Trading with beads
Knowledge, Worlds, Values

21.01.2020 to 03.05.2020

The temporary intervention Trading with Beads: Knowledge, Worlds, Values will be featured in the middle of the collection display of the Münzkabinett. With reference to four objects from the Ethnologisches Museum, the cultural significance of glass beads will be explored, both as a cross-cultural object of barter (one which is still in use to this day), and as a material used in regionally specific artisan traditions.

The Significance of Glass Beads as Cultural Assets and Objects of Barter

Glass beads connect disparate worlds. They form networks between the Global North and South, between East and West. The glittering product of mass manufacturing processes, they are also used to create intricate objects of decorative art. Originally used by Western travellers and traders as currency and objects of barter, far away from Europe’s shores they became symbols of indigenous identity and were made into individual works. These then found their way into museums as examples of cultural traditions and artistry. Glass beads circulate between systems of value and knowledge. For the collectors of ethnographic objects, they served as currency that they could exchange for objects they viewed as being considerably more valuable. Their trading partners then transformed the beads into new objects of value through their craftsmanship, lending them new meaning.

Global Trade

Numerous objects from the collections of the Ethnologisiches Museum bear witness to the worldwide use of glass beads, which circulated as objects of barter on several continents. Both objects that had been exchanged for glass beads and decorative jewellery and clothing adorned with beads stemming from Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Americas came to be included in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum. These supposedly low-value objects of barter used by Western traders were integrated into the artisan traditions of indigenous groups in the Amazon, for example, and in the case of the Ye’kwana people, the Kayapó and others, even into their mythology. Though the production of the beads was a mystery to them, they resembled other materials they had used down the ages to create jewellery and other objects, such as brightly coloured seeds.

Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the Bead Industry

In 1912, during his trip from Roraima to the Orinoco , collector Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872–1924) visited the region of the Ye’kwana people, and documented the exchange of glass beads for other objects.

Alongside two historical beaded aprons from around 1910 acquired by Koch-Grünberg, the exhibition features two contemporary pieces produced in 2019, and purchased directly from the indigenous organisation of the Ye’kwana in Brazil. This organisation is a partner in our collaborative project Geteiltes Wissen (Shared Knowledge) at the Ethnologisches Museum, through which the historical collection is being used to build new connections between the museum and the communities from which the objects in the collections originate.

The Significance of Glass Beads for the Ye’kwana

For the Ye’kwana people, who live in the Amazon region along the border that separates Venezuela and Brazil, beads still play an important role in their decorative arts and handicraft, and are an expression of their indigenous identity. Beaded aprons, such as those featured in the exhibition, are worn by women at ceremonial occasions, while jewellery made of beads is either worn by Ye’kwana people themselves or sold. A video documentary in the exhibition illustrates the contemporary significance of glass beads for the Ye’kwana people, and the production processes of the beaded aprons.

The Production of Glass Beads in Jablonec

A great deal of these glass beads were produced in Jablonec nad Nisou, in the Jizera Mountains in Bohemia (Czech Republic), where, from the mid-18th century, glass wares such as buttons, imitation gemstones, beads, and chandelier crystals were produced in large quantities. A conglomeration of mostly small-scale producers were organised into the so-called Gablonzer Industrie, forming a large production and distribution network that was focussed heavily on exports. After the Second World War, these companies were placed under state control in Czechoslovakia, with the German producers relocating to the region around Kaufbeuren. To this day, the Czech company Preciosa, from Jablonec, continues to produce the “rocailles” that are so prized by Indigenous tribes in the Amazon. A number of these are on display within the permanent collection of the Munzkabinett alongside other examples of non-coin currency.

Glass beads have historically been and continue to be a key 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. To accompany the exhibition, the Ye’kwana people from Brazil will also be offering their original handcrafted objects for sale in the museum shop.

Exhibition intervention as part of the series WEITWINKEL: Andrea Scholz (Ethnologisches Museum), Christian Stoess (Münzkabinett) and Catalina Heroven (General Directorate), in collaboration with representatives from the Associação Wanassedume Ye'kwana – SEDUUME, and as part of the collaborative project Geteiltes Wissen (Shared Knowledge), initiated and coordinated by Andrea Scholz.

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