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Texts in Textiles

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The latest episode of the web series Shelf Life features a unique effort by Museum researchers to use cutting-edge DNA sequencing methods to study how a group of ancient languages evolved and spread.  

Language Trees
The latest episode of Shelf Life explores how the evolution of languages can be studied using “trees” like this one.

But there are also ongoing studies of contemporary cultures, and “languages” are still being added to the Museum’s robust ethnographic collections in various ways.

Jacklyn Lacey, curatorial associate in the Division of Anthropology, and Assistant Curator Alex de Voogt have been collecting cultural objects that incorporate text as part of their work in sub-Saharan Africa for the past four years. Over the past year, they have brought back several items that offer interesting insights about contemporary African cultures.

Dutch Textile
Fabric made by the Dutch textile company Vlisco. Catalog no. 90.2/9921

Sometimes, text is an integral and intentional part of an object. That’s the case with this textile collected by de Voogt, which features “V8” and other text referencing high-powered luxury automobiles. In other objects, though, script may make a less direct statement.

Babouche Slippers
This pair of slippers was made from flour bags sourced from a Moroccan refinery.
© Document Journal

Script can be particularly helpful in identifying materials from which objects are crafted. The typography on the slippers pictured above reveals that they were made from flour sacks, says Lacey, who collected them for the Museum on a trip to Morocco in November 2014 with colleague Mohamed Berrada. While text adorning an object made from recycled, or upcycled, materials is not necessarily a clue about the item itself, it can offer other information about daily life.

“When we look at objects like this, we can see that Moroccan flour bags are labeled in French, English, and Arabic,” says Lacey. “That tells you a lot about the culture and its history.”  

In this case, the text is a visual document of colonial history in the region and of the impact that globalization has had on the culture. The footwear was produced in Marrakech’s Nour Kech workshop by craftsmen who trained with master artisans in the Ensemble Artisinale, a government-sponsored program that promotes traditional crafting methods. So while the materials may be modern—with colorful woven plastic from flour bags replacing leather in the uppers—the methods behind making these slippers have been passed down from generation to generation. 

Flour Bags
These flour bags will be turned into slippers, bags, and a variety of other goods by Moroccan craftsmen.
© AMNH/J. Lacey

The way that recycled materials—which often include script—are incorporated into contemporary crafts is of particular interest to ethnographers like Lacey because it is uniquely modern. For much of human history, objects were made from elements found in the natural world, like this spoon made from the jaw of a hornbill bird, collected by anthropologist Laura Watson Benedict in 1906 and accessioned to the Museum’s collection in 1910.

Hornbill Spoon Interior Long
A spoon crafted from a bird’s beak. Catalog no. 70.1/7029C
© AMNH/C. Chesek

“As people urbanize, these are less available for cultural objects, so people turn to what is around them,” says Lacey. “Instead of feather and bone, they turn to things like flour sacks and beer cans.”