Coincidence or Cooperation? Amazon Feathers & Modern Jewels

Here at HMNS, we frequently offer exhibitions that showcase stunning and diverse artistry from cultures around the globe and throughout time. In working here, I’m privileged to be able to walk through each as much as I can while they are here, and absorb the colors, forms, and inspiration of thousands of years of human culture. I love design – modern, ancient, however humans have creatively assembled things. We’re a science museum – but there is just so much art in science. I’m constantly fascinated by it.

Amethyst Necklace,
designed by Ernesto Moreira;
on display in the Gem Vault.

Which was why I am delighted to share something I noticed recently – a commonality between the very modern design showcased in one of our permanent exhibitions and the design of several of the absolutely stunning works of feather art in our current Spirits & Headhunters exhibition – which, while created in relatively modern times (within the last 100 years or so) reflect a design tradition that goes back centuries – if not thousands of years.

Many of the pieces on display in the Smith Gem Vault were created by a local designer, Ernesto Moreira, specifically to showcase some of the worlds most striking and rare gemstones. Made circa 2005-2006, they were inspired by architectural elements – as Ernesto put it, “the ornamental ironwork on windows, doors, and street lights, so prevalent in European cities,” which he has spent many years observing, sketching and photographing.

In contrast, the unique feather art of the Ka’apor tribe is some of the most beautiful and delicate ornamentation produced in the Amazon. Produced for ceremonial use – and then discarded – these objects are created in two sets: one specifically for men, the other for women. The tukaniwar shown below is a “spectacular neck ornament,” made for women from “mythologically harmless bird feathers…the blue color connects the wearer to the sky where all the culture heroes dwell.”  (Check out the exhibit catalog for more info.)

As you can see from the image, there are blue feathers woven into the ornament that would have hung in the front – as well as the smaller ornament that would have hung in back, once the necklace was tied.

tukaniwar, on display in
Spirits & Headhunters

It would seem that these two objects – created by artists from very different cultural traditions – would have nothing in common. However, the hanging feathered ornament is extremely similar to the small jeweled ornaments that Ernesto designed into the clasp of his pieces in the Gem Vault (if you haven’t been in the Vault yet – trust me, you’re going to want to check it out in person).

I wondered if there could possibly be a connection – and when associate curator for Amazonia Adam Mekler was here to install the Spirits & Headhunters exhibition, I asked him. Sure enough – it turns out that Moreira had worked with Mekler many years ago when parts of this collection were first on display.

Pretty amazing coincidence, to be sure – but I had to find out if there was any merit to the theory that one had influenced the other. (This *is* a science museum, after all.) Here’s what Ernesto had to say:

” I can tell you right away Adam’s pieces did not have an immediate direct impact on my work. That said, I have noticed a pattern in the way my brain works in regards to creativity. When I was a teenager, I looked at Japanese prints and architecture… then in my early twenties I made a collection of one of a kind pieces called little people. One time during a solo Gallery show the entire collection sold out. The gallery owner told me it was sold to mainly Asian customers. Sometime later…I realized how Japanese my pieces actually were… in their geometry and their compositional balance. Most recently during the making of the museum Gem Vault pieces I began to adorn the settings with filigree… but not just the normal filigree… a more architectural version. This time it did not take me long to figure out that, once again, I was translating many of the images in my head into my jewelry designs since I had spent many years sketching and photographing much of the ornamental ironwork on windows, doors, and street lights, so prevalent in European cities (something I still do). So it seems I work best absorbing and letting be, then somehow, sometime the subject matter reappears in my work. I worked with Adam Mekler and his incredible Amazonian collection during many years and for months at a time I would handle these amazing works… absorbing as usual. I doubt that such resemblance between the indigenous works and my own are purely coincidental, yet I cannot claim an intentional link.” [emphasis mine]

So, not an intentional connection – but I was pleased to discover such a link between ornamentation designed by these two very different artists and cultures. It’s fascinating to see how artists are inspired and how very different cultures can influence one another, sometimes in seemingly random – but very delightful – ways. It inspires me to take a closer look at everything around me, in the museum – but also out in the world. Part of the joy in seeing real artifacts, up close, is having the opportunity to examine them for these little details that allow you to really experience the object first-hand.

So, how about you – what little things have you noticed about the world?

The Lester and Sue Smith Gem Vault is a permanent exhibition at HMNS – but you only have a few more weeks to see Spirits & Headhunters before the exhibition moves on. Don’t miss it! Before you come, you can learn more about these fascinating cultures in a preview video interview with curator Adam Mekler below.

Can’t see the video? Watch it here.

Lucy, Out of Africa. Not!

Lucy is the most famous of the Australopithecine Clan – that’s about a half dozen species all together, maybe more. The Clan was long-lived and successful…at least in Africa. They spread from the edge of the Sahara Desert in the north all the way to Cape Province near the southern tip of the continent.

