Beloit’s Cube of Curiosities

Memorial Hall, Beloit CollegeBeloit, Wis. — In 1867, when Beloit College opened Memorial Hall as a monument to the Civil War dead, the building housed not only the college’s library but also its cabinet, or museum. As was typical, the collection included rock specimens, Native American artifacts, and other items that been donated for the edification of students. And over the years the collection grew.

Eventually the library got a building of its own, courtesy of Andrew Carnegie, and Memorial Hall ended up housing the college’s Logan Museum of Anthropology, for which the facility was renovated some years back. On the main level a glass-walled building-within-a-building simultaneously stores and displays many of the museum’s treasures—including a fascinating range of Native American artifacts, some unearthed during archaeological digs and others given by collectors, purchased in antique stores, or bought directly from their makers.

Memorial Hall interiorBill Green, the museum’s director, gave me a quick tour. Among the most surprising things he said—I was an English major, so there’s a lot I don’t know about anthropology—was that pottery is a fairly recent innovation, prior to which people often cooked in baskets. The baskets might be sealed with pitch, he said, or might be so tightly woven that they naturally resisted leaking. Baskets couldn’t be put over a fire, of course, so the cook would heat up a rock and then put it in the basket to cook a soup or stew.

The museum’s collection includes a number of beautifully decorated bowls, but almost all have holes punched in the bottoms. Mr. Green said the holes were made to release the vessels’ spirits once the bowls were no longer useful—because they were cracked, for instance, or because they were being included in a burial.

Not everything in the museum’s collection is antique, at least not yet:

The collection includes this pitch-covered basket:
Basket covered in pitch

A bowl decorated with turtles has a hole punched in the bottom to release their spirits:

A dugout canoe from Panama is displayed outside the cube:

The mailing address of the canoe’s collector is carved directly into it:
Mailing address carved into the canoe

In the museum’s foyer is a tablet naming Beloit students and alumni killed in the Civil War. A similar tablet names local residents who lost their lives:
Memorial tablet

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