Collection Highlights

133 Objects, 133 Years

The Milwaukee Public Museum curatorial staff have selected 133 of the most important, unique, or interesting objects and collections to highlight during our 133rd anniversary year. These items reflect the broad scope of the over 4 million-plus objects in the Museum's collections. Many of the items featured below are not on exhibit due to their fragile nature. One of the Museum's primary goals is to preserve objects for generations to come. As a virtual exhibit, we can share with people around the world our most rare and intriguing items without harm to them.

Lake Amatitlán Collection
112.) Lake Amatitlán Collection

Milwaukee Public Museum director Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi spent many years excavating in and around Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala. This area was occupied over a great length of time by the Maya, from 500 BC to the Spanish Conquest (about AD 1500). Many items were brought up from the lake by divers, including several ceramic censers, containers used to burn copal incense, which played an important role in Maya rituals. The Milwaukee Public Museum is one of the primary repositories of artifacts from sites from this area. The Museum website has a page on the Lake Amatitlán collection and its history. You can also see the Lake Amatitlán exhibit on the Museum’s Pre-Columbian mezzanine.

Passenger Pigeon
113.) Passenger Pigeon

Once the most common bird in North America, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) or wild pigeon lived in enormous migratory flocks that some estimate were between three billion to five billion upon European arrival.

The species went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction early in the 20th century. Some reduction in numbers occurred because of habitat loss when the Europeans started settling further inland. The primary factor emerged when pigeon meat was commercialized as a cheap food for slaves and the poor in the 19th century, resulting in hunting on a massive scale. Martha, thought to be the world's last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has more than a dozen passenger pigeons in its vertebrate zoology department collection.

Gynandromorphs Collection
115.) Gynandromorphs Collection

Over several decades, James R. "Jim" Neidhoefer, a local businessman with a passion for butterflies and moths, donated his collection of more than 100,000 specimens plus several hundred volumes of rare books and monographs on Lepidoptera.

Within this extensive collection are several hundred gynandromorphs, aberrant forms showing male characteristics on one side of the body and female on the other, and sexual mosaics, displaying mixed female and male characteristics. Gynandromorphism in particular is a rare condition that occurs in perhaps 1 in 50,000 moths and butterflies. The result is an error involving the sex chromosomes in the first cell division and the butterfly or moth is born sterile.

The photo shows Phoebis argante, a Sulfur butterfly (from Santa Catarina, Brazil). The bilaterial gynandromorph is shown between a normal male (left) and female (right) of the same species.

Thanks to Mr. Neidhoefer's donation, the Milwaukee Public Museum houses one of the largest and most extensive collections of these gynandromorphs in the world.

The Fifield Collection
116.) The Fifield Collection

This collection of 21 items contains some of the most exquisite pieces in the Museum's Mesoamerican archaeological collection. Thomas Fifield, lawyer and Museum board member and his wife Marilyn, amassed the collection through art galleries, primarily in New York. Promised as a gift to the Museum many years ago, they were formally donated in 2006, just months before Tom passed on.

The "Artist's" Vase depicted here is Late Classic Maya (550-950 AD). The scene portrayed is that of a ruler being dressed inside his palace. One attendant holds a mirror as another presents the ruler with an elaborate mask or headdress. In contrast to other scenes of sacrifice and ritual, this is an unusually informal scene.

George West Pipe Collection
117.) George West Pipe Collection

George West, a Milwaukee lawyer with a strong interest in archaeology, helped found the Wisconsin Archaeological Society in 1903. West also served on the Board of Trustees of the Milwaukee Public Museum for 32 years, for most of which he was president. Particularly interested in Native American pipes and smoking customs, West began collecting pipes around 1873 and continued to do so for several decades. The West pipe collection consists of 516 pipes; the majority are Native American. They represent all typical pipe styles found in the United States, three-fourths of them from Wisconsin. His is the largest single collection of Wisconsin pipes, and his two volume set Tobacco, Pipes, and Smoking Customs of the American Indians is still a primary reference.

Trinidad Collection
118.) Trinidad Collection
17802 and 17803

Trinidad, one of the islands forming the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the southern Caribbean, has been ruled by several previous European powers, the last being Great Britain. On this small island, people from the various cultures of Asia, Europe, Africa, and native groups live and interact. This rare collection is from the East Indian peoples on the island, and was collected by Milwaukee Public Museum Curator of Anthropology, Dr. Arthur Niehoff, in 1957. The East Indians were brought to the island by the British as indentured servants. The collection, one of only a few in the United States, is important since it shows the cultural exchange and influence that has occurred between the East Indians and the other groups inhabiting the island.

Swiss Lake Collection
119.) Swiss Lake Collection
10108 - 10175, 10185 - 10189

The Swiss Lake sites were first excavated in the mid 1840s and popularized by Swiss archaeologist Ferdinand Keller. Their interpretation as villages located over the lakes brought them much acclaim and made the collections from the sites' excavations much sought after by museums world-wide. Today, it is known that some, but not the majority, of these sites were built over water. They date from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age (4,000 BC-700 BC). The sites are known for preservation of organic materials such as plant remains, wooden artifacts, bone, and textiles, like the one depicted here, that do not usually survive in the archaeological record. Most of the Swiss Lake collection at the Milwaukee Public Museum comes from the site of Robenhausen, Switzerland, located east of Zurich.

Chamacoco Collection
120.) Chamacoco Collection

The Museum's Chamacoco Collection consists of 70 objects, such as this belt ornament made of tropical bird feathers, and represent items both for everyday use and for ceremonies. Collected in 1925 by the Museum of the American Indian in New York, they came to the Milwaukee Public Museum that same year. The Chamacoco live in the Gran Chaco region of northwest Paraguay. The Chamacoco today alternate between their traditional hunting and gathering and more recent light agriculture, craftsmanship, or labor. Their population has dwindled from several thousand to approximately 1,000 people today, and few museums in the United States have such collections.

Peruvian Textiles
121.) Peruvian Textiles
18046, 20517

The Milwaukee Public Museum has approximately 860 Peruvian textiles in its South American collection, a large portion donated in 1964 by collector Malcolm Whyte. Most of these items were obtained from the southwest coast of Peru and are associated with burials. The intricate textiles preserved by the dry, hot climate of the Peruvian desert coast, illustrate a variety of weaving and decorative styles, representing several different cultural periods. Items from the collection can be viewed on the 3rd Floor Pre-Columbian Mezzanine.

Ostrich Shell Belt
122.) Ostrich Shell Belt

This ostrich shell belt was made by the San (Bushmen) of Botswana, a country in southern Africa. Ostrich shells play important roles in their culture, serving not only as beads for body ornamentation, but also as water storage containers, essential in the hot, dry environment in which the San live. To make beads, the egg shell is broken into small fragments, which are further shaped by hand into circular pieces. A small hole is drilled through the center of each bead. The whole process is by hand, so considerable time would have gone into the making of this belt. Jewelry made from ostrich shell is worn almost exclusively by women.