Curator's Choice: Hopi pots and Zulu skirts for Takeover Day 2013 at the Smith Art Gallery and Museum

By Ben Miller | 27 November 2013

Curator's Choice: Michael McGinnes, the Keeper of the World's Oldest Football, on a Hopi pot and a Zulu skirt being interpreted by children for Takeover Day in Stirling

A photo of a male curator wearing gloves holding an extremely old football
© Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum Trust
Hopi pot

"The Hopi people are native Americans. Historically, they spent a lot of time making pottery because that’s how they made their living. In ancient times they were related to the Incas in some ways – they were the same sort of tribal group, same languages.

A photo of an ancient Native American hand-decorated pot
Hopi Pot from Arizona / New mexico. Pueblo Indian culture (circa 1900)© Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum Trust
They spent all their time making fantastic pots – we don’t have a date for this one. It took them forever to make these things – weeks and weeks.

On the front is a Kachina: an ancestral figure, a face with two eyes and a kind of funny mouth. It’s an intermediary between a human and a God. There are various things about the pot that mean something, but I don’t know what they mean.

The shape of the pot and the mask are very significant, but I don’t understand them. The headdress has triangular things, feathers. And there are various bits of fabric around the side – moon shapes and stuff. It means something to the Hopi looking at it.

It’s a fascinating, lovely, wonderful object with some beautiful colour, and yet it’s over 130 years old – possibly a lot older than that. Others we’ve got from the same group are around 1,000 years old.

I sent front and back pictures out to Kelley Hays-Gilpin, at the University of Northern Arizona, and she identified them for me based on the patterns. With some of them, you can actually identify the person who made them.

These people were producing pots for the tourist market at the beginning of the 19th century in order to survive, basically. But because their sites were being excavated all these pots were coming in, and they were re-working out how to make these things.

I like things that tell you about cultures like this. The design is fantastic – I often think it’s better than modern designs. They still make them like this in Arizona and New Mexico, but I’ve never seen anybody making anything like this. It’s a wonderful, beautiful object.”

A photo of a colourful beaded tribal skirt
Zulu Skirt from Malawi (circa 1880)© Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum Trust
Zulu skirt

“The Zulus are fascinating, partly because a lot of their knowledge has been lost.

We have something in common with them because during the wars in Africa with the Zulu Nation they lost their ancestry, history and knowledge. They were basically defeated by the British and the Germans and Dutch who were over there.

There’s very little knowledge left in South Africa about their meaning, it’s been lost. So in a sense, it’s quite similar to the Scots who lost their knowledge of tartan after the [Jacobite risings of 17]45. They weren’t allowed to wear their tartan for 50 years. There’s been a lot of fabrication about these histories, and the story of those patterns has been lost.

These dresses are now classed as works of art – they hang in galleries. This particular one is a married woman’s skirt: you can tell from the band that goes around her waist, which signifies she’s married.

The dress comes from southern Malawi. The rest of the design is possibly family-related. The Zulus are not a tribe as such – they’re a group of people covering quite a large area with family associations. The pattern is associated with northern South Africa, but you can’t tie it down specifically.

These dresses were very important – it’s all to do with dowry. Girls who were getting married were expected to make gifts for their husbands and their families for the wedding. It was all beaded skirts.

It was very important that they did this. The more beaded skirts you had, the wealthier you were. The whole thing became a battle to see who had the most skirts. In a sense, they replaced cattle.

The rulers had tons of this stuff. But because various people were importing the beads, they became very cheap. It got to the point where they gradually became worthless. Interestingly though, these things are quite rare now.

You could actually give a gift to your husband or boyfriend in beads that would pass a secret message to them. ‘Missing your great body, get it back here quick,’ things like that – they were very open about sex. That’s the theory, but we’ve no knowledge whether it’s true or not.

The colours are amazing, but the way that they use the costume to signify the status of women in particular…young girls who were coming up to the point where they would be looking for men, at something like 14, would cover the absolute minimum that you could think of – the bottom part, not the top part.

It would be the size of about ten postage stamps, very small. That would be very significant because it would say ‘this girl is almost available’. And then there was lots of gift-giving – the girls would make bracelets and neck ornaments for their hopeful boy to wear, saying ‘he’s mine’.

She would have the same pattern as him to identify ‘that’s my boyfriend’. These boys were all armed to the teeth, so people wouldn’t trespass because it would end in serious fighting. But of course the boys were allowed to mate with four or five different girls. So the beads were used as a way of supressing trouble, in a sense – as soon as a girl became betrothed, that was it.

That would show up in what they and the boy were wearing. Nobody would then get in between them – there was no interference, it was dealt with, because otherwise families would end up fighting and we don’t want that.

Then when they got married she would wear a proper skirt like this one, which obviously covered up everything sexual, so she was no longer available. When she had a child she would wear a different skirt to indicate that she was a mother. It’s a fascinating way of controlling society through costume.

It’s probably a 30-inch waist – it’s quite big. If you think about it, this dress is basically a sheet of glass, it’s quite hefty. If you’re wearing headgear and bangles, stuff around your legs and lots and lots of decorations around your neck, you’re probably going to be carrying 20 or 30 pounds’ of glass around with you all day.

They never wore these things for doing work – they would break if they did. They were for dancing and special events, not everyday things. They had plain fabric dresses for that: coloured as well, but not glass.

We’re going to lay them out on a table for the kids. A number will decide which object they get – it doesn’t matter whether the objects are male or female, because curators have to deal with ladies’ underwear as well.

They’ll get the equivalent of the original 19th century label attached to each object, and that will give them a clue as to what to look for. We’ve got a few books for some of them, but they’ll have to search for the rest of it on the internet to see what they can find about Zulus and everything else.

Later on they’ll Tweet and Facebook their labels on our network. They’ll be answering the phones, and we’re going to let the public wander in and ask them questions. If there’s any time left, they’re going to grab anyone who’s outside the museum, bring them in and tell them about the objects they’re excited about.

They’ll go back to school and tell the other kids what they’ve done and tell the class all about their objects. It’s a long-term thing. They had to write essays about why they should be chosen. Then the names were put in a hat and the ones that got drawn out got to take part.

We’ve never had kids handling the objects before. They’ll be told not to pick them up or bash them about. I would have loved it when I was a kid.

It gives them a chance to see behind-the-scenes. We don’t want them to forget this day.”

  • Takeover Day in Scotland takes place today (November 28 2013). Visit Takeover Day Scotland 2013 for more. Follow @takeovermuseums on Twitter and use the hashtag #TakeoverDay.

More on Takeover Day 2013:

Children light up museums and galleries for Kids in Museums' Takeover Day 2013

History Keepers author Damian Dibben signs up as Ambassador for Museum Takeover Day

A photo of an ancient dark warrior helmet
Samurai Helmet (16th century)© Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum Trust
A photo of a sculpture showing a small biblical figure crouching on some sort of rock
Netsuke of the God Ebizu© Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum Trust
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