Along with a stop at the White House, The Capitol, the various monuments and memorials, no visit to Washington, D.C. is complete without a visit to the Smithsonian.
Officially begun in 1836, the Smithsonian is comprised of 19 museums, a zoo and nine research center facilities. These are primarily located in Washington, D.C., but there are other sites in New York, Virginia and Panama as well. The museum has over 136 million items in its collections. A person could, quite literally, spend weeks, if not months, taking in all that these incredible resources have to offer.
Every spring and fall, we had our own mini version of the Smithsonian come to Prairie. Conference, as it was known, was a very big deal, not only because we didn't have to attend school, but relatives and friends would travel many miles to attend and there were always exciting things to see and do. To make room for outside guests, many of the students in the dorm would move out and sleep in the gymnasiums which were lined with dozens of mattresses on the floor. The conference was held in the large auditorium that we called the Tabernacle.
Hundreds of missionaries from around the globe would set up missionary booths in Tab East and Tab West and parts in between. The booths would contain literature, artifacts and pictures from the represented country and most had signup sheets to receive additional newsletters and information from the mission. For years after I left home, Mom and Dad received mail which I had signed up for. In between the main meetings and seminars these displays would be open for our perusal. If dramatic tales from the likes of Dr. Arthur Mouw, Don Richardson and Dr. Helen Roseveare didn't thrill and challenge, you could be sure to find something of interest at the booths.
When I was about 8 years of age, I decided that I was going to learn Swahili. A most kindly retired missionary by the name of Ruth Schaefer, who lived in X dorm, (at that time all of the dormitories on campus were named by letter), would patiently try and teach me every Saturday morning. Mrs. Schaefer had been a missionary in Kenya and had mastered the language. At 9 o'clock I would go to her small room in the dorm with my little notebook and try my best to become a world class linguist. It probably comes as a bit of a shock to you that not much stuck, but I do remember "Hello" - "Jambo" and "Friend" - "Rafiki", so I guess I can at least greet you with . . . "Jambo Rafiki"!
Missionaries from the many countries and organizations would be manning the conference booths. Beautiful Japanese dolls, soapstone carvings from the Inuit, fancy beadwork from native American Indians, intricate ivory carvings from India and tribal masks from Africa were all on display. The dried skins of leopards, cheetahs, tigers and lions along with the mounted heads of exotic African animals took their place alongside anacondas, cobras and python skins that were stretched along the top of the walls. Black adders in big pickle jars along with scorpions, tarantulas and other deadly spiders joined beautiful dried butterflies and beetles, making a veritable cornucopia of color. Most of the missionaries would dress up in authentic native clothing - kimonos, saris and dashikis all added to the authentic flavor of the conference. Among the tribal spears, knives, bows and arrows and indigenous work tools, there was one thing that caught my attention. These were the shrunken heads. Real human heads that had been shrunk down to the size of a softball by a very time consuming and tedious process. When you are six years old, that will get your attention!
As I wandered around these many booths, my mind would be transported to all of the exotic locations that these artifacts represented and I would wonder if someday, I, too, would be a missionary.
Before the obsession with body modification became de rigueur in western culture, we saw pictures of elaborate tattoos, piercings of all types, scarification, extended ear lobes, elongated necks and lip discs. We seemed to take all of this in stride and I can't remember being that disturbed or traumatized by these sights.
Some of the booths featured slide shows or special viewers where you could get a better overview of the work. Displays from South America and Papua New Guinea featured partially clad or fully naked pictures of the residents. Large groups of people all staring at the camera with nothing on but a smile on their faces. Some of the women were dressed in grass skirts, suckling small infants, proving that Newton's law of gravity is more than just a theory. It would seem that Victoria's Secret had not yet opened a franchise in any of these countries. Many of the men in the pictures evidently had never heard of Calvin Klein either as indicated by their state of undress.
A group of us curious boys were fascinated by some of the pictures of the male members of the tribes. On closer inspection, we could see a very long bamboo looking column sticking straight up from slightly below the waist of the adult men. WHOA! Was there something wrong with us? Could IT really be in there and was it really THAT long? Was it a lotion, a potion perhaps, a special massage technique? We were pretty sure that our local IDA drugstore didn't sell anything of that nature! Remember, this was long before the little blue pill came onto the scene. No one bothered to explain that this was called a koteka or horrid. It is a phallocrypt or phallocarp traditionally worn by native male inhabitants of some (mainly highland) ethnic groups in New Guinea to cover their genitals and is not sexual in nature at all. We didn't need to worry . . . we were just fine!
The days of those types of missionary display booths are over. So, now, if you are wanting to see lion skins, shrunken heads, poisonous snakes or other exotic artifacts, you just may want to take a little visit to the Smithsonian . . . just be careful what you sign up for!
© 2011 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.