Hidden Object Highlight: Oware

This blog post was written by Kelsey Petersen, the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for fall 2018. Kelsey is currently a second year M.A. candidate at Tufts University, studying Art History and Museum Studies. Her research is focused on the display of African art in museums, the politics of representation, and cross-cultural artistic exchange. She appreciates the power of material culture to tell stories and connect others, and she hopes to continue with collections management after graduating.

When I started the Elvira Growdon Internship for Collections and Archives Management at Boston Children’s Museum, I learned that the Museum has a collection of over 50,000 objects, encompassing not just children’s toys and dolls, but also natural history specimens, geological samples, dinosaur fossils, global jewelry, indigenous baskets, and even a two-story Japanese home from Kyoto. Aside from Antarctica, every continent of the world is represented in the collection, and each object clearly has a story to tell.

While I could easily spend all day uncovering a single object’s cultural biography, I was especially interested in the cultural materials from Africa, which had not yet been systematically inventoried in the Museum’s collection database. As an art historian with a focus in the visual culture of the continent, I was eager to go through the fifty drawers of materials to gain a better sense of the collection, a large part of which was donated to the Museum in the mid-1930s.

With each passing day, the collection of objects from Africa continues to surprise me with its breadth of hidden materials. When I started my inventory project in September, I was expecting to find mostly wooden figurines, woven straw baskets, and an assortment of instruments. Instead I have discovered brightly colored East African kangas (large, patterned textiles worn and used in East Africa, often with a proverb in Kiswahili, one of the languages of the region), glass beaded jewelry, long metal spears (“Handle carefully; poisoned tips,” the catalogue card states), a delicate hair pin made of animal bone, and several gently curving wooden headrests.

One of my favorite objects I’ve come across so far is an oware, a wooden game board from the Ashanti region in Ghana, West Africa. With its long rectangular shape and evenly spaced depressions – with a few round seeds dispersed in each – the oware instantly reminded me of the mancala game set I had so often played as a child with my brother. After doing a little additional research, I learned that an oware is a type of mancala, one of many mancala game types played around the world. ‘Mancala’ comes from the Arabic word ‘naqala,’ meaning “to move,” and is a type of board game in which players ‘count-and-capture’ the greatest number of seeds possible, usually forty-eight in total. [One Africa, Many Countries- Ayo,” http://www.beyondthechalkboard.org/activity/one-africa-many-countries-ayo/%5D

Similar to other mancalas, the oware is comprised of two parts: a flat, rectangular base, and an oblong game board on top, with fourteen small cups and two raised bars in between the two rows of cups. Often intended for two players (although there can sometimes be teams), the purpose of the game is to strategically capture the opposing player’s seeds, keeping them contained in the large cup at either side of the mancala during the course of the game. The winner of oware is the player who collects the most seeds.

Mancala games are global, possibly originating in Africa or Asia over 3,000 years ago. There are hundreds of variation of the game, including layli goobalay in Somalia, ouri in Cape Verde, omweso in Uganda, and congkak across South Asia.  Oware, however, originated in West Africa, and is still played throughout Ghana, Senegal, and Gabon. ‘Oware’ comes from the Ashanti word ‘wari,’ meaning “he/she marries,” a translation that stems from the Ashanti legend that claims a man and woman decided to get married because they did not want to finish their endless mancala game. [History, Rules, and Play: The National Game of Ghana,” in Oware History and Rules (Mallee Blue Media), https://www.scribd.com/document/28894645/Oware-History-Rules%5D

The oware pictured here first came to Boston Children’s Museum in 1967 to be displayed in the Hall of Toys exhibit, when a staff member brought back a few examples of children’s toys from her vacation in Kenya. Although most of the seeds are now missing after years of use in public programs, researching this object makes me want to add a few more and challenge Rachel Farkas, Curator of Collections, to an oware match!

Interested in learning more about global mancalas? Check out Boston Children’s Museum’s ‘Beyond the Chalkboard,’ an accessible online resource that provides hundreds of curriculum-inspired activities for afterschool programs. One activity – “One Africa, Many Countries” – teaches participants the history of mancala, and how to play ayo, the Nigerian version of the game.

