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Cabinets of Curiosities

A tatanua mask, named for a dance honoring the dead.

Papuan artifacts at the Buffalo Museum of Science

The 150th anniversary exhibit at the Buffalo Museum of Science looks back on the origins and development of the museum and science museums in general.

The exhibit focuses on Papua, a region of New Guinea, the largest of the South Pacific islands next to Australia, and features the collection of cultural materials of one P. G. T. Black, an early explorer to the remote region. The Black collection was purchased for the Buffalo museum by early years museum president and benefactor Chauncey J. Hamlin, and consists of more than 6,000 items, from pots and baskets to spears to body ornaments made from the likes of boar and dog teeth to beetles’ heads and rats’ tails.

What we now think of as science museums in the mid-19th century were known as “cabinets of curiosities,” consisting of hodgepodge displays of exotic items, interesting in the sense of unusual, but often unrelated in terms of form, function, ethnic origin, or any other recognizable principle of organization or display.

Reference to the “cabinets of curiosities” method is made via some photos of the Black collection exhibit at the museum from the Chauncey Hamlin era. The current exhibit shows some of the ways museum presentation has advanced in the century and a half since. This is still not a collection that lends itself to a single or fine-tuned thesis about the region and/or its people, given the tremendous number of items in the collection and the enormous ethnic and cultural diversity they represent—the Papua population comprises hundreds of different language groups. But the exhibit does display like items with like—spears with spears, body ornaments with body ornaments—in a way that demonstrates precisely the diversity of the represented populations.

Meanwhile, the display is substantially enhanced by large-scale photos by pioneer professional photographer and filmmaker Frank Hurley of Papuan craftspeople at work on the production of artifacts just like the ones that then wound up in the Black collection, and in some cases it seems the very same artifacts. A portion of a Hurley silent film on the South Sea islanders, called Pearls and Savages, is also shown. The Hurley materials were loaned to the Buffalo museum to accompany the present exhibit by the Australian Museum.

The Hurley photos also document scenes and activities in Papuan “longhouses,” which were religious ritual venues off-limits to women. Featuring copious human skulls as decorative items. According to exhibit explanatory material, keeping skulls—of friends and enemies alike—was thought to be a way to retain the power of the former skull owners in the community.

One of the Hurley photos shows the Hurley pontoon biplane at anchor on the water with a dead pig draped across the fuselage, a peace offering from the natives—who quite conceivably had never seen an airplane before—to such a fearsome and mighty monster from the skies.

Since the Black acquisitions, the museum Papua collection has been augmented by more or less contemporary materials acquired by inveterate art and artifacts collector Charles Rand Penney and by former dean of the UB School of Architecture and Environmental Design Harold Cohen and Mary Cohen, including photos by Penney and the Cohens.

A subtle but significant difference between the earlier (P. G. T. Black collection) and more contemporary (Charles Rand Penney and Cohens collections) materials is that the more recent materials have a flavor of having been made not so much for use by Papuans as for sale to collectors or just plain tourists. In this respect, a small wooden carved human figure dated 1977 (among the Penney acquisitions) bears a striking resemblance to the main figure of Picasso’s famous supposedly African primitivist inspired painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

The Buffalo Museum of Science collection is said to be the oldest and largest collection of South Pacific artifacts in the country.

The Papua exhibit continues through January 8.

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