In the spring of 2009, Ernestine O’Connell was recovering nicely at home in Venice, Fla. Just a few months earlier, the 85-year-old woman had suffered minor injuries during a traffic accident while on a trip to Africa.
As she felt better, O’Connell found herself growing restless. She decided that for her next trip, she wanted to go somewhere “easy,” a place she’d been before.
“So she went to the North Pole on an icebreaker barge,” said Carrie Cutchens, curator of collections at the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples, her voice rising in amazement. “It was her eighth trip to the North Pole.”
The feisty O'Connell, who held a doctorate in science education, was more than well traveled. She'd been visiting far-flung places since she was four years old, when her parents began taking her with them on exotic vacations. After her own retirement from a teaching career — at age 40 — she began traveling nearly nonstop, as much as 10 months out of the year. She trekked to remote corners of the globe, including parts of Asia, South America, India, Russia, China, the Middle East, Africa and Papua New Guinea. On return to Florida, she gave lectures about her travels.
"She was a pistol," said Cutchens, who worked closely with O'Connell during the last year of the older woman's life and now oversees her material legacy at the Golisano. "She was fiercely independent, strong-willed, intelligent and she had an Irish temper. She was just a passionate person."
And, it would seem, a passionate collector. Over the years, O'Connell amassed a trove of masks, carvings, musical instruments and personal adornments from around the globe. Fortunately for the museum, the older woman also was a fabulously organized record-keeper who kept meticulous notes about her purchases. She took more than 140,000 color slides of her travels and left behind typed lecture notes and audiotapes of her presentations.
O'Connell was an only child who never married or had children. As she aged, she began looking for a good home for her collection. She contacted the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, which sent curators to look it over. One of them, who'd worked previously at a children's museum, suggested O'Connell get in touch with the children's museum then under development in Naples.
Joe Cox, executive director of the Golisano Children's Museum, was intrigued by the notion of incorporating her artifacts into the future museum's exhibits and made an appointment to visit her.
"I went up to Venice and knocked on her door," Cox said. "Here comes Dr. O'Connell, framed in the background by floor-to-ceiling masks and puppets and textiles. There literally was not a square inch of space anywhere on the walls, on the tables, in the cupboards that was not covered with these things. We started walking through her bungalow — it was a one-story, simple place — and room after room was full of her things. Finally, it seemed as if we were done," he said.
"Then, she opened one last door, and behind it was a treasure cave of full-body masks and costumes and an entire Noah's Ark she had put together of little animal charms from a hundred different countries. There was a map with pins showing all the countries she'd visited, and her journals and slides. I thought to myself, 'We're only building a 30,000-square-foot museum. Where will we put all of this?'
"But it was something we absolutely wanted to incorporate into the museum," Cox added.
O'Connell died of natural causes in October 2009, leaving a $7.4 million donation to Boston University, her alma mater. She bequeathed the contents of her home to the Golisano, which officially opened its doors to the public in February.
All told, her collection numbers about 2,000 objects from 145 countries. It includes roughly 200 masks, 750 carvings and figurines, and 100 Nativity sets from countries around the world. Most of it is now in off-site storage, though museum visitors can see selections from it on display in the window of Cutchens's second-floor office.
Objects from the O'Connell collection will also be shown in the museum's World Café area, where children play at making and serving food from various parts of the globe. Through the end of September, England is showcased. After that comes Germany from October through December. O'Connell didn't collect much in Europe, so don't expect to see many of her things on view in that part of the museum until 2013, when Canada, Lebanon, India and New Guinea will be on the menu.
Faces of culture
Some of the most spectacular objects in the O'Connell collection are the masks. There's a knock-your-socks-off devil mask from Bolivia, made of painted tin. With its metallic bug eyes, ferociously bright colors and waving horns, this demon is a cartoonishly fearsome creation, meant to be worn in Carnival celebrations.
Another stunning mask comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Made by the Kuba people, the mask is made of painted wood and woven fiber, accentuated by cowrie shells and thick lines of beading. The mask represents a female ancestral figure, and is of a type that would have been worn in funeral and initiation rituals. Its abstracted facial features give the mask a distant, otherworldly expression.
In China, O'Connell acquired a finely crafted child's mask that was made around 1900. Constructed in the shape of a hood, the mask would have been draped over a boy's head and shoulders to ward off evil spirits. The richly embroidered and appliquéd silk garment speaks of a refined heritage of needle arts.
A dance mask from Thailand conveys the opulent aesthetic of Southeast Asian dramatic performances. It's an ornate, triple-tiered creation that must make its wearer feel towering. Made of layers of paper maché embellished with gilt and hundreds of tiny mirrors, the mask represents a demon king.
A small, graceful Eskimo figure made of bone and antler embodies a different type of artistic heritage. The tiny drummer appears to be caught up in a spontaneous dance. Unlike much tribal or ethnographic art, which tends to be anonymous, this sculpture was made by a native Alaskan artist by the name of Vitesha.
O'Connell also collected a few oddities along the way. One of the weirdest objects in the collection is a Tibetan bone flute, acquired at the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, India, where it may have been brought by a fleeing Tibetan monk. O'Connell's notes describe the flute as made from the thighbone of a 17-year-old virgin.
Though that line has the ring of a story concocted by a merchant eager to make a sale, musical instruments and other objects made of human bone have been studied and identified among the artifacts of Tibetan Buddhism.
Many collectors, according to anthropologist Marjorie Akin, are motivated by a desire for a personal connection with the past. In her essay "Passionate Possession: The Formation of Private Collections," Akin wrote that collectors may also want to express their personal taste, demonstrate their individualism by collecting unusual things or "complete themselves" in some way.
"I think O'Connell collected because she loved the artistry and the workmanship" of the things she acquired, Cox said. "That appealed to her because she was an artist, too. She did metalwork, she sculpted and she sewed."
Cutchens, on the other hand, stresses a different side of the collector. "Basically, Dr. O'Connell was kind of a self-taught anthropologist. She studied people and peoples."
Whatever her exact motivations, Dr. Ernestine O'Connell put together an amazing trove of material culture that will enrich the experience of visitors to the Golisano Children's Museum of Naples for many decades to come.