I encourage you to visit http://www.beyondthechalkboard.org/activity/one-africa-many-countries-ayo/ for this activity, and plenty more!

To learn more about the Museum’s General Cultural Collection, please visit http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/about/collections/general-cultural-collection, and be sure to stop by the Museum’s window displays, located across the main hallway of each floor.

Hidden Object Highlight – Fijian Fork

Hannah Barber is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for summer 2018. Hannah is a current student at Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts pursuing her Masters in Museum Studies. Hannah’s passion for museums and collections stem from her belief that museums can provide education that is inclusive and accessible for everyone and that collections are educational resources available to all.


As a part of the collections team, I walk through the storage room every day surrounded by thousands of objects. Today, as I was looking for a new object to write another Hidden Object Highlight post, I stumbled upon this item.

I studied it; admiring its carved handle and wondering what a 17 inch fork would have been used for and by whom. As I looked through the Museum’s records, I found that this piece was originally from the Fiji Islands and was donated to Boston Children’s Museum in 1941 by a local man from Brookline. Looking over his records, I found that he was an avid donor, gifting the museum many items from all over the world. Then, I read on about what precisely this object was. “Cannibal Human-meat Fork” is its title.

Cannibalism, in fact, was a part of the Fiji Islands history. It was a sacred part of tribal life that dates back to 2,500 years ago when bete (priests) or chiefs of a tribe would consume the flesh of enemies. It was thought that consuming them would be the ultimate obliteration of the individual, both physically and spiritually. Due to the fact that the bete was seen as a living representation of the Gods, they were not allowed to handle food at all. Typically, a servant would feed them and when it came to consuming human flesh, they used specially carved forks to feed themselves this sacred meal.

In the 1830s Christian missionaries started arriving in the Islands and began converting Fijians to Christianity. Cannibalism dwindled once a majority of Fijians converted, but the tradition continued up until the 1860s. Today, Fijians recognize that cannibalism is a part of their history but do not continue to practice the religious ceremony. In Fiji the locals are benefiting from this past by carving souvenir forks and cannibal dolls for sale in tourist destinations. It is likely that this fork was never used to consume human flesh and was a souvenir from a trip abroad based on the printed date of 1939, 80 years after the practice of cannibalism ceased to exist in Fiji.

Boston Children’s Museum holds collection objects that are surprising and often unassuming at first glance. Even working with the collections for the whole summer, I’m still finding objects that tell rich stories without being particularly eye-catching or grandiose in any way. It is incredible what you can discover when you look closer at an object. Come discover what else BCM has in its collection! Maybe you’ll find there is more than meets the eye.

 

Resources:

Crosbie, Emma. “Cannibal’s Fork from Fiji.” National Museum of Ireland. May 2013. https://www.museum.ie/The-Collections/Documentation-Discoveries/May-2013/Cannibal%E2%80%99s-fork-iculanibokola.

“Cannibalism.” The Fiji Museum- Virtual Museum. http://virtual.fijimuseum.org.fj/index.php?view=objects&id=67.

Edwards, Anna. “Cannibals with cutlery: The macabre nineteenth century Fijian forks used by tribesmen to eat the bodies of rival warriors.” Daily Mail. January 9, 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2259519.

“Souvenir/Fork.” The British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=483012&partId=1&searchText=cannibal+fork&page=1.

 

Hidden Objects Highlight – Brittany Headdress

Hannah Barber is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for summer 2018. Hannah is a current student at Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts pursuing her Masters in Museum Studies. Hannah’s passion for museums and collections stem from her belief that museums can provide education that is inclusive and accessible for everyone and that collections are educational resources available to all.

Figure 1: Boston Children’s Museum’s raggiera.

What is this object supposed to represent? Some may look at it and see the shape of peacock plumage or a medieval handheld fan of some sort. This object is actually a woman’s headdress. With several different names including raggiera, sperada, guazza, and corona lombarda that translate to “rays” or “Lombardian crown” in Italian dialects, they are typical of the Lombardy and Piedmont regions of northern Italy as well as the southernmost region of Ticino in Switzerland. The headdress is comprised of thinly pounded silver pins with pointed ends, a circular metal frame with braided thread wound over the frame, and a long pin with egg-shaped heads at each end to help support the frame at the nape of the neck. This traditional headdress dates back to the 16th century in these regions.

