Over its history of more than 130 years, the Museum of Ethnology Hamburg has amassed a remarkable collection of artefacts from diverse spheres of life in all regions of the world, extending from the prehistoric past to the present. In “Remarkable Things. Part I” 14 objects that are of special importance to the museum’s collections and its exhibitions provide an insight into this broad spectrum.
The family on the other side of the totem pole represents the origins and the preservation of the culture of the Halkomelem, as well as the healing of the wounds of the past. A totem pole of this kind had not been produced for over 150 years. It is part of a larger movement to revive the traditional culture of the Halkomelem, whose stories served as inspiration to the artist, David Seven Deers. For three years, he worked on the totem pole in the interior court of the museum, completing it in 1997.
The large figure that greets our visitors in the foyer of the museum portrays Fukusuke, a Japanese god associated with good luck. Fukusuke represents prosperity and happiness, which he, in the Japanese manner, beckons with the back of his hand facing upward.
Various stories recount Fukusuke’s origins. He is said to be traceable to a real person – according to one of the stories, a wealthy merchant from Kyoto. This 19th-century figure was produced using a polychromatic Japanese lacquer technique. The urushi lacquer yields an especially smooth, deeply lustrous finish. It is obtained from the resin of the East Asian lacquer tree and is known for its durability.
Fukusuke can be recognised by his oversized head and his balloon-like ears, which, along with his plump earlobes, are considered a symbol of good fortune.
The surface damage on the head of the figure probably began as a small crack in the finish. This allowed moisture to penetrate, causing swelling of the underlying material and flaking of the lacquer.
Kachina Sio Salako
Kachinas play a central role in the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo cultures in the Southwest of the USA. Kachinas are spirit beings that embody the life-renewing powers of earth and ancestors. The term additionally designates the masked dancers who represent these beings in religious ceremonies. In the past, kachinas were also portrayed for children in the form of “dolls”. These served to transmit knowledge about the individual kachina. Today such figures are made primarily to be sold.
This figure from the 19th century represents Sio Salako, who can be recognized by his green box-shaped mask with horns and black horizontal stripes. He is considered a reliable bringer of rain and appears only in times of extreme drought.
The noted cultural theorist Aby Warburg consigned the figure to the museum in 1902. During his journey to the USA in 1895/96, Warburg had compiled an extensive collection of artefacts of the Pueblo cultures. He was especially interested in the relationship between religious concepts and symbolic art.
Painted leather shirt
This shirt sewn out of buckskin is among the oldest objects of its kind found in museums today. Its adornment and ornamental painting give information about its wearer and his achievements as a warrior. The shirt’s cut and decoration suggest that it was produced by a group in the Sioux linguistic family before 1830.
Its painting is particularly striking: in contrast to the scenes of man-to-man combat typically depicted, all the figures here face in the same direction, the majority of them are unarmed, and no hostilities can be recognized. It is unusual as well that additional figures can be seen on the right sleeve.
The stylized elements in the shoulder area are believed to represent military campaigns led and horses captured. Over time, the shirt probably underwent multiple alterations, during which the ornamental strips bearing porcupine quills and tufts of hair were added. Also, a seam stitched with sinew originally closed the sleeves from the wrist to the elbow.
A foundation stone for the museum’s Ancient Egypt collection was laid with excavations begun in 1902 by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft in the pyramid precinct of Abusir. The artefacts unearthed there included this fragment of a carved limestone relief from the mortuary temple of King Sahure, who ruled from 2496 to 2483 BC.
The king’s crown symbolises his rule over Upper and Lower Egypt. It consists of a central piece made of bound plant stalks and two ostrich plumes, and a lower part formed out of bull and ram horns.
Sahure’s tomb was the first pyramid to be constructed in Abusir. The walls of the complex were decorated with reliefs of singular quality, the fragments of which, right up to today, allow a view into the life of the king and his reign. The architectural style employed here served as an example for the design of royal burial sites until around 1900 BC.
Cartonage of Khonsu-maa-kheru
The mummy of Khonsu-maa-kheru was given to the museum in 1903 by the Hamburg diplomat Martin Rücker Jenisch. He had acquired it, completely packaged in cardboard, on the Egyptian art market. Khonsu-maa-kheru, who lived around 900 BC, was about 40 years old at the time of his death. In accordance with the ancient Egyptian belief in the afterlife, his body was mummified. Like his father before him, he had been a wab priest at the temple of Amun in Karnak, where he was responsible for the purification rites before the daily acts of worship.
Represented below it, in pairs, are the four ancient Egyptian Canopic gods with whom the respective organs are associated in the embalming of the dead. Because only a completely preserved body could achieve eternal life, the organs were attributed special significance in the funerary cult. The mummy was additionally appointed with four mummy bandages bearing inscriptions, two leather straps crossing over the chest, two leather pendants, and two papyri.
