moesgaard museum, de etnografiske samlinger, ethnography, collections, museum, aarhus, denmark, africa

Displaying Confusion: The Mystery Doll – Africa

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Have you ever wondered how historians, archaeologists and ethnographers come to be certain about facts presented in museums?

Even though curators draw on each other’s expertise across museums, countries and corners of the world, some items are never fully put in place, as it is simply too difficult to determine their origin, use or purpose. And this wind-in-the-hair, expressionistic (lippy? proud? determined? angry?) doll has cost Moesgaard Museum some effort in exactly this endeavour – almost to the point that one could imagine the doll’s grimace to fit the situation perfectly!

His stubbornness shows.

Collected by Svend Juel in the 1970’s Democratic Republic of Congo, experts recognise the figure as a mask performer, in turn representing or impersonating ancestral spirits. Thus, the figure is said to have had a central role in providing young boys with insight into the world of the ancestral spirits, serving an educating purpose in initiation rites.

What makes for the mystery is a confusion as to the doll’s ambiguous characteristics. Because while resembling the above description and function, its clothing, style and manufacture actually don’t seem to fit the commonalities of the area it is expected to originate from, casting doubt as to the assumptions made about it.

Mystery Doll

So, how to display an item like this? If only you could ask the doll itself!

As the puzzle exemplifies a not inconsiderable amount of items in the ethnographic collections of Moesgaard Museum that are more or less data-anonymous, it is quite interesting in relation to the issue of representing other people’s worlds and realities through their things, and the question as to what knowledge actually is?

As such, using the doll as an example of something unknown, it actually gains an intriguing aspect appealing to people’s imaginations and own thoughts and associations as to its use and purpose.

And in this vein, we want to invite you into the speculations! Conclusions are tricky to draw, so let’s not draw them. Where do your thoughts go when looking at this doll?

Feel free to share ideas, memories, fictions or facts in the commentary.

The Mystery Doll is currently at display in the exhibition “The Lives of the Dead” at Moesgaard Museum.

// Ciara Coogan


Photo: © 2014 Jacob Due, Photo/Media Department of Moesgaard Museum.

Byline portrait: © 2015 Line Beck,

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putting thought to things

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