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2013 at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures

The Mathers Museum of World Cultures (MMWC) is Indiana University‘s museum of ethnography, ethnology, and cultural history. Yesterday, the museum began its 51st year. Today I begin my second year as the museum’s director. It was an honor to have been named to this role and, as I reflect on my first year, I am really happy about where the museum is in its journey.

In a pair of posts, I would like to reflect upon the year just concluded and the year ahead. Not everyone is an excited about the details as I am, so I will place them below the “more” button. For those just skimming, I wish to thank you for keeping up with Shreds and Patches and for supporting the MMWC and the various projects that I am involved in. Thanks go as well to the museum’s staff, collaborators, students, policy committee members, donors, friends, funders, visitors and supporters. I extend special appreciation here to the leadership of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (the IU unit of which the MMWC is a part) and to Director Emeritus Geoffrey Conrad.

Collections-based exhibitions are what most people think about when they think of a museum. The MMWC organized and presented a number of key exhibitions during 2013. Alongside a range of smaller student exhibitions, we highlighted “Treasures of the Mathers Museum” in a celebration of the museum’s 50th anniversary and as a chance to reconsider how its collections have grown over the past half century. A small catalog for the exhibition by Dr. Ellen Sieber remains permanently and freely available in the MMWC IUScholarWorks collection.

Another key exhibition in 2013 was “Photos in Black and White: Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid in South Africa.” Coinciding with a 2013 IU leadership trip to South Africa and now opening at two South African venues in 2014 (on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid), this key exhibition was guest curated by Dr. Alex Lichtenstein (Associate Professor of History, IUB). The project was generously supported by a Mellon Innovating International Research, Teaching and Collaboration grant (a program of the Office of the Provost funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Indiana University). It was also supported by a New Frontiers grant (a program of the Office of the Vice President for Research funded by the Office of the President). Additional support for the exhibition and associated programming was provided by the African Studies Program at Indiana University Bloomington, IU’s Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Journalism, the Black Film Center/Archive, the Indiana University Art Museum, the IU Cinema, the Department of American Studies, the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, and the Department of History.

A third big exhibition project for 2013 was “Melted Ash: Michiana Wood Fired Pottery” curated by IU Bloomington folklore graduate student Meredith McGriff. McGriff’s research has been undertaken under the auspices of Traditional Arts Indiana and her exhibition will serve as the capstone project for her M.A. degree. She will be continuing her pottery research as a doctoral student.

While the Bourke-White exhibition is the first exhibition to be organized at the MMWC, shown at the MMWC, and then to travel overseas, another MMWC exhibition project debuted abroad in 2013. Based on her doctoral research, “State of an Art: Contemporary Ghanaian Bambɔlse” was curated by IU Art History doctoral student Brittany Sheldon and opened in December at the National Museum in Accra. Produced at MMWC for transport and presentation in Ghana, this project was a great tie-in to President McRobbie’s visit to Ghana earlier in the year.

Research Symposium
The pottery exhibition and the Bourke-White exhibition presented original research by MMWC collaborators. The projects also provided the basis for companion research conferences. Such symposium not only extend and deepen the exhibitions with which they are associated, they also broaden the scholarly conversation, advance the museum’s research mission, and make new knowledge accessible to campus and community audiences. The pottery symposium was titled “Stoking the Fire: A Contemporary Pottery Symposium” and the photography symposium was titled “Documentary Photography and the South African Experience.” The both brought local scholars and community members together with special visitors from beyond Bloomington.

Another MMWC convening during 2013 focused on the present state, and future prospects for museum ethnography. This gathering, featuring Dr. Candace Greene of the Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Jennifer Shannon of the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, included a public panel discussion and behind-the-scenes working meetings. The overall goal was to assess needs in the field and to determine how the MMWC can make greater contributions to this field nationally and internationally. (Greene is a member of the MMWC Policy Committee.

