Friday, 9 November 2012

Chair of the Valkyries

Working in a museum isn't all lace doilies and petticoats. Some artifacts found in the storage areas of the museum can be described as unsettling, disturbing, or just plain scary. Generally speaking, I've gotten used to some of the less quaint artifacts that the museum houses, but every now and again I’ll find an artifact that makes me nervous.

For example, this chair. This chair makes me nervous. It’s found a home in a storage room and has been there for quite some time, but it still surprises me every time I open the door. Staff members have taken to giving the object pet names such as “Satan’s Chair”, “Demon Chair”, “Loki’s Chair” and “Seat of the Damned”.

Part of our collective discomfort may stem from the fact that we know so little about the chair. It was donated in 1962, and was described as being “many years old”, which though true is peevishly vague. The piece is crafted out of black-lined brown leather which is button-tucked in places, and pairs of animal horns styled around the edges. Even the feet of the chair are embellished with horns, though supported with cylindrical brace bars. The estimate is that this chair is probably from the early to mid-1800s, and it’s my personal guess that it belonged in a gentleman’s office, billiard room, or hunting cottage, simply because no Victorian lady of taste would possibly have let this object into their parlor or salon.

The research for this piece suggests that the horns are from buffalo, but pieces of horned furniture, which were popular throughout Europe and North America in the 19th century, could be crafted with the horns of any animal, including elk, moose, and even cattle. Its provenance is likely similar to a mounted moose head or bear skin rug, as generally, items like horns and animal skins were used as trophies as signifiers of a successful hunting trip.

The chair lives in an upstairs storage room. I've taken to calling it the Chair of the Valkyries, because it reminds me of the typical depiction of an opera singer with a horned helmet, especially typical of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, specifically the third act’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. Also, Elmer Fudd in the Looney Tunes cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” who sings “kill de wabbit!” to the tune of Wagner’s most recognizable piece.

So the chair doesn't belong to a villainous demon, plotting anti-hero, or a mythic Norse soprano, and instead likely originated from the private quarters of a wealthy Victorian gentleman with a penchant for hunting. It still creeps me out.

Carlie M.
Program Coordinator, Brant Museum and Archives

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