What Do You Think of This? -- Objects Across Disciplines

This exhibit was located at Brown University's Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center from May 10, 2012 through January 29, 2014. 

Interpreting artifacts in anthropological museums is traditionally the domain of curators trained in archaeology, anthropology, or art history. The study of material culture is, however, inherently interdisciplinary, benefitting from the diverse methods and theories different scholars bring to their research. In this exhibition, Brown faculty and researchers from nine disciplines in the humanities, sciences, performing arts, social sciences, and medicine were asked to consider one of these objects and to comment on it. Given only basic information about the object, participants were asked: How might their discipline approach the item? How would they explore its form, use and meaning?

As you consider their musings on the objects in this case, alongside the museum's "standard" labels, we encourage you to reflect upon these different perspectives. How would you approach the study of these objects yourself? How does your background inform your view?


Gift of Mary Katherine Burton-Jones 2007 (no #)   Jenks Museum of Natural History collection (57-161)

Haffenreffer Family Fund purchase 1963 (63-1617A)

Three Boomerangs
‘Throwing sticks’ or boomerangs of wood, decorated with incised and painted designs.

“I would be interested in learning how the design of boomerangs has developed over time. Specifically, as people have learned more about aerodynamics, have boomerangs become more sophisticated? Or has their design stayed the same, perfected early on by trial and error? If there were some known development of design over time, then the design of these boomerangs could be checked - this might give some insight into when these were made.”   --John Golen (Physics)

“These look like objects I’d like to play with. [. . .] When I was a kid I could never find a field big enough for a boomerang. But anyway, I think they’re fascinating objects. [. . .] You know, like a wooden snake. That, I think, can both symbolize the power of the snake literally, this is like a weapon or a talisman, or power over the snake. Or then again, the way that professional sports teams adopt animals as their mascots and as a way of embodying their power, possessing it and using it against their opponents.   --Stephen Lassonde (History)

“I might use this object to demonstrate how multi-literacies that include print text and visual art provide a means to opening the world to learners and raising multiple questions that would help them to broaden and deepen their knowledge even further.  It would be fascinating ask a group to brainstorm all the questions a photograph of this object raises and then to discuss how they might go about addressing those questions.”    --Eileen Landay (Education)

“I think that because I am an artist I was particularly attracted to the design, which is why I also thought it might be used for some kind of ritual above and beyond its utilitarian use. I was drawn to the design and colors. It also looks like it took a lot of time and commitment to create the object and that it displays originality.”     --Julie Strandberg (Dance/TAPS)

“I like the fact that it’s kind of greasy, like someone held it frequently. It’s got hand grease, and it’s balanced there so someone really designed this to be held. See, I’m the opposite of the art museum, I like the grease that’s been left on something that shows you where and how people have used it.”      --Elizabeth Hoover (Ethnic Studies)


Penis Sheath:

71-5255.10 – “ok bul” or penis sheath
Made from a gourd and used for male clothing,  Consisting of woven fiber band around the gourd and a string to hold the sheath to the body
Collected by H. Zwartjes, Mission Abmisibil, for K. Heider field collection, 1970.

“It has a modern, almost streamlined look. It is clearly an article of adornment; it moves around, but only when the person wearing it moves.  I'm reminded of the vogue for streamlining in mid-20th century design, where all kinds of things that weren't supposed to move were made to look as if they were ready to take off.”    --James Trilling (Art History)

“To address such an object in its material nature is to enter a room of four-year-olds and tell them that whatever they do, absolutely do not giggle, and then leave.  One tries to be serious, giving the object careful aesthetic and functional consideration. Then one realizes that the only way such an object could remain affixed to the male form would be if the object were held in place at 30 degrees or more above horizontal, with the strings wrapped around the human back, the resulting visual like that of a flagpole and its stays mounted on the vertical surface above a Consular building's front door.  The specialty sheath market is a difficult one.”      --Caleb Neelon (professional artist)

“I initially thought it was some kind of musical instrument. I would never have thought of a penis sheath or any article of clothing. While, of course, I know about jock straps, dance belts, and contemporary cod pieces which protect the penis, and may emphasize it, they do not replicate its elongated shape. The shape of the object looks like some kind of horn that you could blow […]. I think because I am an artist, I saw it as related to the arts and then as a musical instrument. I was drawn to the contrasting textures.”   --Dian Kriz (Art History)

