Collecting the Body, Transferring Desire

What do a Japanese sword, stiletto shoes, a penis sheath, and a Barbie have in common? Curated by UVM students, “Collecting the body, Transferring Desire” is one of the new spring exhibits at the Fleming Museum. On view are different objects of desire, or what some might call fetishes of different cultures.

Contrary to popular belief, ‘fetish’ is not a word referring exclusively to all things sexual. The word fetish is derived from French, Portuguese and Latin, meaning “a material object believed among primitive cultures to have magical power” or “an object of unreasonably excessive attention.” Both of these definitions apply to the current exhibit which encompasses objects from 400 B.C.E through the 20th century.

All objects on display are intended to groom, beautify or modify the body in some way. An interesting aspect of the exhibit is to observe the ideals of beauty in different cultures. African lip plates, Chinese foot binding shoes, hair jewelry and huge earrings once were, and in some cases still are, trends followed by women.

Another theme is that of objects relating to death. Aside from the Japanese sword and other weapons, on display are pots used in death-related rituals, as well as an interesting concept of appropriate jewelry for a funeral. A 19th century Opium Pipe is one of the few objects that do not refer to physical modification, but rather to mind alteration. The exhibit does an excellent job of combining history, taboos, fashion and anthropology into one room.

“Collecting the Body” was put together during last fall’s Museum Anthropology 250 Class, and is the first exhibit at the Fleming to have been curated by students since the 1970’s. The exhibition was advised by Margaret Tamulonis, the Fleming’s Manager of Collections and Exhibitions, and Anthropology lecturer David Houston. The exhibit will remain open until June 5th 2005.