Figure 2: A diagram of the different components of the headdress with their Italian names. Courtesy of Roman Kozakand’s blog.

This headdress has a deep-seeded history in Italian/Swiss tradition. For most women, it was worn for the first time on their wedding day. The fiancé would give the bride-to-be a headdress before their wedding, as a dowry gift, and which would include about 15 silver pins. The mother-in-law or other female relatives would help place some of the pins in the bride’s hair days before the ceremony and each day leading up to the ceremony, the bride would add more pins. After the ceremony and celebration the husband would continue gifting pins to his wife throughout their marriage. This was considered a sign of affection and prosperity within the relationship. Today, the traditional dress is less common for weddings but remains seen as a costume in traditional dance groups as a way to preserve their history and culture. Here is an example of a dance group in traditional dress.

Figure 3: A photograph of the raggiera on a woman’s head. Courtesy of Roman Kozakand’s blog.

In Boston Children’s Museum’s collection, this raggiera is labeled in the collection as a “Brittany Headdress”. Brittany, a northwestern region of France, does not appear to have this type of headdress in their cultural ceremonies, so it was a challenge for me to discover where this headdress originated from after reading through the records. We do not know the story of how this beautiful headdress became part of Boston Children’s Museum Collection, beyond a name and donation date. We care for it, like all the objects in our collection, so they can become educational resources for everyone. This is one reason that I enjoy collections so much! The endless discoveries that can be uncovered through research is fascinating and I learn something new almost every day I get to work with collections. See what else you can discover in BCM collections!

References:

“Hair Ornament.” Victoria and Albert Museum Collections. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O137768/hair-ornament-pirotta-carlo/

Kozakand, Roman. “Costume of Brianza, Italy, and Mendrisiotto, Switzerland, and La Raggiera.” Folk Costume & Embroidery. Blogspot. February 23, 2013. http://folkcostume.blogspot.com/2013/02/costume-of-brianza-italy-and.html

Rosendtadt, Mauser.“La ‘Corona Lombarda’.” Georgian Garden. Blogspot. September, 26, 2011. http://georgianagarden.blogspot.com/2011/09/la-corona-lombarda.html

“Raggiera.” Gruppo Folkloristico Bosino. http://www.folkbosino.org/raggiera.html.

 

Hidden Object Highlight

Hannah Barber is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for summer 2018. Hannah is a current student at Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts pursuing her Masters in Museum Studies. Hannah’s passion for museums and collections stem from her belief that museums can provide education that is inclusive and accessible for everyone and that collections are educational resources available to all.

You may take a look at this peculiar specimen and wonder when, where, and why was it made and how is it used? This mysterious mask resides in the Mexican Cultural Collection at Boston Children’s Museum (BCM). This “tiger” mask most likely represents a jaguar or ocelot, since tigers are not native to Mexico. The tiger mask is used in the Tiger Dance, a traditional dance originating from ancient Mexico. The story originates from the Oaxaca/Guerrero area of Mexico and this particular mask dates back to the first half of the 20th century.

The dance is based on the story of Don Manuel Peña and Don José Cortés, two of the region’s richest cattle ranchers. Their livestock was being stolen by a magic tiger, so Don Manuel hires a couple and their dog to hunt the tiger. They look for the tiger until the dog finally tracks it down and the hunt begins. Doña Catalina, the woman who was hired, shows José Ovejon, her husband, where the tiger is hiding. José Ovejon shoots at the tiger as the dog barks at it from the bottom of the tree. Twelve dancers accompany the hunters and dance around the tiger’s hiding place. Since the tiger is magical, the bullets that José fires can’t harm it. Doña Catalina gives her husband some garlic to break the spell that his gun is under. The spell is broken and in the end, the hunt is successful and the tiger is killed.

