What is it like to work with something that is seemingly as ordinary as glass beads? What would actually make someone excited to be given such an extensive (perhaps tedious to some) project? Besides the fact that, perhaps to the detriment of my bank account, I do happen to have a bit of a jewelry fascination, for me, beads tell a story. A story of a culture andof the people working with glass who feel a need or desire to own and make such small items, whether for trade, to remember their ancestors, to beautify their bodies, or for one of a thousand different reasons that exist.
As a college student I found myself interested in anthropology and the desire to understand cultures that were not my own, which ultimately led to a degree in cultural anthropology. I found that I often gravitated to the arts in these cultures, exploring the creation of masks in West Africa or the representation of jaguars in Mesoamerican societies. In my view, glass beads continue in this path of a useful, desired, and artistic representation of culture. Cultures all over the world have used beads for centuries for many of the reasons I stated above, leading to a plethora of examinable data, the beads themselves. As I begin to look at these and try to learn more, I see the similarities and the differences. Such as the Venetian trade beads that are so well known in West Africa and how those affect the traditional glass beadmaking that was a part of their own culture. Beads that sometimes look so similar, but to touch one is to feel how differently they were made.
These beads are far from ordinary and they tell the stories of a people that may no longer be able to tell those stories to us. For me the most daunting part is first, the sheer number of glass beads made all over the world. Will I ever know or recognize all of these? Most likely not, but I’ve made a start. The other overwhelming problem for me is truly understanding how they were made as I work to better understand the process of glassmaking in general. Perhaps a beadmaking class is in my future?
-Adrienne Gennett, curatorial assistant