Preface: This post was written by Sayyara Huseynli, Boston Children’s Museum Collections Intern in the spring of 2021. She was an international student at Tufts University pursuing an MA in Museum Education. Upon completion of her studies, she plans to stay in the US and make museum objects more personal through storytelling, especially for people from underrepresented communities.
During her internship, Sayyara conducted two live programs inspired by objects from museum’s cultural collection: exploring a Gara Raksha mask from Sri-Lanka and a serving tray from Iran, which can be watched here. The most memorable part of her research was to hear stories of people from the countries of the object’s origin and include the information into object’s provenance.
Every museum with a collection has materials identified as “found in collection.” Such objects have been disassociated from their records, numbers, or other identifying information. Perhaps they were once familiar to former staff, but with turnover, the institutional memory is lost. These objects are often set aside to be researched and reconciled “as time allows.” But when one of these found in collection items catches someone’s attention, the story emerges. The following is Sayyara’s experience of finding one of these “mystery” objects. (Rachel Farkas, Curator of Collections
I passed by the object every day while working as a Collections Intern at Boston Children’s Museum. At first glance, the object didn’t seem appealing to me with its dull color palette, simple shape and flat surface. However, something about it made me pause and take a closer look. A sense of familiarity, of déjà vu, that reminded me of my hometown of Sheki in Azerbaijan.
Sheki is well known for its unique style of halva (traditional pastry). Everything from the way halva is hand mixed and shaped, then sold on similar giant ribbed trays is an art form. The flashback to my hometown motivated me to conduct further research on the object to understand how its history or use might be connected to my cultural background.
This round metal serving tray without handles has an inner flat base decorated with engravings while the edges along its circumference are ribbed. Interestingly, serving trays or platters are some of the oldest dishware items. The oldest found serving tray is Etruscan and dates back to the 6th-7th century BCE. Without acquisition records, the age of the tray at the museum remains unidentified.
Through close looking and visual investigation, I began to look for clues on the object which would help me understand its history and utilization. The word “Iran,” etched on the back side, was the first clue, suggesting the country of origin. I was certain about this, since I was familiar with similar objects from Azerbaijan and Turkey. Despite the visual similarities, these platters have different names in each country. In Farsi and Azerbaijani it is called “sini” (“سینی”), which means “tray.”
Knowing that the object was from Iran, it was easier to infer the meaning of the engraved inner surface. The scene in the middle shows 4-5 horseback riders wearing traditional clothing. The legs of the horses are lifted up as if in movement and the riders are holding sticks which resemble jousting poles. The rider in the foreground has his pole against a round, ball-like object. Two sets of parallel poles, one set in the foreground with spirals and another in the background with checks, suggest goal poles. Eureka! I finally knew what I was looking at! It is a game called “Chovgan.”
My father performed as a musician at Chovgan matches, held in Sheki. The history of the game dates back to ancient Persia, approximately 600 B.D. – 100 A.D. Chovgan was historically designed to train young men to serve in military cavalry. Some early matches included hundreds of players much like in real time battlefields. In 2013, Chovgan was included in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as part of Azerbaijani culture. In some countries Chovgan is preserved in its original form while in others it has gone through modifications. The widely recognized form of the game is Polo, which is played in nearly 84 countries around the world including England, India, China, Canada and the U.S.
The next step of investigation was to contact someone from the same country as the object. Fortunately, I know an Iranian graduate student, Amin, so I reached out to him. He remembered similar trays at his grandma’s house, especially during family gatherings such as weddings, Nowruz (Iranian New Year) ceremonies, and even funerals. The wide diameter of the inner surface makes it easy to carry lots of plates with food for big gatherings.
Amin identified the etching style on the object as Ghalam Zani, an ancient Persian technique of decorating metal. The depictions of lively actions such as dancing, horse-back riding, wrestling, and historical events are characteristic to Khorasan School of metalwork, the most famous in Iran.
Formerly, it was common to encounter Ghalam Zani engraved trays in every household. With time, due to complexity and tedious craftsmanship the market value of the trays skyrocketed. New technological advancements, such as metal stamping quickly replaced the human hand and lowered the demand for handcrafted pieces. As a result, fewer people are interested in learning the Ghalam Zani technique. As for the ones still made by craftsmen, their prices are so high that only the richest can afford them. Maybe due to the changed monetary value, many families perceive similar objects as hereditary and preserve them instead of utilizing in domestic life. According to Amin, a common sight in most households would be serving trays hanging on the walls like paintings.
I enjoyed learning about the Iranian serving tray, which started with close looking. I would like to encourage readers of this article to conduct your own object research. Pick an object, look closely, and feel free to use my investigation path as a guideline. Most importantly, have fun with it.
What can you infer about an object just by looking at it? What is going on here?