In addition to the symposium and convenings just noted, the MMWC hosted a large number of very rich events and special programs during 2013. There were well-attended exhibition openings, world music concerts, a new research lecture series, curatorial seminars focused on the research interpretation of specific collections, and a range of gallery talks, tours, classes, and other events. The museum continued its commitment to K-12 education hosting numbers class tours, craft events, and after-school activities. A special grant to the museum enabled the MMWC to fund many local school tours of the Bourke-White exhibition.

The museum began a digital infrastructure planning project in 2013, began planning for a new website, and submitted two technology focused grants–one still pending for 2014 and the other funded last month. The grant in-hand will enable the development of a range of new digital media projects and help equip the museum’s new technology laboratory.

A key technology development for 2013 was our partnership with the Advanced Visualization Lab (AVL), a unit of IU University Information Technology Services. MMWC is now the host for for a campus IQ Wall, “a collection of 12 high-resolution monitors with a total of 12.5 million pixels.” The IQ Wall is already central to teaching and research activities at MMWC and is available for use by IU students, faculty, and staff. (See here and here.)

Publishing Initiatives
During 2013, Museum Anthropology Review began to be incorporated into the work of the MMWC. It will be published as the journal of the MMWC beginning in 2014.

Also in 2013, the MMWC established an open access collection in the IUScholarWorks Repository and began making past and current publications permanently and freely accessible there.

Policy Committee and Strategic Plan
Early in 2013 a new museum Policy Committee was formed and began its work. Its first major responsibility was reviewing, commenting upon, and then endorsing a new museum strategic plan. Developing that plan assisted the museum in assessing and re-imagining its work. Since summer, it has been formally guiding our work during. While we have a long way to go, we have made solid early progress in achieving our goals. Our plan was timed well to articulate with larger campus planning efforts.

Beyond, but called for under, the formal strategic plan, we have been engaged in a systematic reassessment of all of our museum policies, programs, and processes. Among those that have been revised and strengthened are our practicum (internship) program for undergraduate and graduate students and our youth protection policies.

Staff and Associates
2013 saw some reorganization of staff roles, with four members of the staff taking on new responsibilities. Dr. Ellen Sieber was named Chief Curator and leads the museum’s collections-focused staff. Sarah Hatcher is now the museum’s Head of Programs and Education. In this role she lead’s the museum staff engaged in public-facing activities from facilities to exhibitions to events. With Sarah and Ellen, Assistant Director Judy Kirk is also a member of the leadership group, coordinating the museum’s communications, community relations, and development work.

Sadly, 2014 brought the retirement of longtime MMWC co-curator of exhibitions Elaine Gaul. Elaine recently celebrated her 30th year on the IU staff and we are happy for her retirement but sad to loose her as a day to day colleague. She made countless key contributions to the museum for three of the museum’s first five decades. In the wake of Elaine’s retirement, Matt Sieber will now serve as MMWC Exhibitions Manager.

The museum staff grew in 2013 with the appointment of Dr. Jennifer Goodlander as a new Faculty Research Curator. Dr. Goodlander is a faculty member in Theater, Drama, and Modern Dance and a specialist in Indonesian (and Asian) puppetry performance. She joins Drs. Beth Buggenhagen and Stacie King (both from the Department of Anthropology) in this role. The Faculty Research Curator program is supported through a grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

The museum also welcomed a talented new group of research associates. Emily Buhrow (Smithsonian Institution), Janice Frisch (MMWC), Victoria Luksha (MMWC), and Daniel C. Swan (Sam Noble Museum). Joining the museum as Consulting Curators (a role for IU Faculty) are Pravina Shukla (Folklore and Ethnomusicology and Jon Kay (Traditional Arts Indiana).

In connection with Museum Anthropology Review establishing its editorial office at the MMWC, the museum saw the addition of a new graduate assistantship focused on editorial work. Teri Klassen is the first student to fill this role at MMWC.

This year, the museum received and processed several large and important collections. News of some of these will be shared in 2014. In support of collections study, processing, and care, additional space was brought online for MMWC use in the museum building. More about these new spaces in the new year. To insure the well being of its collections, new building use policies were developed and implemented.

During 2013 new development (fund raising) work was initiated and a new museum newsletter and visual style policy were implemented. Work also began for a comprehensive website overhaul in 2014.

