- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006

The Bead Museum in Washington’s Penn Quarter gets about 8,000 visitors each year. How can there be so much interest that a museum can be devoted entirely to beads?

First, the museum is housed in a single room, and second, beads play a much more important role than most people think, says Hilary Whittaker, vice president of the museum board.

“Beads are the oldest artifacts of mankind,” Ms. Whittaker says. “After feeding and sheltering were taken care of, people started to develop adornments that said, ‘I’m rich,’ ‘I’m a farmer,’ or what have you,” she says. “The beads were a form of identifier.”

Ms. Whittaker says the first known beads are about 70,000 years old and were found in South Africa. Later, beads started appearing elsewhere, such as shell beads in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. Other materials used in these early beads include soft, natural materials such as soapstone.

As cultures got more advanced, artisans learned to drill and polish harder materials to create beads, says James W. Lankton, a bead researcher who put together the museum’s temporary exhibit “Bead Timeline of History,” which will continue through March.

“The production of beads tells us something about the level of technical skill — advancement — in a culture,” says Mr. Lankton, who was a practicing anesthesiologist before he began devoting himself to bead research full time. “[Researchers] have found a type of diamond polishing in China from about 4,000 years ago, which is pretty remarkable.”

Another popular bead material in China was jade. The exhibit shows some examples of Chinese jade beads that are about 5,500 years old. They feature the characteristic dragon design.

“We think the dragon design might have appeared in bead design first,” Mr. Lankton says.

A little later, about 3,500 years ago, man-made materials such as glass started being used, he says.

The timeline exhibit, which features hundreds of beads varying in size from 2 millimeters (.08 of an inch) to about 15 centimeters (6 inches), shows that beads get more and more elaborate the more recently they were made.

In ancient Rome, intricate face beads started appearing, in 15th-century Venice, chevron beads — colorful beads made of several layers of glass — were made and took the world by storm, Mr. Lankton says.

“These were probably the type of beads that Columbus had with him to the New World,” he says.

Aside from the production aspect, beads also can reveal a lot about a culture, he says.

“Consumption — who wore the beads — tells us about things like status in society; and exchange — as in trade — teaches us about things like trade routes,” he says.

The last two cases in the timeline exhibit hold contemporary beads, some elaborate, some humorous. There is a bead with a Marilyn Monroe portrait inside it; another looks like a miniature aquarium with exotic fish; a third mimics the shape of an African fertility goddess.

In addition to the bead timeline, the museum is able to squeeze one more exhibit in its tight space. “The Eternal Bead,” which also runs through March, highlights the functions beads have played play in different cultures and times.

One of its functions is to help identify what status the bearer has or had in society. In China during the 18th and 19th centuries, members of the court wore official court necklaces made of jade, glass and rose quartz, which helped distinguish them from members of society.

Beads also play an important part in religious rituals and customs. The exhibit shows a mask made of shell beads and animal hide that is used in ceremonial dances in the Kuba culture (the Democratic Republic of Congo).

The exhibit also highlights beads used for snuff bottles and in marriage necklaces; chevron beads (which were used to barter for slaves, gold and ivory in Africa); beaded masks used for protection against evil spirits; and an abacus, in which beads assist in counting.

This varied uses of beads, particularly in items such as masks, in which the beads don’t look beadlike, begs the question: What makes a bead a bead?

According to the museum, “Anything that can be strung to adorn or decorate a person, thing or place” is a bead.

When you go:

Location: The Bead Museum is at 400 Seventh St. NW.

Directions: The museum is in the District’s Penn Quarter, just north of the Mall.

Hours: The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. It also is open from 6 to 8 p.m. every third Thursday. Call for dates.

Parking: Limited metered street parking is available. The Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop on the Yellow, Green and Red lines is nearby.

Admission: Free. Suggested donation is $3.

Information: 202/624-4500 or www.beadmuseumdc.org.

Notes:

• The museum is close to dozens of restaurants and coffee shops in the Penn Quarter.

• Among upcoming events at the museum is a Family Fun Day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 4. Activities will include treasure hunts, jewelry-making projects, demonstrations and tours of exhibits. The event is free, but donations are encouraged.

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