The Tiger Dance is performed by 14 people who dance in two rows, the tiger, and the dog. The 12 dancing men wear white cotton trousers under brightly colored knickerbockers decorated with lace from the waist to the knee, hunters’ shirts, and two cotton squares, one sits on their head and the other is held in their hand. They also wear caps decorated with sequins. Doña Catalina wears a skirt with lace edging, an embroidered blouse with tassels around her shoulders and waist, a shawl, and a hat. The tiger wears a yellow suit with brown spots and a wooden tiger mask with mirror eyes. The hunter wears leather pants, a suede waistcoat, and hat. Throughout the theatrical performance, the dancers who play the tiger and the dog do some incredible moves verging on acrobatic. To see a unique version of this dance performed locally in Mexico, check out this video!

There are a few different versions of this dance originating from different groups within Mexico but most are performed for El Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, Mexico’s largest festival that occurs at the end of October and into November every year. The tiger mask is usually made of carved wood, hair, whiskers, and yes, real animal teeth for the mouth. Modern masks are not always made out of the same material but often look as wild and ferocious as this one. This is just one example of El Día de los Muertos masks that the museum takes care of. I’m still looking to see what else I can uncover while going through the collection and hope to find some more objects related to the Tiger Dance. Come explore what else BCM has in its collection too!

 

References:

“Dances from the Oaxacan Coast.” OaxacaNews. https://www.tomzap.com/dance.html.

Lewis, Elizabeth. “Mexican Art & Culture.” Capstone Classroom. (2005). https://books.google.com/books?id=2F4WpTXN5msC.

Tiger Dance/Danza del Tigre. 2016, Shalom Producciones. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrQfcQ3LxjU

Museum Miniatures: Maximum Fun

 

written by Caroline Turner

Caroline Turner is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for the spring 2018 semester. Caroline is a current student at Simmons School of Information Science pursuing her Masters in Library Science with a concentration in Archives Management. Caroline’s love for history and research grew from her experience on her family’s farm in upstate New York, where she enjoyed discovering tiny antique haircurlers, learning about the history of her ancestors and the region, and turning the cows out to pasture.

  

As a child, my favorite games were vast imaginary scenes complete with horses, castles, action figures, dolls, matchbox cars, and stuffed animals. I loved the quiet theater of it, and how a tiny shift of one toy could signify large transformation in the story playing out before me. When I became this spring’s Elvira Growdon Intern, I was drawn to these toys that encouraged imaginary play in the collections at Boston Children’s Museum (BCM). I was thrilled to find an assortment of miniature toy soldiers that evoked a wonderful sense of nostalgia and had endless research possibilities.

Toy soldiers were found in Egyptian tombs, and were first made from wood, stone, or clay, specifically for nobility. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, lead figures were made for the noble families in Germany and France. In the nineteenth century, the increases in metals, industry, and nationalism in European countries resulted in the increase of toy soldier production. German toy makers emerged as the early leaders in lead soldier manufacturing. German makers specialized in “flats” which essentially looked like cutouts on a small stand. The owner of the toy shop would decide on a subject, and then commission a draughtsman to make a drawing of the figures. An engraver would then transfer these drawings onto slate to create a mold for the molten metal. Because the figures were flat, they required less metal to produce. Once the figures were made and cooled, they would be handed over to women and children to paint. Once they were painted, they were sold by the toy shop. While the German flats in the Boston Children’s Museum Collections are perhaps from centuries later than the earliest production boom, they still fit the classic size and were made using the same technique.

The subjects of these German figures were often educational in nature. During the Enlightenment, people became more aware of how their children played and learned. Draughtsmen and engravers often looked to scholarly material for inspiration. They also looked to fine art, which often emphasized antique nudes. One favorite subject was Roman battles, especially against European groups like the Gauls. Of the three German sets at BCM, two of them are a Roman Camp and the Romans fighting the Gauls. Since the subjects of the figures, and the children playing with them, were mostly male, and because the toys were for educational purposes, having a few nude or naked figures was deemed acceptable. The Roman Battle set at the Museum includes a few naked and dying men on the battlefield.

