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. “Remarkable Things. Part II” presents 15 more objects that are of special importance to the museum’s collections and its exhibitions.
Like the artefacts found in the museum, the festivals observed here come from all regions of the world. One highlight in the event calendar is Hinamatsuri, the Japanese “Doll Festival” or “Girls’ Day”, which has been celebrated at the museum at the first weekend of March since 1993, accompanied by a programme specially conceived for young people. The festival expresses the wish of Japanese families for their daughters to grow up healthy and lead a fulfilled, happy life.
A central element is the multi-tiered stage arrayed with dolls representing the Japanese imperial court, before which the girls serve food and drink to friends and family. Such a “mountain” of dolls is set up for Hinamatsuri in the museum as well. It was a gift from Hamburg’s sister city, Osaka, on the occasion of Hamburg’s first “Japan Week” in 1993.
Seafearing and boat building played a central role in the everyday life on the Pacific Islands. In a region where even neighboring islands are often several hundreds of kilometers apart, boats were important means of transportation.
This large, two-masted outrigger canoe comes from the Siassi Islands which are now part of the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea. For a long time these islands were an important trade center which connected the north-east coast of New Guinea with the offshore island of New Britain. The outrigger canoes which were used to cross the rough seas of the Vitiaz Strait and the Dampier Strait were built only on the islands of Mandok and Aramot.
On 23 January 1909 the members of the Hamburg South Seas Expedition (1908–1910) commissioned boatbuilders on Mandok Island to construct this outrigger boat. The hull of the boat is wrought from a single tree trunk. Mangrove and other varieties of wood were used for the planks, mast, and outrigger. The sails were woven out of pandanus leaves. The boat builders were also responsible for the boat’s decoration. Each had an own set of styles and patterns that were passed down within their families.
This skull is from a secondary burial, in which the skull and bones of the deceased were reposited in a chapel of the dead, often referred to as an ossuary or charnel house. From the late 18th until the early 20th century, in Austria and parts of Bavaria and Switzerland, it was customary to paint the skull beforehand upon the wish of the family of the deceased. Gravediggers or itinerant artists carried out this task.
Museum director Georg Thilenius purchased the skull in 1919 from the collection of Marie Andree-Eysn, who conducted cultural anthropological research in the Bavarian-Austrian region of the Alps as early as the first decade of the 20th century.
According to its inscription, this is the skull of Joh. Kögl, a man from Tyrol. The designation “youth” refers not to the age of the deceased, but to his unmarried status. This is also indicated by the wreath of bright green leaves and white blossoms that is painted on the skull. In parts of the Alps, the motif of the garland of leaves was reserved for unmarried persons.
Spiegelpercht (Mask costume)
This impressive costume, with its elaborately decorated headpiece towering almost two metres over the wearer, comes from the Pongau region of Austria. It is the complete outfit of a spiegelpercht (“mirror percht”), one of a broad cast of percht characters, some demonic and some benevolent, that appear in the processions of costumed figures still held widely in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, usually on 6 January. In them, schönperchte (“beautiful perchts”) go from farm to farm accompanied by a multitude of other masked characters, bringing the people wishes for good luck and blessings. This ritual is usually interpreted as symbolising the casting out of the winter.
The costume can weigh up to 50 kg. Its most important part is the perchtenkappe (“percht cap”), which serves to display the wealth of its wearer. The front sides of the two diamond-shaped panels are adorned with numerous ornaments, along with two mirrors meant to ward off evil. The backs of the panels, painted in rich detail, show an alpine landscape with houses and their inhabitants.
Carved out of stone, palmas are considered to be ritual replicas of a form of upper-body protection worn in Mesoamerican ball games. They often served as burial objects. They attest to the great societal and religious significance of this sport in the cultures of Central America prior to Spanish colonial conquest. A modern form of the game, called ulama, still exists in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Like its older variants, it is played with a heavy rubber ball.
Palmas were discovered primarily in the region of the modern-day Mexican state of Veracruz. Characteristic features include the arched base as well as the upper paddle-like section, which in this specimen is adorned with a volute motif. The overall bas-relief object forms the background for the figure of a bat-like hybrid creature carved in high relief, between whose folded legs a decorated loincloth can be seen.
Fragmento de Nochistlan
This Mixtec manuscript fragment is called “Fragmento de Nochistlan”, after its presumed place of origin. In the period before the Spanish conquest, the Mixtecs produced complex pictorial manuscripts using a combination of pictorial and abstract characters. These screenfolds fashioned out of deerskin tell the history of the Mixtecs and provide insights into their cultural and religious practices. Today, only eight of these works survive. The fragment displayed here is probably from a copy of an older, precolonial document from the late 16th century.
This life-sized wood figure of Maximón originated in Nahualá in the western Guatemalan highlands. It was acquired for the museum in 2004, some years after the community that had cared for it was dissolved. Maximón, also known as San Simon, is revered especially in the highlands of Guatemala. He combines aspects of the Christian faith with elements of the precolonial religion of the Maya. In particular, traits of the Maya deities associated with trade and tobacco can be recognized in him.
His multifaceted character allows his followers to appeal to him with very disparate concerns – for example, a good harvest, business success, or the healing of disease. More than other popular saints, he is also receptive to requests to harm other people or make them submissive. Tobacco and alcohol play a major role in honouring Maximón, as they are considered especially effective as sacrificial offerings.
