Recent Acquisitions: Oakland Museum Receives Haunted Dress and Shackles

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds every Friday.

Anonymous donations are pari passu at cultural institutions, so when Veda Silva and Rick Moss found a cardboard box outside the African American Museum and Library in Oakland (AAMLO), they brought it in. To be clear, expectations were low. These kinds of anonymous donations left in the dead of night are usually full of items the owner has tried and failed to place elsewhere.

"We opened it up, and the smell was overwhelming," Silva, the museum project coordinator, recalled. When the odor subsided, they persevered, removing strips of old rags and ripped up newspapers until they felt something far more delicate: a woman's black and green lace dress.

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Silva holds the dress in the exhibition hall.

Moss, the chief curator, does not specialize in textiles, but the antique dress gave him pause. He assumed it was made in the 19th century, finery reserved for special occasions. Intrigued, Moss and Veda removed the final contents, also wrapped in rags, but far heavier than the dress in every respect.

"It certainly caught me off guard," Moss said, "but I knew that they were wrist and leg shackles." While provenance has not yet been authenticated, Moss notes the shackles are in excellent condition, and their serial numbers match. "They are definitely the kind that would have been in use, up to, and possibly during, the early 20th century."

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A week later, Silva received a call from a woman identifying herself as the progenitor of the donation. She declined to give her name, but she had a lot to say on the donation, only what she said raised more questions than it answered. As soon as the dress and shackles came into the woman's possession, something tormented her, haunting her dreams at night, and inviting paranormal encounters during the day. She resolved to free herself of them, and stood at the mouth of the Bay, ready to drown her demons.

"She said someone or something stopped her," Silva remembered, "but she didn't want them back in her home." The woman, who Silva noted sounded reasonable despite the substance of her story, suspected the element following her would be satisfied if the dress and shackles were given to an institution that would preserve and care for them. The day Silva and Moss brought the box inside the AAMLO, the woman's supernatural burden abruptly ended, and she was left in peace.

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"After the phone call, I felt uneasy because I certainly did not want to accept into the collection items that may have a mysterious or unrevealed past -- one that purportedly came with paranormal attachments," Moss said. "If I knew where to return them, I just might have done so."

In the end, Moss decided to keep them in earnest rather than necessity, although it is unclear if they will remain in the collection. The AAMLO, housed inside a 1906 Carnegie building, is a collecting institution with archives full of riches that date back to the Spanish Inquisition, but they do not collect shackles of any kind. Once Moss learns more about the materials, he will determine if they are better suited elsewhere.

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They are not on display at this time, but the AAMLO exhibition hall is a revelation. An ornate Beaux Arts ceiling is lit by the abundance of natural light. Large, floor-to-ceiling banners hang throughout while screens play videos and oral histories selected from more than 160 collections in the non-circulating library. With four meritorious original and traveling exhibitions a year, the AAMLO is certainly deserving of your visit.

The African American Museum and Library of Oakland is located at 659 14th St. (at Landers), Oakland. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 12-5:30 p.m. Admission is free.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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