“Have you heard the story about ‘Pukpuk’?” She asked, as we stood in front of a glass case in Asia, or rather the ‘Asia’ section of the permanent gallery at the Musee d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG). “No,” I responded, amused by the sound of the unfamiliar word.
My eyes traced the outline of the wooden boy behind the case: hunched over, small, expressionless. Just next to him was a large ominous-looking wooden staff. The staff hung delicately in the case, almost as if it was floating in mid-air. I looked a bit closer and noticed that it had long ebony strands shooting out from the top of the handle — the black threads looked a lot like human hair.
“The ethnologist in charge of this section of the gallery told me that the story of this piece, to him, is the most fascinating and equally the most disturbing in the museum.”
Laurence Berlamont-Equey is the communications manager at the MEG. As she effortlessly answered the questions I had about a particular piece or section of the museum, from the ultra-modern library upstairs to the Ark and the Pocket Theater, she continued to insist that she didn’t know as much as she would like about the over 80,000 objects housed at the MEG.
But who/what was Pukpuk? Desperately invested at that point, I listened intently.
“In certain parts of Indonesia, between the 19-20th century, the people believed that if a young boy would sacrifice himself voluntarily, then his remains could be used as a powerful supernatural substance that would protect the village from all types of catastrophes,” Laurence told me. She paused briefly, gauging my reaction. I looked back at the case and noticed a small vessel just to the left of the boy.
“Of course, it would be difficult to get a young boy, or anyone for that matter, to voluntarily sacrifice their life so nobly. Therefore, the people of the village would select any boy and bury him neck-deep in the earth. They would not feed him or give him anything to drink, but would put the food just near enough to his face so he could see it and smell it, but not reach it.”
At this point I felt extremely uneasy, but I needed her to continue. I imagined what would happen next; a stoning? But that wouldn’t be voluntary. I stopped picturing what grisly end awaited the poor boy for a second and allowed Laurence to go on.
“The people of the village would ask the boy if he wanted to die — if the pain of hunger was too much to bear. Of course, after some time, he would agree. That’s when the ceremony to create Pukpuk began.”
Laurence went on to explain that Pukpuk is essentially the boy’s remains sealed in a vessel or inserted into a staff. The people of the village valued this substance greatly, and truly believed that it would protect them from harm. They would then place the sealed container or staff on the edges of the village — to protect everyone.
Laurence concluded the tale of Pukpuk, and the “black-box” of the MEG, where the permanent exhibition resides, suddenly felt colder.
“But this is something from the past right? I know that it’s relatively recent, but it doesn’t happen anymore, of course?” I asked, though it probably sounded more like a statement. I steeled myself, ready for her response.
“That’s unknown. But an ethnological museum exists to shed light on a culture’s historical development — both past and present.” Laurence responded.
And so the story of Pukpuk ended right there in front of the glass case, leaving me ready to write my PhD on illicit occurrences in the remote villages of Sumatra.
Of course the MEG has objects with happier stories. You could spend a whole day there, walking around the black-box. You can sift through the over 20,000 hours of sound from the MEG’s rich collection — of which 16,000 hours is music from around the world. The MEG maintains a collection of over 80,000 objects from five continents.
And if you’re thinking that the museum only features pieces from outside of Switzerland, think again. You will find magnificent pieces in the Swiss section of the permanent exhibit. My personal favorite from Switzerland is the exquisitely designed butter molds. Quaint? Well, you haven’t seen them yet.
The building itself is a work of art. Renovated in 2014, the structure can rival any modern building as it was designed by the award winning architectural firm Graber + Pulver. The MEG is located in the heart of the city, in the center of the Quartier des Bains — easily the most interesting part of Geneva. The Quartier des Bains is home to Mamco, Centre d’Art Contemporain, and almost every art gallery in Geneva (if not all).
At the entrance of the permanent exhibit, you will notice an impressive ark-like structure extended out with a number of eye-catching pieces placed on its surface. If it looks like the table is hovering above ground, it isn’t, but was impeccably designed to look as if it were. I was told that these are the pieces that the ethnologists would save if there was a disaster — hence the ark. You could easily walk around it 4-5 times and still find some new tidbit to discover. Laurence told me that a Buddhist nun from Thailand once stopped in to visit and was very excited to tell her that one of the pieces on the ark, a bowl used for preparing food, was just like one used by her every day.
The visual art piece titled “La Mer” will put you into a trance. The waves are meant to symbolize the constant ebb and flow of the world that surrounds us. Spectacular.
Something new is always happening at the MEG, every evening of the week. Download their publication Totem to find out what’s happening this month. You can also drop in and pick up a hard copy.
Both the permanent and temporary exhibits are free for the entire day on the first Sunday of every month. The permanent exhibit is always free of charge, but in May the next temporary exhibit opens and will remain open for 9 months. The topic: The Amazon.
If you Google “Pukpuk” right now, you will have difficulty finding anything on the subject. But that’s what makes a visit to the MEG so necessary and so awe-inspiring.
Sometimes, the internet does not know. Sometimes, you need to venture out and explore the dark, the hidden, the obscure stories from the “four corners of the earth.” Because then and only then will you get a glimpse into the full story — our human story.
What’s coming up?
MEG Hours of Operation
If you’ve visited and are as impressed as I was, you can become of Friend of the Museum (Amis de Musée).
What that means:
– Free and unlimited visits to the MEG
– Guided tours by the exhibition curators
– Recieve invitations for scientific symposia and conferences organized by the MEG and SAMEG
– Receive personal invitations to openings at the MEG
– Participate in trips accompanied by experts
– Enjoy free subscriptions to newsletters of SAMEG and MEG