If art itself as a concept did not come into existence until around 200 years ago, wouldn’t it be a bit unreasonable to think of objects produced before then as art?
Only two weeks into my College career, I had already begun asking myself conceptual questions such as the above, prompted by Chair and Professor of Anthropology Antonia Foias’ course “The Seeds of Divinity: Exploring Pre-Columbian Art and Civilization in a Museum Exhibit.” In this class, students were given the opportunity to curate an exhibit for the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA).
As someone who is greatly enchanted by the treasure troves of the British Museum and the Louvre, an opportunity to go behind the scenes of a museum was a dream come true. Moreover, I would be able to survey Central American religion and mythology. The process of actually figuring out where to start and what I had to do, however, was something else altogether.
Why would these artifacts belong in an art museum and not a history museum? Why are there even separate museums for art and history? As we contemplated these questions, our class had to confront notions about what ‘art’ is really about, especially in dealing with artifacts. While there was no denying that the 33 artifacts that had been allocated to our class were all objects with histories and some degrees of artistic value, I still could not envision them in an art museum. To this day, the question of what objects are “art” still baffles me, but I came to the conclusion that truly any object can hold cultural value.
Something I found crucial to keep in mind throughout this process was taking care not to exoticize or other these objects even more than they already were. Coming from a culture – China, namely Hong Kong – that has had countless treasures blatantly taken and shamelessly displayed around the globe by invaders and colonizers, I believe it is the least we can do to study and present these pieces with nothing but respect and appreciation.
As the weeks wore on, however, it became increasingly complicated to think about museums as places of learning while taking into consideration all the plundering and pillaging that came with the collection of such artifacts. I had to come to terms with the fact that there was little the museum administration could do with the sometimes dubious provenance of artifacts; it wasn’t as if the museum was asking for places to be looted. All I could do was try my best with the objects I had chosen.
Fast forward some months, and we’d already journeyed through five societies in the safety of the archaeology lab; our attention was once again directed towards crafting an exhibition that would best showcase the artifacts. We knew that there would be no way to meet everybody’s expectations on how to present our work to the public. No one would have anticipated, however, that an entire class would be side-tracked as 12 students became locked in a classroom battle royale over where their artifacts would be placed.
Not only was conceiving the layout difficult, but we also had the enormous task of condensing two to three months’ worth of information into bite-sized packets for visitors to read. There was simply so much I could say about each of my objects; they’d never be done justice by a simple 80-word plaque. And yet, we did our best to tell stories of great nations and their gods in the mere 20 seconds or fewer the average visitor took to read each label. Imagine our collective devastation when these carefully curated labels were ultimately eliminated from the visitor experience! We knew, however, that the museum’s hands were as tied as ours were in terms of budget, time and manpower. All we could do at that point was simply cross our fingers and hope that people would still learn something, anything, from our work.
As it turned out, “The Seeds of Divinity” did not really turn out to be much about art, but everything about a museum. As I recently led my friend around the exhibition, I could not help but proudly look at my three Zapotec urns. Though the show could never encompass all that we’d learned, I knew we had crafted an experience that would take visitors on at least some parts of our journey. For all the sleepless nights and pleas for extensions, I knew everyone had given their best effort to make “The Seeds of Divinity” the class of a lifetime.
The Seeds of Divinity will be displayed at WCMA until Aug. 31.