Trading with beads

An exhibition intervention on the significance of glass beads as cross-cultural and trans-epochal trade objects will take place using objects from the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) within the larger thematic context of the first exhibition room at the Münzkabinett, (Numismatic Collection), which offers an impression of the diversity and use of coinage as a means of payment, communication and representation.

The Significance of Glass Beads as Cultural Assets and Barter Objects

Numerous examples from the Ethnologisiches Museum collections bear witness to the worldwide use of glass beads, which circulated in barter on several continents. Glass bead jewellery and clothing stemming from Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Americas came to be included in those collections. Conversely, historical reports and collection records prove that some objects found their way into Berlin collections in exchange for glass beads. This dual function of beads and bead objects can be traced up to the present day: as a material used in regionally specific craft traditions and simultaneously as an alternative currency in the circulation and communication between the continents. Many glass beads came from production facilities near Joblonec (formerly Gablonz), in the Czech Republic, where they were produced in large quantities for export starting in the 19th century. Through trading houses and, to a lesser extent, collectors of ethnographica, the beads reached Africa and the Americas, for example, and replaced other materials in many places.

For the indigenous Ye’kwana group in the border region of Venezuela and Brazil, beads still play an important role in handicrafts and are an expression of indigenous identity. The beads are also converted into merchandise. Although competing, much cheaper products are available, the Ye’kwana continue to use beads from the traditional manufactories in the Joblonec area. The fact that this practice also applies to other groups from that and other regions in the world can be easily verified by the existence of extensive trading networks of companies such as Preciosa, which is based in Jablonec. Both the unworked beads and handmade jewellery are used as a commodity and as an alternative currency.

An Exhibition from Two Perspectives

The historical as well as current significance of beads as barter object and cultural asset for the Ye’kwana will be illustrated with the help of several objects serving as examples and a video installation. Historical examples from the Ethnologisches Museum collection and contemporary examples from Brazil specially made for the exhibition are presented somewhat like two sides of the same coin. Collector Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872–1924), who travelled throughout the Ye’kwana region in 1912 and documented the exchange of objects for beads, is given his say, while representatives of the Ye’kwana, who still make and trade objects from glass beads, also have the opportunity to express their perspective.

Beads to Go: Completing the Trade Cycle

Glass beads have historically been and continue to be a component of a trading network, in which the identification with one’s own cultural assets goes hand in hand with the propagation and marketing of this tradition. The exhibition intervention is not limited to narrating the commercial history surrounding that custom. For the duration of the exhibition the Ye’kwana from Brazil will also be offering their original handcrafted objects for sale in the museum shop.

The presentation is being developed by Andrea Scholz (Ethnologisches Museum), Christian Stoess (Münzkabinett) and Catalina Heroven (General Direcorate) in collaboration with representatives of the Ye’kwana and in association with the cooperative project Geteiltes Wissen (Shared Knowledge) initiated and coordinated by Andrea Scholz.

This exhibition will be accompanied by an event in the series “Global Perspectives on Collections” in the form of a lecture or a discussion evening in James-Simon-Galerie auditorium.

Source : Museen zu Berlin