Creepy masks, colourful costumes and sweet little bead purses – some of the exhibits in the Museum of European Cultures may seem a little strange at first. Here are the top ten flamboyant and bizarre objects.

The Museum of European Cultures houses a collection of around 280,000 objects from everyday culture from the 18th to the 21st Centuries. Some of the exhibits may seem a little strange at first. But these objects are not only close to us in space but also not so very far off in time either, since most of them are not that old. And they tell of the bewitching diversity of cultures in Europe. But they also reveal common ideas and skills, technical capabilities, aesthetic ideas and knowledge. Here are the top ten flamboyant and bizarre objects.
10. The Poodle Bag

The red front of this bag sports a grey-and-white poodle head with a plaid wrap in its mouth. But this poodle is not just fixing us with its doggy look – it is telling us about a craze in Europe, the bead craze.

The bag was part of a representative luggage set of the kind that came into fashion in the mid-19th century. At that time there was an explosive surge in all kinds of beadwork. The bead industry in Bohemia enjoyed a huge boom and starting competing with the Venetian bead factories. At the same time in Berlin samplers were being produced for wool embroidery. The painted patterns were then embroidered with glass beads, with each bead being threaded separately onto linen yarn and fixed with a half cross stitch.

Europe was in the grip of bead fever: In towns and cities beads were used to decorate skirts, shawls, cloaks and coats. Bead-decorated combs and pins were an indispensable part of every fashionable hairdo. Beads found their way onto bags, parasols and shoes. And the objects decorated with beads quickly became larger – cushions, chairs decorated with beads, slippers, tobacco pouches, barometers, notebooks, pocket diaries and even luggage items fell prey to the craze. This poodle bag is in the style of the Berlin embroidery patterns and was embroidered with wool and Venetian beads.

9. A prickly uterus

This object looks dangerous. But this egg-shaped wooden ball with glued-on spikes is no painful weapon – it is a votive offering for warding off diseases of the uterus and childlessness.

Votive offerings are objects which are taken to cult sites as symbolic sacrifices. Clay votive offerings representing afflictions in miniature form were already being sacrificed in the ancient world. In the Catholic Church votive gifts are usually offered as a plea for healing or to give thanks for a recovery.

Each illness is vividly modelled, with inner organs such as heart, lungs and uterus frequently being worked in wood, while votive offerings representing a person or an animal are often made of metal. To this day votive offerings are made from wax using wooden moulds. This wooden uterus was made in Italy in the late 19th century. A wire loop is fixed to the round end so that it can be worn as a pendant.

8. Patience in a bottle

There is a lot waiting to be discovered here – even though this bottle is only 32 cm tall it contains a whole collection of small, painted glass, paper and wooden objects and artificial flowers. The object was made by a very steady hand in Austria in 1889. Making bottles like this demands a great deal of skill and patience. Because they contain things which apparently could never fit through the neck they are known as ‘impossible bottles’.

They show religious scenes and tableaux, perfectly placed in the bottles. This bottle is one of many showing the Crucifixion of Christ, while another common theme is a crucifix placed on an altar.

7. A strange mask

Creeeepy! This mask portrays a horned animal head with a long pointed beak and teeth like thorns. The lower half of the beak can even be moved.

Small hands are fixed on the cheeks in front of the wing-like ears. It is a Perchten mask from the Salzburg region of Austria and dates from the 18th century. The Perchten go round the villages in the ‘Rauhnächte’, the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, to cast out the dark, evil spirits.

Masks and disguises have traditionally been used in various parts of Europe to depict demons and spirits from local folklore, mostly pre-Christian divinities. The wearers of the disguises are allowed the freedom to do almost anything they like, and jokes made from behind the masks during the time they are being worn tend to be forgiven.

Noisy processions are held to drive out the ‘evil spirits’ of the winter season, but the masks used to do this are very different from region to region. This impressive mask is made of wood, leather, felt and glass and is crowned with a real horn.

6. An electronic prayer aid

Tasbih is the name given to Moslem prayer chains. They are used to assist prayer. The 99 names of Allah are recited with their aid. Normally, a chain comprises 99 beads, which can be slid along the chain to avoid miscounting. While the tradition of Islamic prayer persists, many religious objects have been reinvented. Nowadays there are even electronic tasbihs.

