Curator Faves: Environmental Life Edition

1, October 2017

Our region’s location at the center of the continent, with many great rivers, is enviable for building community and culture. Geography and environments collide and combine here, creating tremendous biological and resource diversity. As an environmental historian, I’m interested in the choices we make—as our region's current residents—and how those choices will (or won't) sustain future generations. As a curator, I want to preserve and exhibit artifacts that get people excited about our history of decisions. I also want others to know the wonder of our past and the thrill of our present and future. Fortunately for me, the Missouri Historical Society’s collecting history spans more than 150 years and contains objects from prehistoric times up to today. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to choose which of the rich and varied artifacts are my favorites, but I’ll give it a go.

1. Wolf Matriarch

Color photo of the taxidermy mount of AnnaTaxidermy mount of Anna, a Mexican gray wolf who passed away in April 2015. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Mexican gray wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. The one shown here, Anna, was a truly spectacular animal who lived at the Endangered Wolf Center (EWC) in Eureka, Missouri, and birthed 41 pups. She’s the main reason why the Mexican gray wolf now has a chance for a species comeback.

I’m awestruck by not only Anna’s great mothering capacity but also the perseverance, knowledge, and imagination of the team at the EWC. They work tirelessly to breed and reintroduce endangered canines to the wild, especially wolves and foxes. Wild wolves no longer live free in our area, but this taxidermy mount symbolizes how a few captive ones are helping to reconnect people and nature.

2. Westward-Bound Weaver

Color photo of wood rocker beater loomRocker beater loom that belonged to the Bugg family of Boone County, Missouri, ca. 1835. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

This handmade loom immigrated to the lower Missouri River Valley with early American settlers from Virginia and/or Kentucky in about the 1830s, following the trajectory of many North American colonists of European descent. Its unusual technology, with the beater rocking on the floor rather than swinging from above, helped support a family for generations by weaving homespun flax or wool. Another family acquired the loom in the 1940s, using and adapting it for decades before breaking down its parts in the 1980s to transport it west again, this time to Colorado. We’re all fortunate that it recently boomeranged back to near its longtime home and was donated for others to study and appreciate.

3. A Little Brown Jug

Color photo of brown water-purification jugWater-purification jug made by Planet Manufacturing Company between 1875 and 1925. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Outside of boiling water, which people have been doing for a long time, I was unaware of early water-purification systems for the home until several years ago, when a Florida man wanted to donate this jug to our collections. Research into the jug’s maker and purpose paid off, revealing that a little-known local company had fashioned unglazed jugs like this one for use as filters. The user would submerge the jug in a bucket of dirty water all the way up to its mouth. The dirty water would then seep inside through the porous terra-cotta, driving clean water out the top through a hose in the jug’s neck. Even the silty water of the Missouri or Mississippi Rivers could come clean this way.

4. Water Monster in a Pot

Color photo of water monster potWater monster pot, dating to between 1000 and 1400 AD. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Our collection of prehistoric American Indian artifacts reflects a human presence in this region that dates back more than 10,000 years. Many of the pots from the Mississippian period are marked with the heads and other anatomy of people and creatures. Quite a few are recognizable animals, but this one resembles something known as a water monster, a powerful spirit that shaped man’s relationship with the terrestrial and unseen worlds. Dark brown and gray, this bowl is handmade of clay from the river bottomland and tempered with crushed freshwater mussel shells to make it stronger and more durable. It’s a creature of the river and the river people who once raised a tremendous civilization along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

5. A Humble Shell Hoe

Color photo of the front and back of a shell hoeShell hoe used between 1000 and 1400 AD. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Tools are a terrific reminder of how we shape our world with our minds, eyes, and hands. After all, we are what we do where we do it. This tool originated in the stream not far from its maker’s door. A mussel, of a species now extinct from nearby waters, was caught, and the animal inside the shell was probably eaten. This half of the shell was lashed to a wood handle via the drilled hole and then used as a blade to dig in the rich soil of the river bottom. Corn, amaranth, and other domesticated crops added to diverse and abundant wildlife, helping make possible the civilization that grew at Cahokia and its satellite communities.

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Despite having a wealth of objects under my care, I always wish for more artifacts that vividly demonstrate our relationship with the natural world. Even as more of it is masked with built environment, I hope we can all experience the excitement of where and when the underlying context pokes through, adding meaning and purpose to our lives in the process.

—David Lobbig, Curator of Environmental Life

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