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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Thing 25: The Bead Museum

It's a...bead.The Bead Museum does some serious multi-tasking. It encompasses a permanent exhibit, two temporary exhibits, a library, a gift shop and an ode to TV theme songs -- all in one room.

Located on 7th Street between Gallery Place and the Navy Memorial, the Bead Museum is a small storefront in a larger office building, around the corner from the Olsson's bookstore. The word 'museum' conjures the image of a large space, perhaps a series of galleries, perhaps a tour guide or a docent, maybe even a security guard. But walk into the bead museum and there is definitely only one room. And one guy sitting behind a jewelry case reading a magazine. And that

My three friends and I burst into the museum, seeking respite from the cold, almost-rainy Saturday afternoon. We are the only ones there. We get our bearings, readjusting our preconceived notion of a museum to this one-room reality. Almost immediately, we notice that the theme from Beverly Hills 90210 is playing.

We start to our left and learn about beads as religious iconography. A glass panel shows off examples of rosary beads from Christianity. The Judaism panel displays silver necklaces with stars of David and the five-fingered palm, known as a chamza, Religious iconographythat wards off the evil eye. I notice the theme from The Simpsons is now playing.

I continue to work my way around the room, admiring Islamic prayer beads, Hindu beads, and anamist beads. Now, suddenly, I am in the library. Bookshelves line one wall, packed full of books about, well, beads. Who knew you could write so many books about beads? If you have any sort of curiosity about the history, significance or techniques of beads, head over to the Bead Museum's library. I imagine it is a pretty comprehensive collection on the subject.

After the library, you arrive at the permanent exhibit: a world bead time line. At this point, the theme from Night Court is playing. The time line starts out at 10,000 BCE and progresses around one wall of the room until the present day, with examples of beads from the different eras from all around the world -- South America, South Asia, China, Europe...small and large, glass and clay, all colors, all patterns, representing people or animals or just ornamental.

The bead has quite a timeline associated it...
Finally, to the theme from Growing Pains, we have come full circle and are in the store section of the museum. The jewelry in the case -- a collection of really beautiful necklaces, earrings and bracelets -- is all beaded, of course. Big beads and little beads are all available, from the very affordable to the more expensive. I was eyeing a necklace of light blue beads and silver and it was only $40, which is pretty reasonable. In the end I passed on it though, and crossed the room to look at the Shakespeare exhibit.

As part of DC's Shakespeare in Washington festival, the Bead Museum features three cases in the middle of the room with beaded jewelry, costumes and props that are inspired by Shakespeare's plays. You can see the necklace that Queen Gertrude might have worn in Hamlet, the beaded hat that Henry VIII made famous, and Desdemona's strawberry handkerchief. As far as we could tell, these pieces had been designed specifically for the museum and have not appeared on the stage anywhere.

The museum took us about half an hour to see in its entirety, and then we headed next door to Olsson's for some coffee and some book browsing. I'm glad I went though -- the idea behind this blog is to go out of my way to find the treasures of DC, and this is definitely not something I would normally have sought out. But the museum's unique and narrow mission, its tiny setting and its very strange choice of soundtrack make this a fun and different place to visit.