Museum’s Mascot Charms Kids, Turns Historical Image Into A Fun, Welcoming Character
When people see the Birmingham Museum of Art’s lovable mascot hanging around, adorning programs, T-shirts, items in the gift shop, and even headlining his very own Facebook page, one question inevitably arises: What’s with the cartoon bat?
Bart, undeniably cute with his big round eyes, goofy grin, and funny, fat toes, “is a visual reminder that the Museum is a place for family and kids,” says Samantha Kelly, BMA’s Curator of Education. Kids love Bart, who has appeared in various guises, wearing costumes – he sported a Colonial tri-corner hat for the BMA’s Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness exhibition – and holding a paintbrush, among other things. “He’s very cute when he has costumes on,” Kelly says.
But still, why a bat?
The answer lies in how Bart came to the Museum. What many people don’t know, is that Bart is actually based on a little, gold, Pre-Columbian artifact, which has often been overlooked in the BMA’s vast permanent art collection.
Long time Museum Member Elsie Robbins Oglesby gave the gold bat to BMA in memory of her late husband, Thomas Edwin Oglesby. At the time, the bat had a pin attached to it so it could be worn on an article of clothing.
In fact, it is likely that the bat was created to be worn. The gold artifact itself dates to the period between 900 and 1500, says Emily Hanna, BMA’s Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas. “This object made a power statement for the person wearing it, since the bat symbolizes this ability to transcend worlds and states of being,” she says. “It is also in an active pose - in the process of flying and or landing. It is a statement of power. We can definitely say that it was the property of someone with wealth and rank.”
That’s because in the ancient Pre-Columbian societies of Southern Central America, “gold was a symbol of power and prestige,” Hanna says. “Because it was available in such abundance, it had little value as a raw material, but once hammered or cast into a figure or object acquired enormous cultural significance and value. Gold identified people in positions of authority, and was worn in abundance by those who had the wealth or rank to do so.”
Gold items would take many different shapes. “ It was fashioned into a wide variety of body ornaments, including pendants, pectorals, nose ornaments, earrings, bracelets, ritual weapons, and other hand-held objects,” Hanna continues. “Gold was not only worn by the living, but was included in burials.”
Why a bat? Hanna says “humans, animals, shamans, and transformational beings are the most common subjects of gold ornaments. This pendant is in the form of a bat – an animal with great symbolic importance in ancient Central American societies. Bats live in caves – considered portals into the earth or the underworld. They fly and hunt at night, and are associated with the passages of life and death. There are many species of bats in the present-day countries of Panama and Costa Rica, the region where this object was made – some eat insects, others fruit, fish, flower nectar, or the blood of other animals. Figures of animals sometimes represent shamans – spiritual practitioners – who have the power to transform into animals and interact with the world of nature and spirits.”
And so, taking its place among the Museum’s collection, the 1-and-3/8 inch bat was, if not obscure, at least not famous. That is, until the time when the BMA staff, starting with the education department, went looking for a cuddly, kid-friendly mascot to be derived from among the animals represented in the art.
“Everybody felt pretty strongly that it should be an animal and not a person,” Kelly recalls. For a while, discussion centered on a dog or a bird, also Pre-Columbian, but the BMA staff couldn’t reach consensus on either. Eventually, someone on staff suggested that the little gold bat would make a good model for the mascot.
Graphic designer James Williams, the artist behind everything from the Museum’s new Art On The Rocks logo to the symbol for Oscar’s at the Museum, the BMA’s new café, took inspiration from the original bartifact (ahem), and the cartoon mascot was born.
Another staff member came up with the name, Kelly recalls. “It was a whole staff initiative,” she says. One day in 2008, he appeared, with the only fanfare being an introductory question and answer article appearing in the BMA’s Membership Newsletter. “He flew in under the radar!” Kelly laughs.
And now, Bart is everywhere. Soon, he’ll be rejoined by his golden, Pre-Columbian precursor. Like many items in the BMA collection of 24,000 objects, the little bat is rotated into storage periodically to make room for something else.
But even when the original gold bat is out of sight, Bart’s out and about, representing his ancestor, the Museum’s multi-faceted educational programs, and giving little kids something artsy and cute to look up to.