comb, bolivia, moesgaard museum, de etnografiske samlinger, ethnography, collections, museum, aarhus, denmark

Tales of the ordinary: Bolivian comb

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South America

In the galleries of museums – the almost holy institutions of Knowledge – audiences expect to see treasures, exotic objects, and curiosities from around the world. Objects that can excite, create fear, joy, and admiration. But, how does this comb fit into that picture? An orange comb made of plastic; it is to found, bought, and used all around the world for pocket change. A rather simple piece of technology; although effective. On top of it, it is made of plastic – a material so profane that it would seem to be excluded from the elevated galleries of the Temple of Knowledge – the Museum.

This particular comb is collected by the anthropologist Annie Oehlerich in Izozog, Bolivia, in 2000. It was collected for the UNESCO collections (which are education collections for Danish schools) in order to communicate the daily life among the Guarani tribe in the time around the new millennium. In that way, it serves its purpose beautifully. On top of that, the comb was a part of the ethnographic exhibition “One World – a Thousand Stories” shown in Moesgaard Museum from 2007-08. Here it was a part of an installation, where only red objects from the museum’s ethnographic collection was on display. Although the ethnographic context of each object in this installation was a bit downplayed, laying emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of the colour red, the comb proved its significance. It is an ethnographic object with explanatory powers, I would say.

At the moment, the ethnographic exhibition in Moesgaard Museum is about death – death as a phenomenon which all people around the world have in common. It is universal. In the same way, hair and the wish to have beautiful or at least tamed hair seems to be universal. In our collections, we also have combs from before plastic was invented. Combs made of wood, bone, or other materials found in nature, have satisfied the need to tame the human hair. Furthermore, it underlines a rather recent trend in ethnographic museums, which is not to focus exclusively on the past in ethnographic exhibition making, but to reflect upon contemporary issues. This trend – broadly speaking – in no more than 25 years old, but in the ethnographic collections of Moesgaard Museum it has been a focus since the 1960s.

So – this orange comb represents – in some way – a hot trend in ethnographic exhibition making and ethnographic theorising: the power of ethnographic objects used in the everyday lives of ordinary people around the world. Globalisation, beauty, consumption, self-representation are all keywords that can be attached to it.

//Ulrik Høj Johnsen

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