Bowers Museum exhibits 'weird, wonderful' pieces from collection

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Susan Valot/KPCC

The newest Bowers Museum exhibit includes two shrunken heads, including this one from Ecuador in the early 20th century. The warrior created the head from a rival killed in battle. The warrior sewed the mouth shut to keep in - and carry around - the rival's power.

What do a Navajo blanket, a bear trap and shrunken heads have in common? They’re all part of the newest exhibit at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. It’s called “Weird and Wonderful” — and it shows off some of the strangest and most interesting items the Bowers has collected during its 75-year history. The exhibit opened earlier this month.

Old Moccasin John stares blankly through the glass of one of the first display cases you come to in the "Weird and Wonderful: Celebrating 75 Years of Collecting at Bowers" exhibit. You can’t see his grizzly bear hump. But his long claws look like long, twisted popsicle sticks.

Sitting next to him — or at least the picture of him — is a rusty, old contraption. Jennifer Ring knows it well. She’s in charge of artifacts in the Bowers Museum’s collection.

"This is the bear trap that did in the last grizzly bear of Orange County, Old Moccasin John — then they found out later is Old Moccasin Joanna and they didn’t know at the time," Ring says. "And she is in the Smithsonian’s collection now."

Another bear trap gave Old Moccasin John his nickname. It bit off the sharp claws of one of his gigantic rear paws. His tracks looked like a barefoot bear with one moccasin on.

The trap that killed Old Moccasin John is next to the first sheriff’s badge of Orange County and near an 1892 photograph of the county’s only known lynching.

Across the way, in another display case, pink zig-zags edge the brown and tan stripes of a Navajo blanket. It’s old — they think from the 1840s. The edges are frayed.

Ring says the blanket hasn’t been shown since someone donated it the same year the museum opened.

"When it came to us in 1936, the donor said that it had belonged to Geronimo," Ring says. "Well, museology, being a very different animal in the 1930s, nobody asked him, 'Why? Why do you say that? Prove it.' They just accepted it the way it was and took it in. In the meantime, it was just put in a box and put in storage and nobody really touched it again."

Nobody touched it until a few years ago, when Ring started going through the Bowers collection to see what was really there.

She pulled out the blanket and showed it to a Navajo expert at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in L.A. Ring says the expert nearly fainted — and told her the blanket was a “national treasure.”

"He explained that this is a first phase chief’s blanket. They’re very rare," Ring says. "This one is special because it has the obvious designs of a first phase chief’s blanket, but it also has designs that would belong to a second phase chief’s blanket. So making it maybe a prototype or a first of its kind, maybe a one of its kind because nobody’s seen another one like this."

First phase and second phase chief’s blankets refer to the weaving pattern.

As for this blanket’s supposed link to Geronimo, Ring says the museum staff is sifting through photographs of the great Apache warrior to see if they can find one that shows him with the blanket. Until they do, whether the blanket is Geronimo’s remains a mystery.

Another mystery in the collection is an 18th or 19th century Tahitian bread fruit pounder that someone found in the Santa Ana River bottom in Huntington Beach in 1903. No one is quite sure where it came from or how it got to Orange County.

Something that’s a less of a mystery is around the corner: two shrunken heads. They date back to Ecuador in the 1800s.

"They were taken by a warrior who would defeat his enemy and take his head, take the skin off the bones, probably boil down the skin and treat it in different ways and then reform it again over a gourd or other fiber packing," Ring says, describing the process.

"And you would do things like close the mouth, close the eyes to keep the power in there. And then you could wear it on your belt or wear it on your staff. You’d keep it with you because you’ve now taken his power."

Ring says later on, shrunken heads were made more for trade with tourists than to steal a rival’s power.

The museum has one of those souvenir shrunken heads. It’s right next to a pair of earrings made of beetle wings.

Tucked away in the back of the exhibit is a wooden statue of an old woman that the museum staff has affectionally dubbed, "Grandma Tau-tau."

The carving is not very old. It's from about 1980.

It's a cultural tradition that was popular in Indonesia in the middle of the last century: carving the likeness of a dead relative for all to see and remember.

"Oftentimes, they were more quickly done, more abstract," says Ring. "But this one must have been done by a master carver. Her wrinkles are there. Her eyebrows are there. You feel like if you saw her walking down the street, you'd know her."

Ring says the woman may have been very important in the village where she came from. But the museum doesn't know who she was. They do know of another carving that might be related to her, though.

But Ring says the tradition is starting to die out.

"Originally, these things would have been made for this important person to have passed away and they would have been put on a cliff or in a cave so the other people in the village could appreciate her," Ring says. "Sadly, with increased tourism, they're being stolen. They're being taken by antiques dealers or tourists or whatever. So either they're kept by the family or not done as much anymore. So we're really fortunate to have her."

The Bowers exhibit of about 100 of the museum’s 130,000 collection items will be on display through November. The exhibit also includes a small tribute to Madame Helena Modjeska, a Polish actress who settled in the Modjeska Canyon area of Orange County. The Modjeska section includes some of the actress' drawings and shoes she wore in a production of "Cleopatra."

The Bowers "Weird and Wonderful" exhibit celebrates the 75th anniversary of Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum, which comes up in February.

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