Meanwhile in Great Britain, English toy makers were looking for a way to produce toy miniatures in a more efficient manner. William Britain made the technological breakthrough in 1893: hollow casting. This allowed toy makers to make round metal figures that, because, they were hollow, were even cheaper to produce than the flats. Britain’s toy company, aptly named “Britains” became the world leader in toy soldier production. He churned out different regiments from around the British Empire, including the Scots Guard and Bengal Lancers. At BCM, there are many sets of Britains Soldiers, including the Canadian Mounted Police and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Historians also differ on the purported historical accuracy of the miniatures. Some companies wanted to churn out as many different sets as cheaply as possible, and so they used the same molds but painted the figures to be different companies or even from different time periods or places. A mold of a running man might suffice for both a Roman soldier and a World War I soldier. Other companies, however, very meticulously made detailed and individualized molds for different sets. At BCM, I struggled to identify the manufacturer of a Coronation Parade set celebrating the 1937 Coronation of King George IV and Queen Elizabeth II. Many toy British toy companies issued a set that year, and they all incorporated the minute details of the carriage, the horses, and the guards involved. All the sets, therefore, look extremely similar.

  

Historically, miniature sets have even been accurate enough to train real soldiers. During World War II, miniature tanks, planes, and soldiers were used to teach new recruits how to quickly identify and differentiate allies from enemies. And before World War II, during the 19th century, European military leaders instituted wargames, or “Kriegspiel” into military training. These games taught military tactics and maneuvers as well as map reading, as trainees moved toy soldiers across various diagrams.


Perhaps it is with this history in mind that some historians have argued that toy soldiers promoted violence, and even led to both World Wars. After all, Winston Churchill himself attributed his military career to the influence of his large toy soldier collection. The more current school of thought, however, is that children do not become more attuned to violence from playing with toy soldiers. Instead, children can learn valuable skills from carefully and patiently setting up their soldiers, and by cataloging their collection. Imaginary games can teach children about being in control of complex situations, planning ahead, and organizing the details.

Many families in the 19th century peacefully incorporated their toy soldiers into their nativity scenes along with putz sheep and other small figures. Complex landscapes often included natural materials like moss and branches as well as the toy soldiers, carved animals, and nativity figurines.

To close my internship here at the Museum, I was able to set up my own scene mixing a variety of soldiers throughout time and place with other toys such wooden zoo animals and putz sheep, paying homage to the history of the toy soldier and the variety of imaginative play. I hope you will be able to visit the Museum and discover this scene of miniatures in the Collections window on the second floor.

References
Kenneth Brown,”Modelling for War?: Toy Soldiers in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain,” Journal of Social History 24, no. 2 (Winter, 1990):

Thomas Mannack, “The Ancient World in Miniature: German Flat Tin Figures of the 19th and 20th Centuries”, in Imagines, La Antigüedad en les Artes Escénias y Visuales, P. Castillo et al. (eds.), (La Rioja 2008)

Dave Gathman, “Toy Soldiers Trace Nearly All of History—But Not Very Accurately     ” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 2015.

The Fish of Māui : Te Ika a Māui

Kolie Swavely is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections Management and Curatorial Practice for summer 2017. Her work at Boston Children’s Museum has focused on cataloging and digitizing the Polynesian collection and finding cultural materials that connect to stories, myths, and legends around the world. She is completing a graduate certificate in Museum Studies at Tufts University.

Hello! Or, as the greeting goes in New Zealand, Kia Ora!

As the current E. Growdon Intern at Boston Children’s Museum, I work within collection’s storage, a place that some could compare to the likes of a secret garden. Now, imagine that garden filled not with flowers, but with ethnographic artifacts and pieces of cultural history collected by world travelers over 100 years ago!

As museums continue to care for their collections, ensuring that each and every piece of art and artifact is in the best condition possible, it is easy to lose track of the stories each one tells, and has yet to tell. Like a fish to a glittering lure, there is always an artifact that catches your eye, beckoning to be explored and revived. Here at Boston Children’s Museum, I myself have been hooked. While carefully documenting objects, I continue to uncover many that speak to me; and this fishhook I present today definitely speaks loudly of its cultural origin, the Māori of New Zealand.

