Emory Report

December 7, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 14

Public Scholarship seminar joined Atlanta museum staffs

"Who's Out There: Communities and Constituencies for Cultural Exhibitions" was a daylong workshop Nov. 4 examining the relationship between museums and diverse communities-as subjects, collaborators and audience.

Corinne Kratz, assistant professor of anthropology and co-organizer of the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship-sponsored event, said the gathering met its goal to "bring people in from outside with considerable experience so that people in Atlanta could find out what is being done to address issues involved in cultural exhibitions."

"The staff of different cultural institutions in Atlanta rarely get a chance to get together, and in the Emory community there are a lot of people interested in how to approach cultural festivals, films and exhibitions," Kratz said. Among the institutions participating were the Carlos and High museums and the Atlanta History Center, all workshop collaborators. The diverse group of attendees included art history and African studies professors and students and representatives from Nexus Contemporary Art Center, Moving in The Spirit Gallery, the Braves Museum and other local institutions.

Presenters from the Smithsonian Institution, the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and the University of Hawaii spoke in the morning session about cultural exhibits at their institutions. Doran Ross, director of the Fowler Museum, explained how "Wrapped in Pride," an exhibition about Kente cloth, became a vehicle to explore the African-American cultural experience. Outreach activities included sending local students into their communities to find out how Kente cloth was used, and their discoveries became part of the exhibition. The traveling show may come to the Carlos Museum in the year 2000 and will involve a similar type of exercise with Atlanta school children if it does.

Local institutions were the focus of afternoon session, where Carlos Museum Director Anthony Hirschel presented "Reflections on a Reinstallation: The 'New' Galleries of the Art of Sub-Saharan Africa at the Carlos Museum." In a self-evaluation of the month-old exhibition space, Hirschel said he considers it a work in progress. Although there are more than 1,000 objects in the Carlos African collection, fewer than 100 can be exhibited at any given time.

However, the 1994 donation of a huge collection of African art by Atlanta collector William Arnet has offered important benefits to other institutions and to the community. Since the gallery's initial installation in 1996, African exhibits have been visited frequently by school groups. But exhibiting African art and artifacts has been physically problematic, Hirschel said. The museum structure was redesigned in 1991 to accommodate specific elements of the Carlos collection but did not anticipate the space needed for exhibiting the unexpectedly large donation.

Last year Hirschel and Associate Professor of Art History Sidney Kasfir, faculty curator of the African collection, began discussing how to design a space for the ongoing exhibition of African art and objects. Considerations included defining a location, choosing a room color and display format, and determining how to use text and photographs. They also made plans to broaden the museum's audience by involving more community groups, including Atlanta's African immigrant communities, and to develop a contextualized anthropological approach to the exhibit, Hirschel said.

Involving community groups also means incorporating the political considerations a cultural exhibition can create. The Atlanta History Center's Sarah Hill, a graduate of the Institute of Liberal Arts, is curating "Native Land: Indians and Georgia" for exhibition in November 1999. She has involved four tribes in creating the exhibition that will study Georgian Cherokee and Creek tribes from 1500 to present. In the process, Hill is experiencing the challenge of diverse political agendas within the Indian constituency. She expressed concern about the exhibit provoking alienated tribes.

Discussant Jane Taylor, a writer and Rockefeller Fellow with the Center for Public Scholarship, spoke about parallel issues in her homeland of South Africa. "Exhibitions are actively cutting across historical and cultural description, reinventing and re-appropriating cultural and ethnic identity." Exhibit spaces there are also grappling with the question of art vs. artifact and with inherited collections, Taylor said. She spoke of "Miscast," an exhibition about bushmen that provoked responses from interest groups and alienated groups. "They found the exhibit; a protest was staged. This was good for the community."

Besides staging workshops and programs that correspond with the year's theme, "Exhibiting Cultures, Performing Cultures," the Center for Public Scholarship also was involved in designing new courses around the theme. This fall, for example, James Meyer, assistant professor of art history, is teaching "The Artist and the Museum," a graduate course that traces interventions by artists in and around museums in the 20th century. The museum workshop was helpful, he said, and "it fulfilled the goals of the center in its attempt to bring Emory and outside communities together to think through common problems. Public scholarship is an important issue."

--Cathy Byrd

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