The Bundy Museum and ancient African art

Africa. The name conjures images of vast jungles and deserts, mystery and ancient cultures. It is the world’s second largest continent, the probable origin of humanity and is the oldest inhabited land on earth. Fossil remains indicate that humans have been in Africa for 200,000 years and their origins possibly began seven million years earlier.

Not as well known about Africa is the great beauty and variety of art created by diverse cultures. Some of the earliest examples are of 75,000-year-old beads. Many mediums have been used for works of art: stone, terra cotta, wood, bronze, brass, mud cloth, glass and intricate beadwork are  a few distinctive areas.

The Bundy Museum began life as a Queen Anne style Victorian mansion built by Harlow E. Bundy in the 1880s. Harlow, with his brother Willard, invented machines and created a corporation that were the roots of IBM.

The house has been amazingly preserved through several owners and businesses run from the property. When it finally came into the hands of Michael Weinstein, the elegant 14 rooms and exterior were meticulously restored, including a sweeping central staircase created from exotic woods, stained glass windows, fretwork and moldings and lighting fixtures all original to the mansion.

Into the magnificent setting Weinstein and his staff placed world class collections of Orientalia, antique Americana, an entire room of very early IBM time recording machines and the African Gallery. The official name of this exhibit is Picasso Meets Africa.

“We discovered that African art was often the inspiration of artists such as Picasso and Matisse….thus the selection of the name,” said Weinstein.

So how did this treasure trove arrive in upstate New York? By serendipity. A chance meeting at an antique show between Weinstein and a native African named Ibrihiam introduced Weinstein to the possibilities of bringing authentic African art to the museum he founded. “I got one look at some of the bronze sculptures created with the lost wax method and I was hooked,” claimed Weinstein.

The lost wax method of creating art was so sophisticated that early explorers into the African continent did not believe the natives were capable of casting the bronze and brass art work. The invaders developed elaborate stories as to where the sculptures must have been made. It was many years before the truth was accepted – African sculptures were created by very advanced indigenous processes in complex social cultures. Because of the lost wax molds, pieces of art can be similar but are never exactly the same.

Ibrihiam spends half the year living near New York City but has a multitude of contacts in Africa where he spends the rest of the year. This enables him to bring exceptional sculptures to the United States. Many of those contacts are probably family; he has 40 brothers. Weinstein  wanted to purchase sculptures from Ibrihiam immediately. There was just one catch. He couldn’t purchase just a few; he had to buy art by the 20-foot trailer load packed full. He ended up buying three containers. Weinstein claims it was actually a good deal, although a bit overwhelming at the time. He now has enough African art for a permanent collection in the Bundy Museum and a large inventory for sale in the gift shop. “Good old bronzes are disappearing from the market. One reason is that countries like China are purchasing the items for the metal content and they melt down the treasures and refine the metal for reuse,” Weinstein said.

The gallery constructed for the African display is located down a narrow flight of stairs that opens into rooms filled with the aura of another land. “Visitors are immersed in a total cultural experience,” claims managing administrator Linda Zurbruegg. The vast collection is not made up of tourist pieces. They were all functional, spiritual items used by families and each piece tells a personal and distinctive story. “All items have great significance because the people who made them have a simple clear way of looking at life,” Zurbruegg said. The staff looks forward to the times Ibrihiam comes to visit the museum because he tells authentic stories about the art that are not found in any books. The staff at the Bundy is still learning and doing research to make sure the public is given accurate information. The base of the exhibit is respect, and celebrating cultural connections to other people.

The Bundy Museum Shop, located in the vintage building next door, sells unusual antiques, jewelry and artwork. Visitors are encouraged to touch the African pieces for sale  and even to try on the various masks. Masks had many uses and sources of inspiration, and are usually made of wood. Several are variations of the human head and face. Others may represent creatures from legend, or ceremonial masks. The most common is the facemask, but the huge and horizontal plank mask and body masks were also frequently made. Some masks were used for specific occasions such as to bring good fortune for a hunting expedition.

The museum has now expanded to a four-building complex, including the vintage houses on either side of the museum and an annex behind the buildings used for classes, seminars and recently a vintage movie festival.

The annex also contains a very new addition: an entire 1930s fully restored barbershop that includes the marble sinks, light fixtures, mirrors, marble black and white flooring and the barber pole. The business was worth preserving because for decades its location was in close proximity to IBM in Endicott. It served as a lounge for gentlemen and an informal social club as well as offering the standard shave and haircut. This might sound like a lot in one museum, but there is much more.

In the building to the left there is a unique display dedicated to the golden age of broadcast media. It includes an extensive collection of antique radios and television sets, and on occasion, demonstrations of old time radio shows.

The Southern Tier Broadcasters Association has also established a hall of fame honoring the achievements of local media professionals.

While enjoying all these visual treats save time for the Rod Serling exhibit in the annex. Binghamton is the hometown of Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone. There is also a showcase for local artists in the ballroom of the Bundy mansion. On the first Friday of each month from 6 -9 p.m., the Bundy offers a free mansion tour and a new display from exceptional artists.

Weinstein says his background in child development did not exactly prepare him to be a museum owner but, “I have been winging it, with a lot of professional assistance. We are able to offer opportunities to learn, excellent educational experiences in local and world history and we are protecting and preserving some extraordinary buildings and artifacts.”

129 Main Street
Binghamton, N.Y.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Telephone 607-772-9179

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