Fishhook/ “Matau” Culture of Origin: Māori of New Zealand. Object ID: OS 78. Collection: Oceania; Polynesia. Materials: Bone, Abalone, Wood, Sennit Cord. Dimensions: 1.125” x 0.625” x 3.75”. Collected by Miss Lucy M. Prince, 1898. Donated, 1915

This beautiful fishhook (above) was donated to Boston Children’s Museum in 1915, Continue reading

Eleanor’s Adventures in Wonderland

Two summers ago, I went “down the rabbit hole” of dollhouse furniture in the Museum’s collection (https://bostonchildrensmuseum.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/down-the-rabbit-hole/) With hundreds of pieces of previously uncatalogued dollhouse furnishings, one of my interns finally picked up where I left off. Read more about her adventures in here with Boston Children’s Museum collections…

IMG_7593My seven year old self would be extremely jealous of the position I’m currently in. For the past few months I’ve been helping digitize records of Boston Children’s Museum’s dollhouse furniture collection as the Growdon Collections Intern. Growing up an avid doll-lover, memories of playing with my own dollhouse are some of my strongest; and one of my favorite places to go – and drag my unwilling family to – was an independent doll and dollhouse store. Getting the chance to dive headfirst into the endless drawers of miniatures at Boston Children’s Museum is literally my childhood dream!

It’s my last day as Growdon Intern and as I look back fondly on my time here, I’m astounded at how much I’ve learned. It’s hard to appreciate the work the Collections team does when visiting Boston Children’s Museum for a short time, with 24 window displays, and special programs only showing a small percentage of the range of over 50,000 objects! Continue reading

Borrowed and Returned

ExhibitOne of the most frequently asked questions I have here in collections is, “How did the Museum get all this stuff?!” (Considering how eclectic our collections are, that question
is usually asked with a hint of awe and wonder.) For the vast majority of materials in the collection, the answer is simply that they were gifts or donations to the Museum. Occasionally items are purchased; occasionally items are “found in collections” (which is just what it sounds like – an object with no documentation that has been lost to time and storage); and occasionally items are loaned. Well, in this past year, one old loan has been of particular interest. Continue reading

Down the Rabbit Hole

Lord House original

Archival photo of Lord House when it first arrived at The Children’s Museum in Jamaica Plain

For the past few weeks, I have immersed myself in the Museum’s dollhouse collection. Let me just say, it is extensive! Not only do we have a number of wonderful large and small dollhouses, but many of these original gifts came with furnishings and doll residents too. Over the years, some of these original sets have been scattered, with pieces borrowed from one house to decorate another, used for other exhibits or sadly lost to time in the move from Jamaica Plain to Fort Point. My task has become to reunite houses with their proper furnishings…thus, down the rabbit hole I go.

As I delve into the sorting and organizing, it has been a wonderful opportunity to also explore the stories of these houses. Fortunately, one of our former Curators of Collections, Ruth Green, was an avid record keeper and maintained correspondence with donors and kept notes on exhibit use for many houses. Having these records and photographs has helped with identifying specific furnishings and accessories, which is no small task when the object in question may be a wall clock smaller than a thimble…and may be in storage with other similarly tiny wall clocks. Continue reading

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder…I hope

DarumaCollections have been missing from the blog lately, and as it is already February, I am compelled to make up for that absence. We have been keeping quite busy lately. Here are a few highlights:

  • We have a new Japanese House website! If you have visited the Museum website recently, perhaps you have noticed a new banner on the homepage. Just in time for Japanese New Year, we have launched a new Website featuring all things Japan: the Japanese House Exhibit (Kyo no Machiya), curriculum activities, archival materials and, of course, Japanese collections materials. You can find it here: http://japanesehouse.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/

It has taken a team of people three years to completely catalogue, research, and photograph over 1000 artifacts, and that is just the team focusing on the collections. Not all of the items are currently on the website, but there is a selection of categories to search through and learn more about these hidden treasures. We hope you will take a look and let us know what you think. Continue reading