“I could imagine using all of these objects in a choreography class. I would use them for an assignment […] where I would ask students to create a study based on what they thought these objects were or how they would have been used. They could also be inspired by the color, the shape, and the textures. Then I would tell them about the objects and have them discuss what made them come to the conclusions they did. Then I would have them do some research about the objects and redo their studies to incorporate the new information. Lastly, I would try to arrange to have them present their studies at the museum where viewers could also see the objects alongside the dances that were inspired by them.”   --Julie Strandberg (Dance/TAPS)


Ibis Mummy:

Mummified Ibis wrapped with linen strips.
Late Ptolomaic Period - Roman Period (654 BC-395 AD)
Transfer from Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, 2012

“It looks like a shoe, a corn husk, like a papoose, a baby. [. . . ] I think there is value in thinking about what something looks and feels like, so I’d want a replica to pass around and feel. And what does it physically resemble? What other things do we associate with it?  And then I’d talk about religious iconography and its use in ancient to contemporary cultures. You know, what do birds symbolize, why are birds sacred, those sorts of issues.  Is there anything in contemporary life that plays a similar function?  Those are the sort of things I would want to think and talk about.”   --Stephen Lassonde (History)

“I am struck by the physicality of the mummified Ibis, thinking of the hands that, thousands of years ago, prepared and wrapped this glorious bird in death.  It makes me reflect on the ways we now distance ourselves from death and the body after death.”   --Erin VanScoyoc (Medicine)

“While some animals in ancient Egypt were considered sacred, others, like this ibis, would have been votive offerings dedicated by ordinary people to the gods. Pilgrims visiting sacred sites could purchase mummified animals and have them buried on their behalf….The number of animals killed to serve as votive offerings was very large, and sadly the ibis became extinct in Egypt. One important ibis cemetery is currently being excavated by Brown University at the site of Abydos, located in southern Egypt.”     --Laurel Bestock (Egyptology and Archaeology)


1999-19-9 - “bichuwan chachti” or husband discipliner
Made of Jabiru beak attached to a wooden handle and wrapped with plant fiber and colored cotton string.
Gift of K.M. Kensinger, 1999




69-10097 - “ainbu pepa wati” or Wife discipliner
Wooden shaft with serrated toucan beak, decorated with colored cotton string, razor grass, and feathers.
“The wife discipliner is kept suspended from the eaves of the house as a reminder to the woman of  her husband’s expectations with regard to her behavior.”
K.M. Kensinger field collection, 1968.

“Cashinahua (more properly, Kaxinawá) men and women have long made and used objects like these, hanging them around their necks or from the eaves of houses, but the most immediate communication these evoke is the one between Kenneth Kensinger, the missionary-turned-anthropologist who assembled the Haffenreffer’s Cashinahua collection, and the Kaxinawá who put it in his hands, whose names we don’t know...   Spelling it out as I have done casts into relief historians’ limitations: our impulse, when faced with beautiful and enigmatic objects, to look for their meaning outside the objects themselves. Reading the objects themselves, in their own materiality, is much harder.”    --Jeremy Mumford (History)

“The two objects from Peru look like ritual objects and look related because of their decorative nature.  It is hard to imagine a practical use for the husband disclipliner based on its shape. I have no knowledge of the arts of the cultures from which these objects come, other than a sense that classes of objects fall into the categories of practical and ritual.   So, the most likely way I could see integrating them into my classroom would be through their histories of collecting and display. How did they come to be in a Brown collection, and what are the protocols that distinguish between the ethnographic and the aesthetic (which divide works into art and non-art)? I'd also be interested in knowing about the trade patterns of the societies that produced these works.”  --Dian Kriz (Art History) 

“It’s interesting because it looks like it’s so fierce, but then it’s so light and delicate […] I feel like it’s not really sturdy enough to really give someone an appropriate thrashing with [laughs]. So that tells you something.  But yeah it is kinda funny that there’s this symbolic tool for them to discipline each other and the fact that there would be two shows that it’s really different from other societies […] It makes me want to know more about their marital traditions, and their society in general.”  --Elizabeth Hoover (Ethnic studies)



This exhibit was curated by the students of AMCV1903T, The Materiality of History: Material Culture Theory and Practice. All of the objects displayed are from the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, whose global collections are accessible to faculty and students for research and investigation. We would like to thank all of the faculty and researchers named in the exhibition for their help and willingness to participate in this project. We would also like to extend our thanks to the staff of the Haffenreffer Museum for their guidance and assistance, especially Curatorial Assistant, Nathan Arndt, for his excellent choice of objects, creative input, and beautiful display design.