It also includes a compass for finding the direction of Mecca, towards which Moslems turn to pray. Practical!

5. A tankard with a hat

Who is the chap raising his glass to us here? The character of John Bull was created in 1712 by John Arbuthnot and after being featured at first by a few British publishers he later became widely known from the work of the German-American illustrator Thomas Nast.

John Bull is usually depicted as a corpulent man whose dress – tailcoat, knickerbockers, Union Jack waistcoat and top hat – mark him out as a middle-class Englishman. He appears in many variations in British cartoons of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the First World War he was often used by the Germans to caricature their British opponents.

4. The Halensee gondola

The gondola is a symbol of Venice, the very embodiment of romantic dreams and deep longing. But how did it come to be in Berlin and what is its story?

This magnificent black gondola weighs 700 kg and was given to a Berlin businessman in 1975 as a gift by a merchant from Venice. At first the businessman just used it for trips on the Lake Halensee, until it became too dilapidated and was taken across the frozen lake in a spectacular final journey to the store of what was then the Museum of Ethnology. After a restoration lasting three years the gondola was put on show to the public again in 1985, in the ‘Boats of the World’ exhibition. It has been on permanent display in the Museum of European Cultures since 2011.

Gondolas like this have been used for public transport on the lagoons and canals in and around Venice since about 1400. They have been a favourite mode of transport for tourists since the 19th Century. Their narrow, slightly asymmetrical, curved form makes them extremely manoeuvrable. The bow and the stern are covered by a flat roof on which the gondolier stands.

There are seats for passengers in the middle of the gondola. From a technical point of view the most important appliance is the wooden rowlock for the rudder. Opulent carved reliefs and gold leaf decorations make the gondola a magnificent representative object.

3. A splendid carriage

Heavily decorated with painted carvings, this is an impressive souvenir. This magnificent version of a typical Sicilian painted carriage carried Kaiser Wilhelm II on a trip to Sicily. For a long time it stood in the Roman Baths in Sanssouci Park in Potsdam.

Two-wheeled carriages drawn by donkeys were used as a means of transport in Sicily and most of the Mediterranean region until the mid-19th century. Nowadays these carretti have become part of folklore and are reproduced in miniature as souvenirs, while the historical originals are shown off in festive processions and displayed in museums in Sicily.

2. A significant spit

Bread pouch, sauce – either herb, garlic or spicy – lettuce and grilled meat sliced from the spit: this is how many people around the world have come to know and love the doner kebab, a fast-food meal invented in the early 1970s in Berlin. There are around 16,000 doner outlets in Germany, selling more than 720 million doners each year.

This reddish-brown dummy doner imitates a real doner made of layered, spiced meat, with green chilli and a tomato to complete the illusion. This plastic model is placed outside fast-food outlets to advertise their wares. At the top there is a metal attachment with room for the producer to stick an advertising sign.

1. Conchita Wurst on the crescent moon

This nearly life-size sculpture depicts a person with long, wavy, black hair and a dark beard. A golden crown adorns the head. Apart from these fittings, the rest of the statue retains the colour of the light wood of the Swiss pine, a material traditionally favoured for making carvings of saints in the Alpine regions. Part of the design is a richly-folded, close-fitting foot-length gown.

This is a depiction of the fictional character Conchita Wurst, a persona adopted by drag artist Thomas Neuwirth to win the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen. She is standing on a silver crescent, holding a gold microphone stand in her right hand.

The suggestion of a step being taken with the left foot with her hand resting on her thigh gives the statue a sense of movement. The crescent is in the centre on an arched pedestal in the form of an irregular octagon, the sides of which are also painted gold. The motif of a female figure on a crescent moon is reminiscent of the Madonna depictions typical forthe Middle Ages.

Museum Europäischer Kulturen, National Museums in Berlin
Credits: Story

Text: Cultural Contacts. Living in Europa, published by Elisabeth Tietmeyer und Irene Ziehe for the Museum Europäischer Kulturen – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Koehler & Amelang Verlag 2011.

Concept / Editing / Realisation: Alina Helwig, Lisa Janke

Photo: Ute Franz-Scarciglia

Translation: Catherine Hales and Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz

www.smb.museum
Museum Europäischer Kulturen

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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