Reflections on the meaning of the humanities from IC faculty, students, and alumni.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
AS THEY SAW IT: The Easby Collection of Pre-Columbian Art
An exhibit curated by Gabriella Jorio ('16), Sarah McHugh ('15), Kenneth Robertson ('15) and Associate Professor Jennifer Jolly, on display at the Handwerker Gallery, Ithaca College, March 18 – April 17, 2015.
In 2008 The Institute for Andean Research donated a collection of pre-Columbian art to Ithaca College. The collection had been assembled in the middle of the 20th century by a pair of pre-Columbian art scholars, Elizabeth and Dudley T. Easby, Jr. Acquiring collections of antiquities is tricky business today: international treaties developed in the 1970s forbid the export (and in the United States, since 1983, the import) of such cultural patrimony objects and institutions hoping to collect such objects are obliged to ask difficult ethical questions about their acquisition. In accepting the donation of these objects, we committed to opening a dialog about their presence here at Ithaca College, and here in the United States.
This past year, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the collection more intimately than before, as I led the fall 2014 Exhibition Seminar in the Department of Art History. The Exhibition Seminar is a staple within our department’s museum studies curriculum. Over the course of a semester (and into the next), a team of students and a faculty leader work to plan, design, and implement an exhibition. The course (much like the work of a curator) is intense and challenging. First, we had to develop a historical grounding in the subject matter of the exhibit; in our case, the history of collecting and exhibiting pre-Columbian art in the United States. Then we dove into both theoretical and practical literature on museums, audiences, label-writing, and more. Then we wrote, edited, and repeatedly revised labels, exhibition text, and catalog essays. Out of this research, discussion, experimentation and writing process, we created an exhibit entitled “As They Saw It: The Easby Collection of Pre-Columbian Art.”
As the students first learned about pre-Columbian art and the history of collecting and displaying it here in the United States, they gradually became aware of how far out of their original context these objects were. To even apply the term “art” to them was highly suspect—not because the objects were somehow unworthy of the label, but rather because the pre-Columbian world did not share a concept of “art” that matches our modern use of the term, developed in Europe in the 18th century. Instead, the vast majority of the objects had likely been grave offerings, finely crafted and even beautiful, and yet created for the purpose of being buried, hidden away and only briefly seen by human eyes. And further, that these objects had likely been unearthed by looters, exported from their countries of origin (legally and illegally), and ultimately assembled into a “collection of pre-Columbian art” raised uncomfortable questions about what they were doing here, in the United States, at Ithaca College, and what we were going to do with them in the Handwerker Gallery.
As we initially grappled with this final question, we had more ideas about what we did not want to do, than what we did want to do. A student proposed an exhibition theme that might best be summed up as, “making the best out of an untenable situation.” For me, holding on to the critical tradition within the humanities left me confident that we would find a way to both acknowledge the displacement of these objects (and the ethical questions thus raised) and truly appreciate this gift to the college.
A number of activities helped us work through these challenges. First, we enjoyed a workshop with artist J. Morgan Puett, who helped us think about relating to the objects in new ways. Morgan’s collaborative works utilize a series of algorithms to provide structures, logics, and patterns that can guide the collaborative process. So for example, my training might lead me to select a set of objects for display that demonstrate elements typical to the Tiwanaku culture. By contrast an algorithm could be used to convert the objects’ accession numbers into an alphabet, and from there, the Easby’s initials could provide us with a new curatorial logic. Such disruption of agency opened up new ways of thinking about the relationships between objects. And while we did not continue with algorithms, another game we played with the objects—using them for place settings at the Easby dinner table—did become part of the final installation.
Arguably (perhaps ironically?), this experiment helped the students decide to claim agency in a new way, as we began to approach the gallery as a space that could be simultaneously affirmative and critical. It is often challenging for museums to do this. Even today, studies suggest that viewers have very narrow expectations of museums: they should objectively present the past, and should not display an overt critical agenda. A gallery on a college campus may have greater flexibility, in that colleges encourage both education and critical engagement. And here it helped that each member of the class had his or her own interests and agendas. It was from this mix of concerns that we began to develop an exhibit that would make visible the process by which objects traveled from their original contexts into the realm of “art.” In doing so we would maintain a critical view of this process, while also honoring the remarkable work that the Easbys undertook to transform what were once thought of as artifacts into what people today would describe as “works of art.”
Figuring out where the Easbys fit within this picture was one of the most exciting elements of our project. We tracked down and interviewed a number of people who knew the Easbys, we studied their writings, and we examined the exhibitions they curated at the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Speaking with Elizabeth Easby’s niece was a highlight for the whole class. Eventually we tracked down and were given the Easby slide collection and archives, opening up a whole new view of the key role the Easbys performed in the mid-20th century revival of interest in pre-Columbian art in the United States. While early in the class one student had dismissed the idea that we could even begin to reconstruct the Easbys’ point of view, we began to imagine how the Easbys themselves saw and experienced their collection. And, crucially, we began to piece together how and when (before the 1970 treaty) the Easbys came to acquire their collection.
The result is an exhibit that examines mid-20th century collecting and exhibition practices. The central challenge in both respecting and critically engaging the past is to cultivate one’s empathy: to see the world through another’s eyes. We invite the viewers to enter into this process by creating a setting that evokes the world of the Easbys. In that world, the Easbys were at the vanguard of efforts to cultivate respectful diplomatic relations with countries throughout the hemisphere, using exhibits of pre-Columbian art as part of cultural diplomacy. We used historical photographs to reconstruct the Easby home, with many of their objects on display. Within this portion of the exhibit, students can work with books on pre-Columbian art to research objects in the Easby collection, continuing their efforts to promote pre-Columbian art through education. Meanwhile, another section places objects on display as if in a mid-20th art museum. We used our study of pre-Columbian art exhibits, and specifically the examination of Elizabeth Easby’s curatorial practices, to develop this section. Uniting the two sections, a three-dimensional chart describes the process by which objects traveled from their origins to those spaces, along the way being reconfigured as this thing called “art.” By laying bare this process, we hope to create more critical museum visitors, who do not simply take for granted the place of art in a gallery or museum setting.
“AS THEY SAW IT: The Easby Collection of Pre-Columbian Art” will be on display at Ithaca College’s Handwerker Gallery from March 18th until April 17th, 2015.
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