When the Arkansas Museum of Discovery announced in January that it would deaccession many of the 14,000 artifacts in its collection, a cry went up. Don't give away our shrunken heads!
It wasn't a very loud cry, since the number of folks who remember the museum's “Believe it or Not” days, as the Museum of Science and History in the Arsenal Building in MacArthur Park, are diminishing. But they are a loyal bunch, many of them still complaining about losing the mummy that was on loan for so many years when its Pennsylvania owner asked for it back.
Gone with the mummy is the museum's cabinet-of-curiosities character, thanks to successors to museum founder Bernie Babcock who got the museum accredited, improved its exhibits with grants and fund-raising, and launched the museum on its current science and technology mission. In 1998, the museum got a new name and a new locale, thanks to a public investment of $7.5 million, in the Museum Center at 500 President Clinton Ave. Cut glass and Kewpie dolls gave way to exhibits about hard science (though with a nod to social science, with its excellent Native American exhibit).
Now, with a $9.2 million challenge grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the museum is getting a huge overhaul that will create a new entrance off Clinton and bring its new mission more sharply into focus with new exhibits on human health, earth science (like plate tectonics) and physical science (such as matter and the properties of light). The current museum will close sometime next year for the redo and reopen in 2012 as the Arkansas Museum of Discovery at the Donald W. Reynolds Science Center.
It makes sense for the museum to give to other museums those things in its collection that no longer fit the mission, take up space, require curation ? and might never again see the light of day.
Those shrunken heads, though? They're staying, and not because they are a technology of a sort (one still practiced, apparently, though not as enemy trophies). They are so closely identified with the original museum and founder Babcock that the Museum of Discovery won't part with them.
Babcock, born Julia Burnelle Smade in Ohio in 1868, was herself out of the ordinary. She was widowed after 11 years of marriage and five children and she set about to support her family by writing temperance tomes, historical novels (including “The Soul of Ann Rutledge”) and working at newspapers, including the Arkansas Democrat, where she briefly was society editor.
In 1927, as an aside to her real work and in response to ridicule of Arkansas by Baltimore newspaperman H.L. Mencken, Babcock created the museum on Main Street. Sadly, a couple of the exhibits proudly touted in signs on the front of the museum ? King Crowley, a stone head with copper eyes and gold earspools believed to be an ancient artifact, and the “head of a Chicago criminal” ? are already gone, where nobody knows. Record-keeping at the museum was poor for decades, and today's curatorial staff is in the dark about the provenance of much of the collection and the whereabouts of items once mentioned in the press as part of the museum's holdings but which are no longer to be found.
It falls to Marci Bynum Robertson, director of collections and research and one of Babcock's biggest admirers, to find new homes for the pots and guns and glass and rocks and homespun and framed stuffed quail and mummified bread now on shelves, in drawers and propped up in a crowded storage room beneath the museum. The artifacts will go to facilities that meet American Association of Museums standards, to insure they're properly cared for. None will be sold, since the AAM frowns on sales of artifacts for any reason except to make new purchases for a collection, and the museum, Robertson said, quit adding to the collection in the 1990s.
The museum's announcement that it would deaccession many of its artifacts ? a decision actually made a couple of years ago ? has brought other museums circling “like vultures over the carcass,” Robertson said, laughing. Some of them are embarrassed, she said, to be rubbing their hands in anticipation of adding to their own collections.
Many MOD artifacts have already found a home elsewhere. The famed Bob Batty Glass Collection was given to the Arkansas Arts Center some years back, and was exhibited on the second floor of the Terry Mansion when it was the Decorative Arts Museum. Washington Historic State Park has been using the museum's period furniture in one of its restored homes for some time. The MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History has MOD's military artifacts, donated when the MOD left the arsenal behind, and will get more. The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which features exhibits on African Americans in Arkansas, has a barber chair and neon sign from a Ninth Street business and will get a barber's apron and other items. A collection of photographs and scrapbooks of Little Rock's old Parham School will most likely go to the Butler Center of Arkansas Studies, part of the Central Arkansas Library System. American Indian artifacts, including the Thibault collection from an important prehistoric site near the Little Rock airport, will go to the Arkansas Archeological Survey. The Historic Arkansas Museum has laid claim to a corner cabinet featured in “Arkansas Made” and director Bill Worthen is said to be lusting after the museum's Arkansas Traveler painting by James M. Fortenbury; the zero-tolerant Babcock had a whiskey sign and a pipe that was in the woman's mouth in the original painted out. The Old State House may be the new home of the museum's Camark and Niloak pottery.
Robertson said the museum is trying to keep as many goodies as it can in Arkansas. But where, she wonders, is the right place for the coffin of Pasheshes, circa 600 B.C.?
Robertson does know where the Kewpie dolls ? and Kewpie lamps and Kewpie hatpins and Kewpie salt shakers and Kewpie everything else ? are going. The Kewpie collection numbers more than 300 items and was a gift to the museum by Margaret Shull in 1972. They're going “home,” as the elated members of the Bonniebrook Historical Society told Robertson, to the society's Kewpie museum outside Branson. The museum is on the grounds of the home of illustrator Rose O'Neill, who created the Kewpie in 1909 and who lived well off the baby doll with a curl atop its head until it fell out of fashion in the 1930s. The Kewpie on the cover is about two feet tall and is believed to date to the 1950s.
