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Colorado College Road Trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Denver Art Museum

I have always wanted to visit the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Today I had my chance and it was great. As part of my “Introduction to Folklife” course at Colorado College, my class and I had the chance to go north to Denver for the day and to visit both museums. Both are impressive. Both have great collections and deep traditions of excellent work in those areas that matter most to me—world ethnography and Native American studies/Native American art. There was no way we could see more than a small portion of both museums, but what we saw in both institutions was great. Colorado is very lucky.

At DMNH we were generously hosted by Steve Nash, who showed us around behind the scenes in the Department of Anthropology (which he chairs). We also got to see Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, who was busy working on the next issue of Museum Anthropology (Steve and Chip took over editing the journal from me in 2009 and are doing great work with it.)

Our focus at DMNS was the Native North American culture halls, where we saw objects relating to our current reading and research project (centered on Daniel C. Swan’s book Peyote Religious Art: Symbols of Faith and Belief) and our next one (focused on Claire Farrer’s Thunder Rides a Black Horse: Mescalero Apaches and the Mythic Present). Organized on the basis of cultural areas, the DMNS exhibitions (which are steadily being updated and improved by Chip and Steve) do a great job of providing an basic orientation to the diversity of Native North America. This was evident when we got to the Denver Art Museum and the students had a better ability to appreciate the contexts for the work that is presented in a art museum mode there.

At DMNH we also had a chance to see the strange and remarkable carved gemstone sculptures made by Vasily Konovalenko to portray aspects of Russian peasant folklife. One could talk and think about them for hours and they were a great conversation point for our class and a great reminder of how complex not only art and material culture are, but how complex issues of cultural representation are, in general and under the banner of folklife in particular.

After short drive downtown and a quick street-side gyro, we hit the art museum. Like DMNS it is huge and impressive and impossible to see properly on a single day trip. Here our foci were the Native American and non-western art halls, as well as the galleries devoted to the art of the Western United States. We saw the galleries for the arts of Oceania, Africa, Asia, and Native North America. DAM was among the first U.S. art museums to get serious about Native American art and their collections are stunning.  In my own area of special interest, the DAM is currently exhibiting 5 (!) beaded bandolier bags from the Southeast. This is simply dumbfounding and a reminder of how deep the collection is.  All the galleries provided rich learning opportunities for me and for the students. I was reminded of how fun it is to teach in the presence of rich collections well-displayed. (I really missed being a curator today.)

The students seemed to have good time. They were easy, engaged, and wonderful travel companions and all the logistics went off without a hitch.

Colorado College and its amazing block plan (which makes such trips possible through its one class at a time format) are at the root of the day’s success. Many people did great behind-the-scenes administrative work to enable me (as a new to CC  visitor) to take this trip with the students. Thanks to everyone who heaped to make it happen.

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