Not counting informal funding requests and the individual project proposals of MMWC affiliates, the MMWC submitted nine institutional grant proposals in 2013. One is pending ($24,971), five were successful ($69,122), and three were unsuccessful ($331,029).

In support of its own goals and the work of various campus departments and faculty members, the MMWC continued to host a range of university courses. More and more, these courses are closely aligned with MMWC projects and collections, as with Beth Buggenhagen’s fall 2013 course on visual anthropology (connected to her MMWC research) and my spring 2013 Curatorship course in which students worked with the new Ostrom Collection of Native American material culture.

A central part of our teaching work is providing hands-on museum work practicum to undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences and from a range of professional schools (especially Education, Informatics, Public Health, and Public and Environmental Affairs). More on this important work in a future post.

The museum joined an elaborate and exciting partnership linking three US museums of ethnography (MMWC, Michigan State University Museum, and the Museum of International Folk Art) with three peer institutions in China ((Yunnan Nationalities Museum, the Guizhou Cultural Palace of Nationalities Museum, and the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities). Undertaken with Luce Foundation funding and under the auspices of the American and Chinese folklore societies, this partnership kicked off with meetings and the signing of a university-endorsed MOU in December in Kunming, China.

The museum began a separate project partnership with the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Building on my previous work as a visiting faculty member, this project will lead to greater MMWC involvement in the NSF-funded Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology.

The museum of course has many longstanding partners on, and beyond campus. These are too numerous to enumerate, but three can be highlighted as examples.

One of the enduring partnerships (also here) that remained vital during 2013 connects the MMWC to the Lotus Education and Arts Foundation, an organization that named MMWC alumnus Dr. Sunni Fas as its Executive Director in 2013.

Another ongoing partnership central in 2013 is our work with Traditional Arts Indiana. In addition to Melted Ash, 2013 saw MMWC and TAI work together on limestone-focused exhibitions and programs. TAI was awarded a Governors Arts Award in 2013.

The College of Arts and Sciences–long essential to the MMWC via the College departments that the museum  partners with–is now a active and appreciated supporter of MMWC work. A 2013-2014 example is the upcoming exhibition Ojibwe Public Art, Ostrom Private Lives, which has been organized by a team of MMWC-affiliated graduate students and supported by a Ostrom Fund grant from the College.

As a research-oriented museum, research is central to all that we do–from collecting to exhibitions to school-age programs–making it hard to address research as if it were a stand alone category of activity.

In addition to the programs and projects and people noted above, the MMWC is now participating in a policy research “think tank” focused on museums and folklore and sponsored by the American Folklore Society.

During 2013 the museum welcomed visitors–including visiting researchers–from around the U.S. and around the globe. For those who could not travel to Bloomington, we also shared information on, and images of, MMWC collections with scholars and communities throughout the world.

During 2013, Beth Buggenhagen published a chapters in the books Tolerance, Democracy and Sufis in Senegal (Columbia University Press) and African Migrations: Patterns and Perspectives (Indiana University Press). I published the book Yuchi Folklore (University of Oklahoma Press) along with an article in the Journal of American Folklore and a chapter in the book Transforming Ethnohistories (University of Oklahoma Press).

During 2013, the editorial office for the Journal of Folklore Research was at the MMWC. Published in 2013 was a special triple issue of JFR focused on advances in ethnopoetics. That collection celebrated JFR’s 50th anniversary. (Curious isn’t it that MMWC and JFR both had silver anniversaries on my watch in 2013.)

The museum cultivated, and received, extensive media coverage for its activities during 2013, benefitting from the fact that 2013 was the museum’s 50th anniversary. (Only a small portion of this coverage is linked to in the report above.)

Thanks for reliving the past year at MMWC with me. Not quite a formal annual report, but a reasonable overview I hope. I will update with major omissions if necessary. I think that 2013 was pretty great and that 2014 will be even better.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Teri Klassen #

    what an amazing and inspiring range of activities, bridging so many disciplines and geographic regions.

    January 2, 2014

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