This meticulously designed chess set from the town of San Pedro las Huertas, located to the southwest of Guatemala City, was acquired by the museum in 2009. The game board and the 36 playing pieces are carved out of jade. The board is inlaid in the top of a decorative wooden box, which also stores the figures when they are not in use.
Further representations of significant animals from the mythology can be found in the pawns, which take the form of monkeys, and in the jaguar-like knights. The rook figures are inspired by the characteristic stepped pyramids of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal in northern Guatemala. The bishops recall the important Central American culture of the Olmec, which was at its height between 1200 and 300 BC.
This robe for a male shaman comes from the Tuva region of southern Siberia and was acquired by the museum in 1910. The swallow-tail-shaped cloak of reindeer skin is covered with coloured strips of cloth. They represent the auxiliary spirits of the shaman, which are believed to be attracted by the sound of the iron bells fastened to the garment’s back. The iron plates in the shoulder area protect the wearer from adverse, malevolent powers.
The headdress adorned with owl feathers symbolises the transformational abilities of the shaman in his travels between the worlds. A drum – the shaman’s most important instrument – completes the costume. This was used by the shaman to put himself in a trance and achieve an enhanced state of consciousness.
Beyond their construction skills and artistic abilities, such specialists, known as undagi, must possess a deep understanding of the cosmological-philosophical principles that underlie Balinese architecture. Their central responsibility as architects lies in situating a building within its physical and spatial context to allow its inhabitants to live in harmony with the universe.
The carving on a Balinese house’s doors, windows, and columns indicates the owner’s social status. Elaborate ornamentation is found especially in buildings of public interest. Typical decorative elements include the horned bhoma heads, which are believed to deter negative forces and influences. Such a figure, with bulging eyes and sharp teeth, can be seen embedded in floral and bird motifs on the wood door lintel of the “Prince’s House”.
Tino Aitu (Deity sculpture)
Even today, this wood sculpture, nearly abstract in its expression, continues to impress viewers with its clear formal vocabulary. It comes from the Nukuoro Atoll in the western Pacific. In the 1870s, a number of these figures, including two others in the museum’s collection, were acquired there by Stanislaus Kubary for Hamburg’s former Museum Godeffroy. The sculpture seen here is among the larger specimens of its kind produced in the late 18th and early 19th century. It was crafted without metal tools. Up to today, only 37 of these figures are known worldwide.
The impressive double mask seen here was acquired on the Gazelle Peninsula, part of the island of New Britain, during the Hamburg South Seas Expedition. This research trip, undertaken from 1908 to 1910, was organised by Georg Thilenius, the first full-time director of the museum. A large part of the museum’s collection of artefacts from the islands of the western Pacific dates from this journey. Produced by the Sulka people, this type of mask is known as o hemlaut (old man) and is characterised by its large umbrella-like feature.
Its decorative painting is only briefly shown during the performance of the masks. In conversations in recent years, mask specialists of the Sulka have related that the pattern seen here symbolises a rainbow, and that the figures under the umbrella portray a man and a woman. Despite the vibrant mask tradition and its great significance in the cultural life of the Sulka, this hemlaut type with two heads was nearly forgotten. In the revival of its production, photographs of this particular mask provided the mask makers with important information.
On the island of New Ireland, a variety of wooden masks, decorative boards, and sculptures are produced for use in malanggan, the complex commemoration ceremonies of central social significance held to honour and bid farewell to the dead. Special importance is accorded to carved works that represent the deceased persons and their life force. This figure, with arms outstretched, embraced by a snake, and painted in strong red, black, and white tones, is a work of this type. After being presented once as the climax and culmination of the ceremonies, the carvings are left to decay or, as has been common since the colonial times of the late 19th century, sold to outsiders.
This figure, with arms outstretched, embraced by a snake, and painted in strong red, black, and white tones, is a work of this type. After being presented once as the climax and culmination of the ceremonies, the carvings are left to decay or, as has been common since the colonial times of the late 19th century, sold to outsiders.
The house Rauru is one of the few Māori meeting houses found outside of New Zealand. It is unique due to its history, formal vocabulary, size, and integrity. The house can be considered as a chief ambassador of Māori culture in Europe. This kind of meeting house plays a central role in the life of the Māori as a place of encounter and an embodiment of important ancestors. The house Rauru, for example, is linked with the mythic founder of the art of wood carving and bears his name.
The house comes from near the city of Rotorua in New Zealand’s Northern Island. After initial construction, believed to have begun in the mid-19th century, it remained unfinished for several decades. Not until 1900 was the house completed, on behalf of the European hotel operator Charles Nelson, who later sold it to a buyer in Europe. In 1907 it was acquired for the museum by Georg Thilenius.
Of special note in this panel is the perspectival portrayal of the head in semi-profile, which diverges clearly from the stylized formal vocabulary of the woodcarving typical of its period. The combination of traditional elements with influences from European art can only be found in the works that Tene Waitere produced for European clients. He used these commissions to explore new compositional principles. The works he created for the Māori continued to conform with the traditional canon of representation. Today, Tene Waitere is considered one of the most important modern Māori wood sculptors.
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