Dig anywhere in this huge area and find bones between 5.8 and 2.5 million years old – and you’ll find australopithecines.

But….Lucy’s entire clan never, EVER got out of Africa.  That’s weird. Lucy was surrounded by mammals that went globe-trotting. Big predators and even bigger herbivores traveled in and out of Africa, and then over Europe, Asia, North America – even South America.

World MapLucyCheck out our World Map for Lucy.  It shows the land and sea when ocean levels went down some 500 feet lower than today. That happened several times during the epoch of australopithecine evolution. With sea-levels down, there were dry land bridges many places – especially where Siberia connected to Alaska at the Bering Strait.

The map helps us analyze animal travelers….

Example of Globe-Trotter I: Rhinos Shaped like Hippos.

Here’s an unlikely world-traveler – the short-legged hippo-rhinos. If you saw them alive, you might be fooled into thinking they were bona fide hippos. The body form was hippo-esque: rotund belly, wide hips, low-slung chest and rump. But they were genuine members of the rhino family, close kin of the Indian Rhino of today.

s-rhino-hippo copy

Hippo-rhinos ate grass just as Indian Rhinos do in the modern Indian ecosystem. But hippo-rhinos (also known as Teleocerines) weren’t content to graze the meadows of the Brahmaputra. They went north and east and north and west. They invaded Europe and turned down into Africa. Hippo-rhinos must have chased Lucy when they were in bad moods.

Hippo-rhinos dared to cross the Bering land Bridge connecting Siberia to North America, and so they are the commonest rhino fossils in Nebraska, Wyoming and Texas.

Example of Globe-Trotter II: Hippos Shaped like Hippos.

Hippopotamuses today frolic in the rivers of Africa. Back in Lucy’s day, hippos went much farther. They waddled north and west over Europe and made it to the Thames River in England. Going the other way, hippos trotted through Eurasia and invaded India.

World MapHipRhinoHippos failed to cross the Bering Land Bridge though – they never could follow hippo-rhinos to Texas. (Think about that – why?)

Meanwhile, as hippo-shaped rhinos and real hippos went thousands of miles across four or five continents, Lucy’s relations stayed put in Africa.

Example of Globe-Trotter III: Saber-tooth Cats.

sHomothereBig plant-eaters should have been followed by big meat-eaters. And they were.

Chasing Lucy in Africa were many kinds of saber-tooth cats. Semi-saber-tooths (Dinofelines,)  Sword-tooths (Smilodonts,) And dagger-tooths (homotheres).  All three kinds of saber-cats had evolutionary wanderlust. They spread over Europe and Asia, from Siberia to Indonesia.

Bering Land Bridge? No problem. All three saber-cats invaded North America. And one group – the sword-tooth smilodonts – just kept on going, down through Brazil and all the way to Argentina.

Wow.

What was wrong with our Lucy?

What sort of anti-australopithecine barrier was put up to keep all the Lucy-oids in Africa??

On the first day of HMNS…a new exhibit debuts

Ring-oil lamp, 1st century B.C.E
On display in The Birth of Christianity:
A Jewish
Story
starting today.

The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, a new special exhibition, makes its world premiere today, on the first day of HMNS. And that’s just the beginning – we’ve got 11 more days coming up, with great ideas for family fun this holiday season. You can check them all out now, at our spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site – or watch them roll out here until Christmas Eve.

For the first day of HMNS, we’re featuring our brand new exhibition, The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story – opening today. In the exhibit, you’ll embark on an adventure that spans the three centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ, and the first decades after that – as the new religion of Christianity began to take shape.

Through a diverse array of artifacts, experience Jewish life during the reigns of Alexander the Great and the infamous King Herod. Return to the days of the Jewish War against the Romans and the stirring story of Masada, and learn the significance of Jewish burial customs. Finally, observe the dawn of the Christian Era. Along the way, marvel at ancient scrolls, objects and artifacts – such as one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls; original New Testament manuscripts, including an excerpt from the Gospel of Luke that contains the Christmas story; a large-scale, stone model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period; and much more.

We’ve also developed an optional audio guide to go along with the exhibit, that allows you to explore what you see in greater depth. The voice of Flavius Josephus, a 1st century Jewish historian who survived the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem and lived during the development of early Christianity, is your guide through the exhibit. You can hear a preview of the audio guide here.

And, in case you missed it in our earlier post – in the video below, you can see guest curator Matthias Henze discuss how the artifacts gathered in this premiere exhibition are “the closest we can get to the historical Jesus,” how important it is to understand the “Jewish roots of early Christianity;” and the many commonalities these two religious traditions share to this day.

Learn more about The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story:
Ancient artifacts are delicate – but they’re sometimes very heavy. See how the exhibit came together.
Take a preview Walk Through the Exhibition online.
Get a sneak-listen of the new audio guide, developed specially for this exhibition, and based on the latest archaeological evidence.