Cycle of Life
by AMNH on
Curator Laurel Kendall was visiting Vietnam to collect artifacts for the 2003 exhibition Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit when she encountered an exceptional artisan near Hanoi. His medium was paper, and his specialty was creating votive offerings used in funeral rituals by the Kinh people, Vietnam’s majority population.
The Kinh, in common with some other East Asian peoples, believe that a deceased leaves the underworld 49 days after death to begin a new life. Family members burn paper objects—representing clothing, housewares, and other necessities—to equip their loved ones for the transition to the afterlife.
Kendall, who is chair of the Museum’s Division of Anthropology, commissioned the craftsman to make a bicycle, a copy of one he’d made for a local family. The seat is made of black paper; the body and tires, cardboard tubing covered in foil and fabric, respectively; the fenders, stiff white paper; wheel spokes, foil-covered wood skewers; and the chain around a silver-foiled cardboard sprocket, continuous links carefully cut from purple paper. His creation is so remarkably lifelike that, says Kendall, “when it was being conserved for use in the exhibition, the lab had to provide signage to prevent visitors from trying to sit on it.”
Now the bicycle is tucked away in the Division of Anthropology’s collections on the Museum’s fifth floor, where it is still turning heads. “This is one of the most remarked-upon objects in anthropology storage,” says Kendall. “Visitors are surprised to see an ordinary-seeming Peugeot bicycle in a glass storage case, and then doubly surprised to discover that it is made of paper and meant to be burned in a funeral rite.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.