Passover Memories in Collections

The Museum’s April vacation week theme is “Tell me a Story,” a perfect opportunity to share a story from the collection. With an estimated 50,000 items, the collection holds a treasure trove of stories waiting to be told. Some of these are simple, recounting what is known about a specific item or group of items – who the donor was, what the item is, when it entered the Museum collection, where it came from. These are always fun stories to share but I love when visitors to storage share their own stories too! Stories of their childhood or family memories inspired by finding a familiar object, stories of past Museum visits, or both. In these moments, I get my own behind-the-scenes glimpse at what makes the Museum’s collection so special.

Recently, I heard a story that is too good not to share. It is a Passover story. In January, one of the Museum’s long time staff, Jessie Kravette, started working on a project in the collection office. Although Jessie has worked at the Museum for 8 years, she had not previously spent much time in collections and so, like all new staff in the office, her project began with a tour of storage. Not far along our path, Jessie peered in a drawer of dollhouse furnishings and shared her collection story:

When my children were young, we used to come to the Museum regularly, at least once a month. And at some point during our visit, we would always head for the Dollhouse Exhibit, a quiet, darkened, carpeted space full of dollhouses, where you could really relax away from the crowds and immerse yourself in the tiny worlds throughout the room. There was also a wall-based exhibit with cutout Plexiglas windows which allowed visitors to peek into individual family scenes with different set-ups.

My absolute favorite was the Jewish family who were celebrating Passover from around the 1930’s. We were coming from a town where we were the only Jewish family I knew of. I frequently felt isolated and my children had some issues with their Jewish identity because it was so different from what was all around us, particularly at holiday times. So, I used to gravitate to this Passover Seder display and just soak in all of the familiar objects and little set-ups, letting the scene fill me with warmth and ages-old support for my identity.

Fast forward, and now I’m working part time in the collections department. On my first day, Rachel let me explore the storage room and I noticed some dollhouse objects in a large drawer. Looking more closely, my heart literally skipped a beat when I realized it was the same Passover set-up! And when Rachel said I could handle the objects, I couldn’t believe I was finally able to reach through that little window and pick up each tiny, very familiar item, turn it over in my hands, and remember back when…

As Jessie looked at the each detail, she noticed that the same Haggadah (Seder Service book) that lives on the dollhouse Seder table, one at each place, is the exact replica of the Haggadah for her own family’s Seder table. No detail was too small to duplicate in miniature.

While the “Dollhouse Exhibit” – The Ruth Harmony Green Hall of Toys – is no longer a permanent exhibit here at the Children’s Museum, this is just one of the many memories that it sparked. I can’t wait to hear your BCM collection story. Share it with us over on Instagram @bcmcollections, we’d love to hear it!

Hidden Object Highlight: Feathered Capes

Every day, I come in to work and am surrounded by treasures. My “office” is a veritable cabinet of curiosities, and it is my job to gain an understanding of them. Most of this work is guided by immediate exhibit and program needs, intern projects, research requests, and other activities directed by institutional need. It is rare that I get to explore for the sake of exploring, but earlier this week the internet and Museum servers were down, so what’s a curator to do? I stepped into storage and made it a priority to take a closer look at two pieces that have held my fascination since I first “discovered” them in storage years ago.

The two items in question are feathered capes, or pelerines, each identified by different regional codes in the collection catalogue.

feathered cape back

Feathered Cape, Gift of Mrs. Susan S. Harriman, 1927, AF 96 (back)

I first came across “AF 96” years ago when searching for materials to incorporate in programs. It is stored with the Chinese cultural materials and was a true surprise to open the drawer and come across this gem. With a background in Chinese studies, this area of the collection has long held my interest. Because I completed those studies in Hawaii, something about the design also suggested the ʻAhu ʻula (feathered cloak) of Polynesia. The cape is in rather frail condition with significant feather loss and gives one the sense that the feathers might blow away with the slightest breath. The vibrant blue and green feathers come from peacocks, but the other feathers are unidentified in the records. The interior is also lined with feathers.

