Student-curated show one of two new exhibits at the Fleming Museum
By Kevin Foley Article published January 26, 2005
It’s shoes, red patent leather ones with the glam spike heels. And a penis sheath from Papua New Guinea, a necklace of leopard knucklebones from South Africa, and tiny, tragic Chinese foot-binding slippers. Barbie’s right there, too, inevitably.
A new Fleming Museum exhibition, curated by students in the “Museum Anthropology” course (the first time undergraduates have taken responsibility for an exhibit at the museum), tries to capture the complexities of fetish by gathering and contrasting anthropological objects from the museum’s permanent collection. The student curators, led by anthropology lecturer and information technology staff member David Houston, define fetishes as objects that carry displaced layers of meaning expressed through rituals, ideas and associations.
“Collecting the Body, Transferring Desire” is on display in the cases in the museum’s Wilbur Room through June 5.
Margaret Tamulonis, the Fleming’s manager of collections and exhibitions, who has taught the course with Houston for several years, says that producing an actual exhibit was an opportunity to improve a successful course.
“The class has provided a lot of great research to the museum over the years, but students have always said they wanted more hands-on exhibit work,” Tamulonis says. “Giving them an exhibition to work on raised the stakes on the class and set a higher bar to aspire to.”
Over the 16-week course, students read the anthropological literature about fetishes (which often have little or nothing to do with sex), selected objects from the museum’s collection, researched the artifacts, created displays and wrote exhibit labels. Several of the group returned to campus from winter recess early for last-minute work on the displays, which debuted Jan. 18.
“Putting on a museum exhibit is a big deal. It’s not like going over to grandma’s and pulling out some cool teacups to put on the shelf,” says Houston, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at McGill University, emphasizing how the student research put objects into appropriate cultural and intellectual context.
Circling the cases and looking at the pieces is cryptic at first, then eye-opening as patterns emerge. There are objects intended to modify the body, others that are part of beauty or grooming rituals, still others that express idealizations of the human form in cultures ranging from Africa to the suburban 1960’s. One case highlights some objects made from the body, with miniatures constructed from hair. The various displays attempt to provoke with contrast; an opium pipe rubs up against antique glasses, handcuffs padded with fake leopard fur handcuffs pout in proximity to swords.
“You put a Barbie doll up against a Venus of Willendorf, and all this stuff about body shape starts coming out. The familiar becomes strange,” says Houston.
Tamulonis had a similar feeling of interesting dislocation as she taught the course and saw aspects of her profession anew through the eyes of students doing serious museum work for the first time.
”Doing an exhibit by committee is unusual, and a committee of students was even riskier, but their enthusiasm was galvanizing,” she says. “We were really walking the line, between being museum people and questioning whether something was going to work and letting people express their ideas and push for them. It really is the students’ vision.”
Also New at the FlemingArt/Document: Defining American Photography: In the first decade of the 20th century, photography remained a highly contested medium, with the Photo-Secessionists, an influential group of American photographers led by Alfred Stieglitz, championing the notion that photography was a fine art capable of transcending the camera's mechanical character in order to convey artistic expression, and documentary photographers arguing that the camera was uniquely capable of providing a truthful, even scientific, account of contemporary events.
This exhibition, drawn from the museum's collection, offers a glimpse of the heated debate by juxtaposing important works by photo-secessionists such as Gertrude Käsebier, Eduard Steichen, and Paul Strand with examples of Lewis Hine's groundbreaking documentation of the plight of child laborers in Vermont.