It’s a tale of mystery and intrigue — perplexing sounds and inexplicable flooding — surrounding a collection of African artifacts.

It starts back in 2014 when a collection of African cultural artifacts was discovered in storage in a stairwell of the art department at Missouri Southern. It included about 320 pieces — woven fabrics, tools, ceremonial masks and carved figures, large and small. There was a small grave marker, a burial head rest, a circumcision skirt and iron bars used as legal tender. They were tribal pieces from the Congo, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria, among other African countries.

The collection was part of a sabbatical research project of Val Christensen, former associate professor of art. Some of the pieces were donated to the university by Vivian Olson and Marianna Keown, former missionaries to Africa. Christensen sought out the other pieces, securing a few from John and Pam Finley of Joplin.

The university called in experts to study the collection and offer recommendations on how to move forward with it. Staff from the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art emphasized the priorities of documenting and cataloging the items, then ensuring their preservation.

With the help of art students, the archiving process began by measuring each piece, taking photographs at various angles, documenting the condition and type of construction, estimating the age and determining each item’s possible use in African culture.

During the process, the artifacts were stored in secure sites where humidity could be controlled, preventing mold, bug infestations or further deterioration. Some of the objects found a place in the same stairwell chamber where they were originally discovered, and the others were moved to an area in Plaster Hall in the university’s School of Business.

That’s where things started getting weird.

One day, a staff member working near the room where the artifacts were stored in Plaster Hall began hearing banging, shrieking and other unusual sounds coming from the artifact room. She summoned Christine Bentley, associate professor of art who oversees the collection’s archiving. While Bentley heard nothing unusual in the room, she found a tribal mask broken on the floor, having fallen from its secure place on a shelf.

A few days later, the artifacts room was flooded by a few inches of water. Maintenance workers could find no clues to explain it.

Because the artifacts were on shelving, none was damaged. But they had to be moved, this time to an environmentally controlled room in the lower level of the university library.

The archiving process continued. Then, that room inexplicably flooded.

“They (the flooded rooms) are unexplained. Even maintenance (staff) couldn’t explain it,” said Bentley.

“It’s fascinating and curious, but there’s skepticism,” she said. “I try to be objective when discussing it with students.”

Some theories about causes of the incidents were offered by Dr. Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris, a University of Missouri-St. Louis art historian who was on campus lecturing about Papua, New Guinea.

She narrowed the suspicious activity to about four objects that she felt were highly “charged” with negative energy. She surmised that they could have come from warring tribes or they were specifically created with powers to exact revenge.

Dr. Lewis-Harris speculated that the charged pieces were craving water, explaining the flooding of the rooms. She recommended that they be stored separately from one another to reduce any conflicts in their negative energies and that there be a sage-burning ceremony to purify them.

“Are these live spirits or just objects?” Bentley asks. “It’s about how to honor these objects.”

This fall, a sage smudging ceremony will be performed by Amanda Keith, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based hoodoo priestess who studied under hoodoo practitioners in Africa. She will be on campus lecturing on hoodoo and voodoo religions.

In the meantime, the space in the library is being used for storage and research. A separate room — windowless, covered with archival plastic and with a dehumidifier — was built within it to afford better protection of the artifacts.

The research room provides space for students in the art department’s Gallery Studies class to continue archiving the pieces and compiling reports that track continued conditions of the artifacts, required for archiving grants Bentley secured for the collection.

The art department will also begin collaborating with history and anthropology classes, allowing those students to learn research and archiving processes, Bentley said.

There can be no solid estimate of the value of the collection until everything is documented. Only the portions of the collection acquired from the Finleys had documentation of appraisal, conducted in 1998 by a senior member of the American Society of Appraisers. Because the items have gained value since then, the appraisal offers only a baseline for establishing value. 

Eventually, Bentley hopes to have a public exhibiting space for the collection. For now, photographs of the artifacts and the details of each can be viewed online at http://artcollection.mssu.edu/AfricanArt/vex1/index.htm.

Marta is an arts columnist for The Joplin Globe.

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