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On the Wings of Eagle and Raven: An Undergraduate Curatorial Experience

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On the Wings of Eagle and Raven: An Undergraduate Curatorial Experience

By Whitney Kite.

Over the summer, I spoke to my Art History adviser Dr. Gwendolyn Shaw about how best to round out my undergraduate studies in art history. Over my four years here, I’ve taken a variety of art history courses spanning over a millennium of art and architecture; after all of that, what was left to explore? Dr. Shaw knew just how to answer. She suggested that I take the Kaye Curatorial Seminar for Fall 2013, a rotating seminar that gives students the opportunity to participate in curating an actual exhibit. This seminar’s focus was to be on Northwest Coast art of the Americas, specifically the art of the Haida and Tlingit tribes. Going in, I had no idea what those names even meant, but the newness of the topic excited me.

The course, co-taught by Dr. Larry Silver of Art History and Dr. Robert St. George of the History department, included a comprehensive overview of the cultural and aesthetic principles guiding the Haida and Tlingit. First we had to learn how to even look at these works. Since Northwest Coast art often consists of disconnected motifs, piecing together all of the symbolism into a cohesive image can be a daunting task for an outsider. Still, through a variety of diagrams and intense concentration, we became increasingly familiar with these forms. With that visual analysis under our belt, we moved on to the cultural context surrounding the objects we would be studying and eventually placing on exhibit. The objects of the Northwest Coast have a long and complex history. Many of the objects we studied survived cultural suppression by the Canadian government and theft from museum collectors. Our professors stressed the importance of knowing the context of these objects before presenting them. No cultural object is ever separate from its history, and as curators we tried to incorporate the context of the objects into the exhibit.

Thus equipped with the aesthetic and cultural knowledge needed to address these objects properly, we ventured into the artifact lab of the Penn Museum to see the objects firsthand. Gathered in the Mainwaring Wing of the museum, we examined the objects to choose our calling. Each student in the seminar was supposed to pick a class of objects (ceremonial spoons, headdresses, blankets, etc) on which to focus and write a catalogue entry (all of which are now published on the gallery site). My choice was obvious, if not easy: the largest item in the room. However my choice of object was not quite as shallow as that. I knew the large item to be a bentwood box, a container made of one piece of wood, steamed and bent into a rectangular prism. The design, an intricate red and black carved relief, also caught my eye.


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Throughout the rest of the semester, I scoured the Anthropology library for any and all references to bentwood boxes in hopes of finding the history of “my box.” I even made a trip to the Penn Museum Archives to read correspondences between Charles Newcombe and Stewart Culin, who organized the collection of the box in the early 1900s. I also made repeated trips to the artifact archives, where I examined the box up close for any hints at its creation and meaning. In all the well-researched essays I’ve written for courses through the years, I have never felt as close to an artifact — a painting, sculpture, print, etc — as I did to my box. The curatorial seminar gave me the unique opportunity to know an art piece on a truly personal level. My research experience was enhanced by my knowledge that it had practical value: any information I gained would contribute to the exhibit.

In speaking with my classmates about their experiences in the seminar, I found that they had similar experiences. Travis Mager was “really excited to interact with the artwork so often throughout the semester . . . [and] to do research on our respective objects and see the overlap in the content between us all." Even though we each specialized in a specific type of object, we learned a great deal from the research of our peers. Joe Isaac appreciated how “a lot of the work we did consisted of original research, so it was great to see how our work was able to contribute to knowledge within the field.” Joe touched on a particular aspect of the curatorial seminar. Making tangible contributions to one’s field is a rare and highly appreciated part of undergraduate studies, and one that I found to be unique to this seminar experience.

Of course, the most exciting part of any curatorial experience is seeing the exhibit come together. On April 9th, the Arthur Ross Gallery on campus will open as the climax of an entire semester’s work, not to mention the countless hours of planning and set-up done by my professors and the gallery staff. A few of us from the seminar will serve as docents, so please stop by to experience our exhibit.


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"On the Wings of Eagle and Raven: Tlingit and Haida Traditions"

April 10 - July 6, 2014

@ Arthur Ross Gallery
220 South 34th Street  (inside Fisher Fine Arts Library)
University of Pennsylvania

Hours: Weekdays 10:00 am–5:00 pm; Weekends 12:00 pm–5:00 pm; Closed Monday


Wednesday, April 9 @ 6:00pm

Robert Davidson, Laureate Haida artist,  “Haida Traditions and Modern Innovations” 
Location: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, 6th Floor

Thursday, April 10, 5:00 - 7:30pm
Friends' Preview and Reception
5:00pm Gallery Tour led by Dr. Larry Silver, Dr. Robert St. George, and Kaye Curatorial Seminar Students
6:00pm  Remarks by Dr. Anita Allen, Vice Provost for Factuly; Lynn Marsden-Atlass, Director, Arthur Ross Gallery; and  Dr. Larry Silver, Department of the History of Art 

Wednesday, April 16 @ 6:00pm
Gary Wyatt, Director, Spirit Wrestler Gallery, Vancouver, “Northwest Coast Display in Ceremony and Gallery” 
Location: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, 6th Floor

Tuesday, April 22 @ 6:00pm
Aaron Glass, Professor, Bard Graduate Center, New York City,  “Tall Tales of the Totem Pole: An Intercultural Biography of the Northwest Coast Icon” 
Location: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, 6th Floor

Wednesday, April 23 @ 5:00pm
William Wierzbowski, Keeper, American Section Penn Museum
Gallery Talk
Location: Arthur Ross Gallery

Wednesday, April 30 @ 6:00pm
Robin Wright, Professor and Director, Bill Holm Center for Study of Northwest Coast Art, Burke Museum, University of Washington, “Charles and Isabella Edenshaw: Haida Master Artists” 
Location: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, 6th Floor

Edited by Naomi Shavin.