Art museums are environments that offer visitors both a challenge and an opportunity that other kinds of museums do not: the occasion to engage deeply with works of art that have been selected and presented according to particular values and motives. Seeing a museum through a socio-cultural lens considers the visitors as people who are in conversation with the artwork on display and its cultural intent. While visiting the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), with focus on the Luba tribe of The Democratic Republic of Congo, their cultural value of women became obvious as the artifacts present consisted mainly of female figures and expressed their importance to society.
A 19th century Royal Spear portraying a female figure (Mulumbu) from the Luba, Democratic Republic of the Congo at the Seattle Art Museum is a great example of the inherent value placed upon women of this society. Standing 53.5 inches tall, made of wood and metal the female figure stands at the intersection of the metal blade and the wooden staff, symbolizing her role as an intermediary between two worlds. Her closed eyes and facial expression suggest a meditative state, and she holds her hands to her breasts “suggesting that in Luba culture women guard essential knowledge within their breasts. Here, they contain the stipulations for the royal behavioral prohibitions that must be observed in order to harness the supernatural powers upon which Luba leadership depends. The strands of beads that adorn her neck and hips may be similar to those of royal titleholders and healers, and are more broadly suggestive of devices that yield information by triggering memories.
The spears’ inclusion in royal treasuries and their appearance in rituals associated with inauguration may reflect the significant influence of divination on directing the course of Luba history and may also suggest the original movement for the essential role that divination has played in Luba authority.