropologists think enemies were killed, their heads collected, the enveloping skin was artificially shrunk after the bones were discarded and the resulting shrunken heads were worn as amulets of power. When colonizers (largely Europeans) moved into the region in the 19th century, their wish to collect and send tsantsas home had disastrous effects on the Shuar people. “Commercial” tsantsas were created to meet the demand. Often the demand for these tsantsas resulted in murder, grave robbing, substitution of animal (sloths or monkeys) skins, and even versions made of papier mȃché! Despite their characterization as “commercial,” sometimes these fake shrunken heads still maintained symbolic power amongst the Shuar. This tsantsa is clearly made of papier mȃché, was painted, and had hair affixed in a really bad imitation of a real shrunken head. 

What’s it mean? Why did our museum collect it? Would the Shuar people like it back? Did this fool a tourist or a colonizer? We’re going to try to find out!  

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A papier mȃché (and therefore fake) tsantsa, or shrunken head, probably created for the tourist trade in Brazil in the mid-20th century (DMNS No. AT81.36).

From an exquisite statue from Ghana to a manioc press from Brazil, from an amazing coconut shredder chair to a ridiculously poor attempt to make a fake shrunken head, and from exotic musical instruments to stunning wood block prints from the Arctic, our understanding of the World Ethnology collection has been greatly enhanced by the NEH CARES grant-funded work.  

The World Ethnology storage room is nearly empty, but it won’t be for long. We have just submitted two new grant proposals for work on important archaeological collections. The first, from the Jones-Miller Paleoindian bison kill site near Wray, Colorado, will focus on a collection of more than 300 bison slaughtered in two ancient kill events about 10,000 years ago. The second will focus on the WS Ranch Archaeological Project collection from southwestern New Mexico. That collection, primarily from the WS Ranch Site itself, includes a remarkable suite of stone tools, ceramics, and other artifacts from a really important but understudied region of the world, one that is located in the region where Koons, Baxter and I conduct field research.

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