Any exploration of historical museum collections involves coming across cases of misattribution, mistaken identity, or simply mistakes. How we navigate these traces of curatorial practice, what they tell us, and whether they should be retained in contemporary museum documentation are questions that need to be considered more widely by museum professionals and audiences.
To mark the Spring Festival and Chinese New Year, which brings us all into the Year of the Water Rabbit, we did the obvious thing and looked for rabbits in the collections at MAA. We didn’t find what we thought we would. This made us think about things that aren’t what they seem.
When you search for ‘rabbit’ on MAA’s online catalogue you get 76 results, of which 49 currently have images online.
The first sculpture came to MAA from the dispersal of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1949. The Museum’s Accession Register describes it as a ‘brass casting, rabbit or hare’ from northern Nigeria. This description is repeated on the index card from the original card catalogue for the object, with the addition of a question mark, the universal code for uncertainty or scepticism. Someone else has written, in pencil: ‘Looks more like a dog.’
A luggage label attached to the object bears the number ‘202124’, possibly the Wellcome Collection number, and ‘West Africa’. There is no attempt to identify what the sculpture represents.
American pharmaceutical magnate Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome died in 1936. Throughout the 20th century he had been an avid collector, most interestingly from our point of view of artefacts connected to global medicine, and what might be considered world art or ethnography more generally. After World War II much of his collection was broken up and dispersed among museums in the UK, in a series of distributions where ten institutions were invited and, one after the other, chose objects for their collections.
For most of the 824 objects from the Wellcome Collection now at MAA, there is no documentation that describes the object or details its provenance, although the team at the Wellcome Collection today has been working on their own archives on the dispersal, and we hope our own work on the Stores Move will support the reconstruction of some of the dispersal and reconnect provenances and identities to objects in the care of MAA and other institutions.
Where did the identification of this object as a rabbit come from? From Wellcome? From MAA? From a collector or vendor? Had this person ever seen a rabbit? There are so many questions.
A second sculpture also depicts an alleged rabbit, this time from the maya peoples in Mexico about 1000 years ago.
Rabbits were present in maya mythology. They appear, for example, in the so-called Regal Rabbit Vase, whose owner was the ruler K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Chaahk (693-728 CE). It is also known that the natives of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which today is a World Heritage Site in modern Mexico City, bred rabbits (tochtli) for food and used their bones as tools. The tochtli even appears among the representative animals of the Mexican cosmogony, occupying a place among the 20 signs of the Aztec sun stone.
But this sculpture may not be of them. The museum catalogue again includes a correction. Described as a ‘buffware rabbit’ in the Accessions Register for 1948, the catalogue record has a similar sentence throwing shade on this suggestion: ‘This looks like a dog.’ We’re not sure. Is it a rabbit or a dog?
Misidentifications like this raise questions for today’s museum staff. Of course they should be corrected but what do we do with old information, whether outdated or just plain wrong? Historic documentation can tell us not just about the objects concerned but also about the state of knowledge about artefacts and traditions in the museum at the time the object entered the collections. They may offer clues as to how busy people were, and how careful they were able to be.
But most importantly they remind us to look critically at museum documentation, wherever it is; to use our eyes and ask questions about what we read. The introductory case in the Museum encourages visitors to “Look. Look Again.” A second look is always a good idea.
癸卯 (gui mao or the Rabbit) is known for creativity, care, and refinement. They can be great collectors, enjoy debate, and resist argument and conflict.
恭喜發財 (gong xi fā cái), wishing you a happy and prosperous Year of the Rabbit!