Reflecting on the collection

Karen Kindt, Collection Manager, First Nations Cultures

Today is World Rhino Day. In acknowledgement of the importance of these amazing creatures and the demise of their populations, the museum has delved into the World Cultures Collection, to showcase a rare, valuable, interesting object – a carved, rhinoceros horn libation cup.

Why does the museum hold a cup made of rhinoceros horn?

Most people are collectors of one sort or another, and Queensland Museum since its inception in 1862, has had close links with private collectors and acquired their collections.

In 19th and 20th Century, the museum’s collections were based on the motivations and interests of collectors, donors, curators and the specific collecting practices of the individual.

Hinged on a colonial global market in ethnographic objects, Queensland Museum like other museums, was part of a global network of collectors. This is how the museum came to have in its collection holdings, a carved libation cup made of rhinoceros horn, acquired from collector, Dr Paul B de Rautenfeld.

Who was Dr Paul B de Rautenfeld?

From Switzerland, collector, Dr Paul B. de Rautenfeld was for many years, in charge of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service.

While working in China in the 1920s, he was able to travel extensively throughout Asia and the Pacific region, for leisure, research and collecting purposes. During his travels to Brisbane, he met and became friends with Heber Longman (Queensland Museum Director 1918-45) and his wife, Irene Longman (first woman elected to Parliament of Queensland).

Heber engaged the services of de Rautenfeld, requesting him to procure objects and specimens from China, to add to the museum’s collections. One object sent to the museum as part of what Heber referred to as, the ‘de Rautenfeld Series’, was a carved, rhinoceros horn libation cup, from China.

Museum Library archive correspondence dated 1928 sent by Dr Paul de Rautenfeld to Heber Longman, mentioning the rhinoceros horn cup.

What is a libation cup?

A libation cup is a communal drinking vessel used in religious and important ceremonial rituals. The museum’s libation cup (pictured) has been ornately carved and decorated with lotus flowers and water birds.

Further research about this object is necessary to identify the type of rhino horn (there are several Asian rhino species) and garner contextual information and meaning, about the carved motifs, applied to the horn.

The detailed carvings, depicting lotus flowers and water birds.

Threatened rhinoceros populations

Rhino horn libation cups were considered to have aphrodisiac properties and the ability to detect poison, which could be detected when the cup changed colour.

Traditional medicine in Asian cultures believe that rhino horn can cure a variety of health conditions and ailments. Hence, the voracious demand and poaching of rhinoceros over many centuries, is one of the reasons for the decline of their populations.

The horn is made of keratin like our fingernails and hair and there no evidence that it contains any health benefits.

Our message of support

We are showcasing our rhinoceros horn libation cup, to shine a light on our concerns surrounding the demise of this very special animal.

The ongoing protection and care of the five species of rhino – Sumatran rhino, Black rhino; Greater one-horned rhino; Javan rhino and White rhino is critical to their continued existence on our planet. 

The museum can’t change collecting practices of the past, but it can highlight this object to educate future generations, by debunking the myths associated with rhino horn, in support of the animal’s continued existence into the future.