- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

It's hard to believe these are creations born of beads.

Vivid, sparkling and breathtaking in their cleverness, pieces from the Bead Museum DC's new exhibit, "The Audacious Bead," stretch the expectations of sculpture and adornment.

A queen's scepter of pearly beads woven into a footlong royal staff. Strands of blue, silver and white beads cascading from a winter fountain. A beaded black basket of luminous blue tears. The collection will charm and intrigue patrons of any age especially children.

"This exhibit has such great pieces for kids," says Ellen Benson, a volunteer at the museum and a retired high-school teacher. "These are all pieces that really engage kids because they're so imaginative. You can ask them what they think the artist was trying to say, discuss color with them. You see a multitude of themes expressed by the beads."

The entire contents of the museum cross a spectrum of interests: history, archaeology, sociology, geography, decorative arts and the craft of beading, volunteer Hilary Whittaker says. Many of these interests unite the 450 members of the Bead Society of Greater Washington, the sponsoring organization of the museum. Any one of these themes might beguile a child.

Take history.

"Beads were first used from the dawn of man," Ms. Whittaker says. Early people created their first necklaces from a string of jawbones or teeth.

"It's fundamental to the spirit of man to bedeck oneself," she says. When people developed a new product be it steel or glass, for example the first was for utility purpose. The second was for body decoration.

"If beads could just talk and tell stories of all the people they've decorated," Ms. Whittaker muses.

The museum's permanent collection contains a vast assortment of beads from ancient to modern. The oldest, Nassus shell beads from northern Syria, date to 10,000 B.C.

All are cataloged and displayed using a timeline to tell the story of beads as artifacts of mankind, Ms. Whittaker says. Those who view the permanent collection are aided by an easy-to-use cataloging system that contains information on each bead: its history, country of origin and manner in which it was made.

The diminutive museum one room, actually opened in the heart of Northwest Washington in 1997. Most of the exhibit art and the permanent pieces are safely housed in glass cases that easily are examined by little eyes and inquiring minds but as welcome relief for parents keep their contents safe from investigating fingers. The space contains an extensive library and a small area reserved for children, where they can color pictures and string beads.

Visitors to the museum are greeted at the door by a volunteer, who offers an interactive tour of the exhibits. Docents usually provide activity sheets for children, which vary from simple crossword puzzles on the contents of the exhibits to self-checked fact sheets.

Several times a year, the museum holds a Family Fun Day. Beads from the world over are brought in for this event and children are taught bead appreciation and are encouraged in hands-on activities. The next Family Fun Day is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. May 19.

The museum, run almost solely by volunteers, is remarkable in its reach, Ms. Benson says.

"We're quite small," she says. "But because beads span the globe, we're bigger than any of the other museums. Our message is huge."


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