The Friendship Doll
Miss Kyoto-shi was one of 58 dolls given to museums across the United States in1927 by the Japanese in an effort to improve relations with the U.S., where tension over a growing Asian population prompted a law to disallow new Japanese immigrants. (Proponents of cultural exchange had sent nearly 13,000 “blue-eyed” dolls to Japan by American schoolchildren the year previous.) Miss Kyoto-shi came to the museum in 1953. In the 1970s, Japanese visitors, horrified by the condition of the doll's kimono, donated an authentic child's kimono to the museum after their return home. Many of the friendship dolls have gone missing, and some are held in private hands. Robertson doesn't know where Miss Kyoto-shi will go next; a doll museum is likely, but that means she'd leave Arkansas.
Pasheshes mummy case
Children in the 2000s are no different from children in the 1950s: It's all about the mummies, as a MOD staffer put it. When the plastic case was lifted off Pasheshes' sarcophagus so a Timesphotographer could photograph it, schoolchildren visiting the MOD were drawn to the gallery like iron to a magnet. They asked if they could see the mummy inside. Pasheshes, however, isn't in his box, which was donated in 1973 by an Arkansan from the southwestern part of the state. (His widow has yet another.) An expert hired by the museum to translate the hieroglyphics on the case reported that while Pasheshes was an aristocrat, he wasn't royal: the glyphs contain typos. The blue-painted face on the case was damaged 20 years ago by burglars who broke into the old firehouse on the grounds of MacArthur Park, where it was stored, but the case is otherwise in pretty good condition. The current “Pharaohs” exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center notwithstanding, Arkansas doesn't have a permanent home for Pasheshes, and this artifact will likely leave the state.
Museum intern Bradley Jordan, a master's in public history candidate who is doing an inventory of the MOD's collection, said the bread is one of those artifacts that, if it weren't tagged and bagged, might be tossed as trash. The bread comes from an Egyptian tomb; nothing else is known about it. It looks like bits of old cork. Its destiny might be tied to Pasheshes'.
Some artifacts in the possession of the MOD lend themselves to speculation. What, for example, was this cabinet, fitted with an electrical motor and various dials and vials, used for? A metal tag on the cabinet suggests a chilling, if perhaps not true, answer: It says “Bellevue,” as in Bellevue Hospital for mental patients in New York. The artifact does indeed come from New York, museum records show; it was donated by Ann Cherry in 1957. Whether it was used in electroshock therapy isn't known to the museum. It will stay at the museum, which will have a new exhibit on human health.
Napoleon and Josephine
These figurines were among gifts delivered to the United States on the Merci Train, 49 French boxcars that traveled to every state in 1949 to deliver tokens of appreciation from the French. The trains were a response to American post-war relief to France, sent in boxcars in 1948. The MOD also has old phonographs and letters from the Merci Train; other Merci Train artifacts known to be in Arkansas include a bust by Rodin, paintings and other pieces at the Arkansas Arts Center and one of the French boxcars, at the American Legion Post in Helena. Because the Merci Train items were a gift to the state, they may be offered to the Butler Center.
Journals belonging to Loree Banks Herron and son, Edwin Ross Herron
Loree Banks was a freshman at the University of Arkansas in 1918 when she began pasting entries into her college scrapbook. Her tenure at Fayetteville didn't last long — she was married at Christmas to William Shipp Herron — but she used the book as a scrapbook to document her life. Among the entries: A newspaper clipping with the headline “Ptomaine poisoning Halts Isele-McCabe Wedding Plans,” followed by another clipping, “Girl Suffers Nervous Breakdown,” in which the bridegroom admitted he wasn't poisoned but was having financial difficulties. Who donated Herron's journal and her son's baby book to the museum is unknown, but there was a Dr. Ellis Doyle Herron who was a director from 1955 to 1966. The journal and Herron's son's baby book will most likely be offered to the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.
Fans, fans and more fans
Beatrice Prall was one of Little Rock's first librarians, employed at the Carnegie-funded library at Louisiana and Sixth Street in 1920. She was also a collector of fans — paper fans, linen fans, silk fans — and she bequeathed them to the museum when she died in North Carolina 1962. They seem right for the Butler Center, given that she worked at Little Rock's first public library.
Avery-Ripley Engraved vessel
Dr. Kent Westbrook donated this Caddoan vessel, in a style that dates to 1200 A.D., in 1986. It will be offered to the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
The shrunken heads
The museum's three shrunken heads are part of its founding collection. They were created by the Shuar (known to us as the Jivaro) of Ecuador and feature sewn lips and eyelids and what looks like real hair. Two of the heads, Robertson believes, are actually monkey, but one is human. The Shuar are apparently still making shrunken heads for the tourist market; many from monkeys but researchers say headless bodies have been found in village cemeteries. They are a favorite with children. Because of their strong connection to the museum's origins, they'll stay.
The Shelly Lady
Bernie Babcock is said to have believed that this carved rock was a petrified baby, and touted it as such. The Shelly Lady was first exhibited in the window of a business in Little Rock and an article in the Arkansas Gazette said it had been found in an Oklahoma creek and was made by Indians. The carved piece also looks like the work of Constantin Brancusi, though that's as unlikely as the petrified baby theory. The Shelly Lady, a gift to the museum by J.D. Jordan in 1942, is a keeper.
Two collectors donated the museum's collection of 260 wooden ritual masks from Guerrero, Mexico, many made as tourist art in the 1950s. The museum will create a traveling exhibit using the masks, carved to represent various people and animals.