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What is co-curation?

Chicago is fortunate to have been the only United States stop on Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 2019 tour. In preparation for their November 22nd and 23rd performances at the Harris Theater, FM hosted a panel discussion on November 19th between artistic director Steven Page, dancer Elma Kris, and Regenstein Curator John Terrell.

Before and after the talk, attendees were invited to view three specially selected Australian items from the Museum’s collection. Members of Bangarra selected two bark paintings with the help of Will Stubbs of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala: Possum Tree Story by Narritjin Maymuru (c. 1916-1981) and Djambuwal, Master of the Storms and His Spear by Larrtjaƞa Ganambarr (1932-2000.) Maymuru and Ganambarr were both artists from Yolngu country, an area that inspired much of Bangarra’s current programming.

The paintings are part of the Louis A. Allen collection. Allen was something of an amateur anthropologist, travelling across Australia with the intent to meet artists and record their stories, while also collecting their work. Allen helped to revive interest in Aboriginal art in Australia with the publication of his book Time Before Morning. He eventually sold much of his collection to the Australian government and 13 pieces came to the Field Museum, of which 12 are bark paintings. They were last exhibited in 1972, when they were donated to the Field.

The third item on display was a shield, likely from Victoria. Museum staff chose this item to represent one of the “mysteries” of the collection, an object with very little information associated with it -- but one we hope community members and researchers may one day fill in the blanks for and help us solve.

See the Chicago Tribune for details on Bangarra’s event, as well as an interview with John Terrell and collections manager Chris Philipp.

Over 12 weeks this fall, the 2019 Regenstein Pacific interns were hard at work treating and housing the Museum’s large collection of woven mats from the Pacific. As part of this multi-year project, Regenstein interns Mackenzie Fairchild (Marist College - Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici) and Kristin Cimmerer (University of Michigan) were supervised by Regenstein Conservator JP Brown in the creation of new archival storage mounts for over 230 mats. They were able to complete the re-rolling of mats from Micronesia, over half of the mats from Polynesia, and began work on the collections from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The collections care provided by this project is crucial for the well-being and long-term preservation of the collections cared for by the Field: on their new storage mounts within the Collections Resource Center, the collection of mats will be better protected from dust and physical strain, as well as be more easily accessible to researchers and practitioners. Fairchild and Cimmerer also photographed each piece, another important step in increasing visibility and digital accessibility of these items.

During his recent visit to the Marshall Islands, collections manager Chris Philipp was able to share information and images with the Marshallese community on Majuro. In recent years the art form has experienced a resurgence in the Islands and weavers are increasingly interested in reconnecting with Museum collections so they can study examples of this work from their predecessors.

Conservation technician Mackenzie Fairchild performs treatment on a fragile fringed mat from Micronesia. Stabilizing very delicate areas of the mat allows it to be safely housed and returned to storage - in this case, flat and unrolled.
Intern Kristin Cimmerer rolls a narrow mat from West Papua, Indonesia onto an archival tube. Rolling reduces stress on the mats’ structure and keeps them from developing creases.
Photo by Mackenzie Fairchild. Marshallese mat, or jaki-ed, from Irving Channon’s 1907 collection.

Mats after re-housing, placed in permanent storage.

An aerial view of Majuro Atoll, taken from the team's Hawaii to RMI flight. Photo by Chris Philipp, 2019

Between October 8th and 16th of 2019, Regenstein Collections Manager Chris Philipp and exhibitions developer Ryan Schuessler traveled to Majuro Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The Regenstein curatorial team maintains an initiative to reconnect with Pacific Islander communities whose ancestors made and used the items that the Museum cares for today. The Field Museum has worked in the Marshall Islands before: former curator Alexander Spoehr conducted fieldwork there in 1947, and the 1980s the exhibitions department purchased a Marshallese canoe from Jaluit Atoll and arranged for its shipment to Chicago for the new Regenstein Hall (where it can now be seen in "Traveling the Pacific").

In service to that goal, the trip had the following aims:

1) establish new connections with the Marshallese community in Majuro,

2) update individuals and organizations in Majuro regarding the Museum's partnership with the Marshallese community in Enid, Oklahoma (in particular, the exhibit rotation in development co-curated with 5 Enid High School students earlier this year)

3) ask for feedback and input from individuals and organizations for this exhibit rotation, and

4) extend an invitation to co-curate the 250+ objects of cultural heritage that represent the Marshallese currently in the collection.

Philipp and Schuessler were successful in making contact and discussing the Marshallese collection and initiatives with numerous organizations and individuals, including the Alele Museum and Public Library, the University of the South Pacific (USP) Marshall Islands Campus, The College of the Marshall Islands (CMI), and Waan Aelõñ in Majel (WAM) - "Canoes of the Marshall Islands". 65 contemporary objects for the Museum were acquired on this trip including a canoe model made by one of WAM's recently graduated students, 2 jaki-ed (fine mats) commissioned with the help of Dr. Irene Tafaaki of USP, and 3 sitting and sleeping mats organized through Professor Hermon Lajar of the College of the Marshall Islands. The canoe model and mats both represent continuity in Marshallese arts and a recently revitalized art form in the case of the jaki-ed. At USP, Philipp and Schuessler also gave a presentation on the Museum collection, co-curation, the upcoming exhibit rotation to first year students.

The Enid High School co-curators plan to include a representation of contemporary living culture in their upcoming show: as such, a selection of woven bags, head ornaments, and other handicrafts were obtained for consideration of inclusion in the upcoming exhibit rotation in the front of the Regenstein Halls of the Pacific.

An outrigger canoe outside the Waan Aelõñ in Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) main office in Majuro. Pictured behind the canoe (L-R) are Alson Kelen, WAM director, and exhibitions developer Ryan Schuessler. Photo by Chris Philipp, 2019

Travelling back home via Hawaii, Philipp and Schuessler visited the Bishop Museum. The layover proved productive: the team learned about current methods for storing kahili (Hawaiian feather standards) in collections, and saw some of the most recent mats from the Marshallese weaving resurgence.

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