Museums in St. Louis

In addition to the Civil War Museum, enjoyed a couple of other interesting ones:

• The World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End. It’s not a history museum as such, but it’s very well done. At the time of our visit, the first floor housed a display of historic and exotic chess sets, the second a temporary exhibit on “Chess Dining and Decor,” and the third a feature on child chess prodigies. The “Hall of Fame” as such was simply a large touch screen that allowed a visitor to look up all the big names, like Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Garry Kasparov, or José Raúl Capablanca. The museum is also marked from the outside by the “world’s biggest chess piece.” 

This chess piece is a king, of course (although whether it is “white” or “black” seems ambiguous). It is in the standard “Staunton” form, designed in the mid-nineteenth century and named for the English chess master Howard Staunton. The vast majority of chess sets sold today are Staunton sets, but there is no reason why you can’t mix things up a bit if you want! Here are some of the more interesting ones on display at the WCHOF:

An Austrian chess set, carved c. 1953 and representing a medieval court. 

A Ramayana-themed chess set from India from the early twentieth century.

A Chinese chess set from the mid-twentieth century. This one was most interesting – each piece was elaborately carved, and no two were alike. The rooks, knights, bishops, and all pawns took different forms, and the two sides didn’t even mirror each other (i.e. there were four different forms of rook, knight, and bishop, and sixteen different forms of pawn). 

A “safari” chess set from Kenya (early 21st century). 

A papier-mâché set from Mexico (1978). 

A Minoan-themed chess set by artist Christoforos Sklavenitis (1975). 

On the second floor: a “diner” chess set…

…and some chess-themed large-format magazine advertisements from the mid-twentieth century. Apparently chess was quite popular with middle and even working-class America back then. Who knew?

• The St. Louis Art Museum, currently featuring an exhibit on ancient Nubia, which was up the Nile River from Egypt and unsurprisingly shared much in common with it. But the precise relationship between these two cultural centers is a matter of debate, and inevitably informed by racial politics. That is, Nubians were much more phenotypically sub-Saharan than Egyptians were, which meant that Western archaeologists historically dismissed Nubian culture, seeing it as entirely derivative. In reaction, contemporary scholars have emphasized Nubian creativity and power, such as during the Bronze Age Kerma Period (Egyptian artifacts found at Kerma are likely the result of a Nubian raid into Upper Egypt, not because the Egyptians had established an outpost there) or during the Napatan period (eighth-seventh centuries BC) when Nubia actually ruled Egypt as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty.

Some other distinctions:

Shawabtis (votive figurines buried with the dead) were indeed borrowed from Egypt, as you can see, but in Nubia they were reserved for royal use, and grew quite large in size and number. Some Nubian kings had collections bordering on the scale of Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. 

Wikipedia.

Apparently there are more extant pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt, particularly from the Meroitic Period (sixth century BC-fourth century AD). They are generally smaller in size and more acute in shape than their Egyptian counterparts.

Napatan rulers had a fondness for horses, and buried them adorned with faience trappings. 

The Kerma period produced a distinctive style of pottery. 

Sudan is now on my bucket list!

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