Today on Museum Bites we’re embarking on a fantastic voyage. From miniature Egyptian temples to itty bitty love arrows the Milwaukee Public Museum contains a delightful collection of tiny, precious wonders. And coincidentally, they all come from Africa. We begin in Egypt…
Mini Mausoleum: The Milwaukee Public Museum’s miniature of Medinet Habu is captivating. Tiny ancient Egyptian laborers strain to build this magnificent structure. The detailing is so precise and intricate I can almost hear the bustle of construction.
Medinet Habu was commissioned by Ramesses III (reigned 1186-1155 BCE) to serve as his mortuary temple. It is located in the Valley of the Kings, along with fellow New Kingdom pharaohs, Tutankhamen, Seti I and Ramesses II, to name a few.
Like the Forbidden City (see Museum Bites, Gate Crashing post), Medinet Habu contains a series of courtyards, temples and royal living space. Once colorful, the massive walls in the First Courtyard are decorated with relief carvings depicting Ramesses III’s victorious battles over the Libyans and Syrians.
Recent CT scans of Ramesses III’s mummy reveal a fatal gash to his throat that severed his trachea and esophagus. It confirmed what many had speculated for thousands of years. Ramesses III had been assassinated. Ancient documents indicate his second wife, Queen Tiye and his son, Pentawere were implicated in his death. Click on this Smithsonian Magazine link to read more about the harem conspiracy that gruesomely ended Ramesses III’s 31-year reign.
Bite-Sized Brass: Our next bite-sized display comes from the Bamum tribe. Located on the western coast of Africa, in the country of Cameroon, the Bamum are known for their beautiful craft work, particularly embroidery, carvings, pottery, beaded art, and metalwork. These festive cast brass musicians on the right, highlight the Bamum’s playfulness and skill.
The most famous Bamum was Ibrahim Mbouombouo Njoya (reigned c. 1895–1923) who was the 17th and last mfon (king) of the Bamum. In the late 1800s, Njoya helped create the first system of writing in Africa. He also commissioned a printing press and opened schools so the Bamum language could be taught to both children and adults throughout his kingdom. In 1918, Njoya converted to Islam and he was subsequently deposed by the French in 1923.
Fun Mini Fact: Cameroon is known as “Africa in miniature” due to the population’s many diverse languages (230!) and ethnicities.
Wee Wanderers: Africa boasts some of the tallest (Tutsi) and smallest people in the world. There are several pygmy tribes that live throughout central Africa. Pygmies are defined as a human group that consists of males averaging a height of 5 feet or less. The Bambuti or Mbuti are the shortest of the pygmies, with an average height of 4 feet 6 inches. They are nomadic, hunter-gathers who live in the equatorial Ituri Forest of central Africa. This lush rainforest is filled with okapi, giraffes, baboons, and more birds and bugs than you can shake a stick at.
The Bambuti have a symbiotic relationship with the forest. Their food, shelter, clothing, and traditions are all connected to the Ituri. They honor their god of the forest and celebrate important milestones such as the attainment of adulthood, weddings, and funerals through music and dance. Storytelling is prevalent and highly valued and the Ituri Forest plays an important role in their lore. Within recent years, the Bambuti way of life has been threatened by war in the Congo. Click on this Mbuti: Children of the Forest video to learn more about this fascinating tribe.
Petite Projectiles: Our final bite-sized display comes from the San, an indigenous tribe who live primarily in South Africa. Like the Bambuti, the San are hunter-gathers. They possess a rich oral history, and their language is punctuated by sharp clicks. But it is their courting rituals that are the most unique. If a man fancies a woman, he tries to win her affection by shooting a miniature arrow at her. If the woman picks up the arrow and places it over her heart, she accepts him and they become a couple. If she ignores the tiny projectile, he is rejected.
The San are also known for their rock art. For thousands of years, they have painted their stories on cave walls and rocky cliffsides. The Linton Panel is perhaps the best-known rock art. This ancient painting depicts the San receiving great strength from a supreme being. According to San lore, this power healed the sick and cleared up any discontent within their tribe. The San believe their rock art is infused with this special force.
The post-apartheid coat of arms for South Africa features San figures from the Linton Panel. These two fist-bumping San are a symbol of greeting and unity. You can find the Linton Panel on display at the South African Museum in Cape Town.
That concludes our look at the small, precious wonders located inside the Milwaukee Public Museum. Next week, Museum Bites will be off celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. See you in 2 weeks. Happy Thanksgiving!
National Geographic – Valley of Kings
South African History Online – Culture of South Africa
South African History Online – South African National Symbols & Heritage
University of Iowa Museum of Art
YouTube – The Mbuti: Children of the Forest (2013)