Liturgy of Khonsu-maa-cheru
These two especially notable papyri bearing religious texts were enclosed with the mummy of Khonsu-maa-kheru. They are typical of the burial goods of their period, yet differ from other known writings of this kind due to the unusual composition of their content. This hymn to the sun-god consisting of five proverbs, which Khonsu-maa-kheru chose for himself as a liturgical text, was seldom used in this form. It most famously appears in the Greenfield Papyrus, preserved in the British Museum, which belonged to Nestanebisheru, who held the highest priestly offices of her time. As it is extremely rare for such a text to be passed down by way of, on the one hand, a member of the social elite and, on the other, a simple cleric, it is conjectured that Khonsu-maa-kheru’s status as a priest gave him access to the archive of the Temple of Amun, and thus to this important text.
This mask is especially striking for its carefully worked, harmoniously configured facial features, its ornamental scarring – such as the cross motif on the forehead – and its artfully embellished hairstyle. Like others of its type, this mask seems to have been inspired by a woman who lived in the artist’s community; its features possess an individuality of expression despite the idealized form of representation.
In the 19th century, the new ruling class of the Tabwa, a people living primarily in the Lake Tanganyika region, began to commission local carvers’ with the production of ancestral figures. These families’ rise in status brought on by the ivory trade led to a shift in the power relationships in the region. They based their claim to power on a special social background, which pairs of these figures were intended to help legitimise. The female figure seen here presumably belonged to such an ancestral pair.
The female figure seen here presumably belonged to such an ancestral pair. The elongated body of the finely worked figure is adorned with a linear pattern of decorative scarring that is typical of the Tabwa. It is associated with religious and philosophical beliefs and represents the new moon, a symbol of the continuity of life. Along with the headdress, which ends in a wide plait reaching almost to the hip, the scars underscore the prominence of the depicted personality and her family.
Tumi (Ceremonial knife)
Tumi are ceremonial knives that were fabricated by various cultures in the Andes region until the 15th century. They were made of copper, bronze, silver, or gold. The crescent-shaped blade and the handle extending up centrally from it are characteristic traits. The knives were used for sacrifices as well as for medical operations, and often served as burial objects. This tumi, which comes from the Chimú culture (1000–1470 AD) on the northern coast of Peru, features unique and conspicuous decoration:
the person sitting in the middle holds on to the two figures at his side while the standing figure sets a tumi to his head. This scene probably depicts a surgical perforation of the skull. Such operations were already carried out successfully more than 2,000 years ago in ancient Peru, as evidenced by numerous mummies that have been discovered.
Uncu (Men's shirt)
Textiles held a special significance in the Inca Empire. The lower back section of this men’s tunic, or uncu, has not completely survived. The side seams, otherwise closed, are therefore separated. The tunic is woven from the very fine wool of the vicuña, a wild relative of the alpaca.
Such valuable tunics were awarded to high-ranking men as a mark of distinction. They were also used as gifts to serve the formation and expansion of political alliances.
The Nasca culture of southern Peru (200 BC–AD 600) is known for its colourful, thin-walled ceremonial ceramics. Especially noteworthy are the pan flutes made of clay, which are extremely difficult to produce. These instruments possess an impeccable sound quality, for which the length of the individual pipes is decisive. The decorative painting on the flutes seen here shows a creature that is typical for the Nasca culture: it is a mythical being with a cat-like head and its body clothed in a white tunic. The illustrations on the ceramics often relate mythical stories or show scenes from religious life.
From its beginnings as a small collection of travel reports dating back as far as the 16th century, the library has grown to encompass some 90,000 volumes and approximately 100 current periodicals today. The literature gathered here boasts an impressive range, in both its subject matter and its multilingualism. Many of the library’s holdings are one-of-a-kind in Germany.
For visitors, the library is open Thursdays to Sundays, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
She kicks away the obstacles on this path, which are represented here in the figures around her feet.
In Tibetan Buddhism, such thangka scroll paintings are an important part of religious life. Prayers and wishes can be addressed to the figures depicted on them. They also serve as aids in teaching and meditation.
Editorial Staff & Textwork: Gesa Grimme, Meike Röttjer
Scientific Assistance: Christine Chávez, Irene Hübner, Susanne Knödel, Jeanette Kokott, Jana Caroline Reimer, Bernd Schmelz, Carl Triesch, Rahel Wille
Photos: Kim Löffka, Paul Schimweg, Brigitte Saal
Picture Editing: Meike Röttjer
Translation: Michael Dills
With the kind support of the Hamburger Sparkasse