feathered cape back

Feathered Cape, Gift of Miss Ruth Louise Leighton, 1937, 3NK XX 380 (back)

The second item, “3NK XX 380,” is a similar feathered cape but is stored among the American History holdings. With the button details, this item seems right at home with Victorian era (1850-1920) fashions in the Museum’s collection. It is lined with silk and the neckline is bound with ribbon trim. The exterior design also includes peacock feathers and other fowl, which are again unidentified.

feathered cape back

Feathered Cape, Gift of Miss Ruth Louise Leighton, 1937, 3NK XX 380 (front)

Only ten years separate these two gifts to the Museum, but it is unknown if their origins are closer than the Museum’s records might suggest. AF 96 entered the Museum’s collection in 1927 with a note that it was “brought from China many years ago.” There is an additional note written in the 1960s stating, “change to Pacific Islands, Hawaii – although this may have been bought in China, is was made in Hawaii.” Meanwhile, 3NK XX 380 was given in 1937 and first identified as “Chinese” in the registration records. It was later changed to American History but no reasoning was given for this change.

feathered cape front

Feathered Cape, Gift of Mrs. Susan S. Harriman, 1927, AF 96 (front)

We may never solve the mysteries of provenance that these two items raise, but an internet search shows that these were popular accessories in the 1820s-30s. The time period coincides with King Kamahameha and Queen Kamamalu’s (fatal) trip to London in 1824. Feathered capes caught the attention of fashionistas in Europe and America and thus they may have been made globally to meet demand. China, South Africa, and England are all identified as possible locations of origin for these garments. For comparison you can search for and see other pelerines in several Boston area museum collections:

Historic New England

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard

While the two capes here at Boston Children’s Museum may be more common than first expected, they are no less fascinating and treasured here in the collection.

 

 

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

Happy Healthy Helpful Halloween

It’s October and that means Halloween – costumes, candy, pumpkins, parties. It can be an exciting time for families to play together and be creative. It can also be stressful, balancing expectations, deciding on costumes, and maintaining a healthy diet. Two previous posts on the Power of Play blog offer thoughtful tips for navigating the Halloween season and are worth a first read, or a second look.

Happy Healthy Halloween by Saki Iwamoto suggests ways to turn Halloween challenges into fun learning opportunities.

Note: In 2017, we will celebrate Halloween in simple ways at Boston Children’s Museum, starting with a Monster Mash KidsJam dance party on Friday October 27, and continuing with activities such as mask making and pumpkin explorations through October 31.

Indigenous Halloween Costumes: Empowering or Problematic written by Sara Tess Neumann and Meghan Evans tackles the complicated topic of costumes and cultural respect.

Note: The Native Voices traveling exhibit referred to in this post is no longer at Boston Children’s Museum.

Happy Halloween!

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

Exploring Tartans

dscn7646Throughout the recent holidays, Museum Educators have been asking visitors and staff what they do with their families and friends this time of year. As a family that takes pride in our Scots-Irish American heritage, my answer is that we come together to eat mashed potatoes, pull British crackers, and wear Scottish tartan. When I share this, there are often many follow up questions. What is tartan? Why is the shade you’re wearing different from other shades? Here are some answers to these questions. Continue reading

Challenges with Cultural Exhibits: Native Voices

nickThe following post is by our Native Voices Exhibit Mentor, Nickolas Nelson:

My name is Nickolas Nelson and I am an Exhibit Mentor for the Native Voices exhibit. My time as a mentor allows the opportunity for me to witness first-hand the fun and exciting adventures that Native Voices has to offer. However, working with such an exhibit does have its challenges.

In Native Voices, we want to give families insight into how a group of people previously lived, but to also provide information as to their contemporary lifestyles, belief systems, customs, and ideals. This is challenging because a majority of information about indigenous cultures is based on stereotypes and misinformation. For example, many books and other publications continue to place indigenous people in the past leading audiences to disconnect indigenous peoples from contemporary culture. The goal of Native Voices is to dispel this misinformation. Once the stigma and stereotypes have been explained away, true growth and knowledge can ensue. Continue reading