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A debut 73 years in making; New Science Museum show unveils artifacts first acquired in '38

Abstract and human-shaped wood carvings, decorative blades and spears, colorful clay skulls and chiseled crocodile and bird forms are among the diverse artifacts in the Buffalo Museum of Science's newest exhibition, "Journeys Into Papua: Exploring the South Pacific."

The museum's first full-scale show of the artifacts, it turns out, was 73 years in the making.

When the 6,200-piece Percy George Theodore Black collection, which makes up the bulk of the display, first arrived at the museum in crates in 1938, the only documentation accompanying it consisted of handwritten tags attached to some of the artifacts.

Museum President Chauncey Hamlin had purchased the South Pacific collection, sight unseen, in order to mount an exhibition of the primitive art of the Oceanian culture. But without more information, -- including whether Black had collected the artifacts himself or purchased them second-hand -- the scientific value of the collection was compromised.

Fast-forward to 1994, when former museum anthropology curator Kevin P. Smith followed a lead to Charles Black, Percy Black's grandson, who had three metal trunks that once belonged to his grandfather stored away in his home near San Francisco. The trunks contained diaries, photographs and other documentation Percy Black had kept while collecting the artifacts between 1886 and 1916.

Fast-forward again to May 2010, when Black's great-grandson, John Black, donated all of the materials to the museum. Black's documents cleared up many of the mysteries that long surrounded the collection and made possible the museum's first full-scale show of the artifacts.

"This December, the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences celebrates its 150th anniversary. We thought, what better way to do it than highlighting one of our key collections, which is famous internationally but not very well-known in Buffalo," said Kathy Leacock, curator of collections.

Parts of the collection were exhibited over the years, but the story of Black was never told.

The museum did contribute a dozen pieces to the earliest exhibition of Oceania art, held at the Museum of Modern Art In New York City in 1946.

"That's why the collection is well-known, Leacock said. "That was the show."

The current exhibit, with its museum-quality lighting and brand-new display cases, looks less like a typical science museum show and more like one that might be found at an art gallery.

That was intentional, Leacock said.

"We wanted to do this exhibition a little bit more like an art show. Normally, we would build a diorama and maybe put fake grass on the floor. Dioramas are cool, but we wanted to do something different," she said.

Large photographs taken in the early 1920s by John Hurley, and on loan from the Australian Museum, hang from the walls to provide historical context.

The show also includes collections from Harold and Mary Cohen, from 1977, and Charles Rand Penney, from 1997. Together with the Black collection, they offer for comparison artifacts that span centuries.

In one example, four ancestral carvings of wood, pigments and plant fibers displayed side by side stretch across nearly 90 years, yet appear as if from the same period.

Some craftsmen are identified, which was unusual for that time, Leacock said. Among them was Mutuaga, a master wood carver whose nine decorative lime spatulas and human figures are displayed.

"From an international standpoint, other museums would absolutely flip over these," Leacock said. "Very rarely in historical African art and ethnographic art do you know the artist or maker. There are only 80 known examples of his work, and we have 13 of them. They are the most important pieces of the entire Black collection."

There are displays of clay bowls, mourning attire and, toward the end of the exhibit, a string bag made to carry a cellphone -- the first nod to the 21st century.

"Journeys Into Papua," presented by Bank of America and education sponsor AAA Travel, runs through Jan. 8. Guided tours will be offered with Leacock at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 and with Robert Foster, professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester, on Oct. 5 and Dec. 1.

Also on exhibit at the museum is "If a Starfish Can Grow a New Arm, Why Can't I?," through Jan. 8, and "Leonardo Da Vinci: Machines in Motion," through Oct. 23.

email: msommer@buffnews.com