Sunday, May 8, 2016

Student Curators

Last year about this time I wrote about Young Curators at the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.

Frankly, I thought I was not going to repeat myself.  Then witnessing the transformation in the Coe Student Curators from naïve kids who in some cases had never been to a museum before to enthusiastic learners was so wonderful.

The students this year came from both the Academy of Technology and the Classics (ATC)  and the Santa Fe Indian School.  There were six, 4 from the latter and 2 from the former.  Thanks to our assistant curator, Bess Murphy, who is in charge of the program, they melded together as one through the administration of food and laughter.  We were lucky to have a repeat student from last year, Oscar Loya, who could help give the students confidence.  Added this year was the opportunity that the students had the chance to visit three Santa Fe Museums and not just have an exhibition shown to them but could see exhibitions in process and learn what goes on behind the scenes.  They even created a design for promotional tee-shirts and learned how to silk screen it.

Heaven Talachy, Nambe Pueblo

Oscar Loya

They learned why walls in a museum had different colors and got to pick their own for the exhibition.  They saw for themselves the difference between putting white letters on a grey background or black letters on the same background made it easier or harder to read.  They learned that those of us who are older have a harder time reading one than the other.

They were given the entire Ralph T. Coe collection to choose from, which includes pieces from the orient, 17th century bronzes and German sculpture, but is mainly indigenous art from around the world with the emphasis on Native American.  Interestingly, not every Native American in the group necessarily picked objects from their own culture.

They first had to agree on a title for this diverse group of objects and then write collaboratively an over arching label. They decided on, “Culture Exchange:  The Unspoken Truth”.  They wrote, “We as curators, wanted  to combine the different parts of the world: its culture, its history”.   Herewith, their collaborative Label with the names of all our student curators.

They picked objects from different tribes in the U.S. as well as a wood and lime pigment Pig Charm from New Guinea, a French Art Nouveau screen and even a lacquer box from Japan.  Then they were given the Coe Foundation data sheets on the objects they had picked as well as access to the Coe Library and, of course, with their computers they could search the internet.

The mixture of cultures makes it very difficult to pick favorites, but also makes this small gallery show more exciting.  I happen to love boomerangs and when we were in Australia it was one of the few souvenirs we brought back.  Then when we started collecting Native American art we acquired a “Rabbit Stick” which is a non returning boomerang for short range kill while the Coe boomerang is also non returning but for longer range.  Shante Toledo, Navajo wrote after her explanation, “I’ve never seen an actual boomerang and it was interesting to find out it was used as a weapon for hunting.”   This is evidence of how we can use works of art to teach about culture and much more.

A very striking object is this wood and pigment early 20th century Antelope Mask from the Congo in Central Africa.  According to Oscar Loya, who chose the object, eating the antelope flesh would cleanse one from evil.  Oscar writes, “For me, the antelope represents freedom because it can graze wherever it wants in the open places it calls home… When you are free, you are able to understand what you need in your life, and thus able to cleanse negative things out.”  That is refreshing!

Elizabeth Lukee, Acoma Pueblo/ Navajo chose a Quill Box by Rose Kimewon, Ottawa, Canada. made with birchbark, natural and dyed porcupine quills, sweetgrass and thread. These boxes are used by the East Coast and Plains tribes.  Elizabeth writes, “The complex detail on the box is amazing and very difficult for me to begin to comprehend.”

I especially like what Danielle Cata said about the Quilled Eagle Box from the Great Lakes, she kept it simple, “I selected this item because it reminded me of the Eagle dances that we have in Ohkay Owingeh.  The eagle reminds of how the eagle dancers imitate the bird flying.”  Simple observation is sometimes the most profound.

We assume that just because we are of a certain ethnicity we must know all about that culture but it just isn’t so.   This experience offered the students a different perspective on their lives, as well a chance to learn about their own culture and other avenues that may be open to them.  For the Coe Foundation the students helped us demonstrate the diversity of the collection and, most importantly, how it could be used to make a difference.

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