Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Ew! What is that?!

April 1st was a pretty exciting day for the collections staff at MOHAI.

First, some background: according to our artifact and donation records, we supposedly have shrunken heads in the collection. Yes, shrunken heads. Which may or may not be real. According to the very informative Wikipedia article on the subject there were some impressive fakes made for the tourist trade, some of which have ended up in museums. But ours were donated early enough in the museum's history that they could be real, and purchased when it was totally legal to buy desiccated human heads as a tourist souvenir.

The thing is, no one on the current staff has ever seen them. We have no idea if they were lost, stolen or transferred years ago, or if they are still lurking somewhere for us to find. Every time we open a dusty drawer or find a mysterious bag on the shelf we think "Am I about to find a human head in here?"

On Monday, while we were packing up stuff at our off-site storage building, I heard a yelp from my coworker who was working in the hat section. "Ew! What is that? Is it an animal?" I heard her squeal. There was commotion and we all gathered around. She had found a old paper bag on one of the shelves, and inside was this:

It is sort of hard to tell what you are looking at, but the thing was about six inches big and clearly a shrunken head. It didn't have an accession number, but then we found a very smudged pencil mark on the bag with a barely legible number. We put it into the database- and sure enough! It was the artifact number for missing set of shrunken heads! 

We were excited and grossed out and all offering thoughts on whether or not it was real. Mostly the vote was in favor of fake, but since none of us had a real clump of dry, cranial flesh to compare to, it was hard to say with 100% confidence. 

When we remarked that it was strange to discover it on April Fools Day, one of the members of our packing team got extra smiley and then tried to hide it. I didn't believe it at first, but it turned out that he had orchestrated the whole thing with the woman who "discovered" it acting as an accomplice. The head was fake and had been purchased at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop (which is a cool old Seattle store with its own interesting history) and then hidden during our lunch break. The thing was, once we found out it was a hoax it sort of dampened the mood. Later we started laughing about what a good prank it was, but in the moment I was pretty sad that we hadn't finally located one of our long lost artifacts.

Which means the shrunken heads could still be out there. Waiting. Lurking. Are they in that box of wigs? In the pocket of that dark cloak? Sleep tight museum nerds, and always remember to wear your gloves when reaching into dark corners.

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