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Museum Mondays: Artifacts of artifacts? Let us explain

November 4, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Sometimes museums have artifacts that represent their artifacts. Confused?

The Logan Museum of Anthropology once owned, and still possesses, a snake dance costume that would have been used in a Hopi religious ceremony very similar to the one depicted in the painting shown here. The painting, by Elmer C. Winterberg, was presented to the museum in 1935; the costume was acquired in 1976.

The Snake Dance is the grand finale of ceremonies to pray for rain, held by individual Hopi communities in Arizona every two years. Hopis believe that their gods and the spirits of their ancestors live in an underworld; snakes are considered to be their brothers and they trust that the snakes will carry their prayers to the Rainmakers who live in the underworld. By carrying the snakes in their mouths, the Hopi dancers pass their prayers onto them.

Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in 1990, museums have given back certain sacred items to the tribes they once belonged to. The Hopi tribe requested the return of the Snake Dance costume so they could use it to perform the same religious ceremonies today. The painting will then become the remaining artifact.

The Logan Museum transferred ownership of its Snake Dance costume back to the Hopi Tribe in 2002, but the Hopis asked that it not be physically returned until they were sure it was free of pesticides and other contaminants. Their fear is well-founded: museums used to apply poisonous compounds to collections in order to control insects and other pests. Although the Logan has not done this in decades, heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic might still be present—this is one reason why students and staff use gloves when handling ethnographic collections. Preliminary tests for pesticide residue on the Snake Dance costume have been inconclusive, so more work is needed to determine whether detectable or dangerous levels remain.

This costume consists of rope and leather armbands; two shell necklaces; a bandolier of leather, shell, and cloth; a leather purse; a leather sash with shell and metal tinklers; a cloth kilt with shells; a feather headdress; a fur container; and cloth and leather anklets.

Can you find all these pieces in the painting?

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