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Post on "Give and Take: Shifting Collection Boundaries in the 21st Century Museum" by Kevin D. Dumouchelle, Assistant Curator, Arts of Africa & the Pacific Islands, Brooklyn Museum

Posted By Kevin D. Dumouchelle, Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Give and Take: Shifting Collection Boundaries in the 21st Century Museum

The first full panel of the conference, this session on recent approaches that challenge traditional museum taxonomies offered some enlightening (and refreshingly cross-disciplinary) examples of collaborative curating. This philosophy is one that has been made central to my own museum’s collection plan over recent years, so I was eager to learn of how other institutions were approaching similar questions.

Emily Ballew Naff, of the MFA Houston, opened the panel by discussing how she had applied an ‘Atlantic history’ model to her installation of American paintings and sculpture, building a presence for the arts of New Spain and the Caribbean, for example, through loans from other institutions. Matthew Witkovsky, of the Art Institute of Chicago, discussed the practice of exhibiting a major gift that contained elements that fell into a variety of collecting areas, stressing above all the need for ongoing communication. At Chicago, this practice is taking shape through the creation of cross-collection working groups. Finally, Marla Berns, director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, spoke about the museum’s reinstallation of its permanent collection, which integrated its African, Pacific, Native American, and Pre-Columbian holdings in a series of thematic galleries that aimed to illustrate shared, global trends through culturally situated, local examples. She also spoke about the critical challenges and benefits of a recent exhibition of the work of Nick Cave, convincingly arguing that showing the work of a contemporary artist who challenges taxonomies in what is still thought by some to be merely a "material culture” institution in fact allowed visitors the chance to challenge their prescriptive expectations and to look at familiar and unfamiliar art in new ways. The discussion period raised the issue of cross-collection acquisitions, with the speakers concluding that such accessions should ideally be directed toward objects that have the potential to be used in multiple ways for the institution, to its long-term benefit.

I directed considerable efforts toward cross-collection acquisitions and borrowing in my own recent installation of our African collection, so it was heartening to hear how central these attempts to question and push traditional museum taxonomies remain for a broad array of other museums. We are in very good company, at the very least. I was also struck by an undercurrent of Marla’s presentation—that these questions of taxonomies are, in fact, quite natural (if not ‘old hat’) for curators of non-Western art, whose very place in encyclopedic collections reflects a now-settled readjustment of seemingly fixed distinctions between "fine art” and "ethnography,” "craft,” or "material culture.” All the more reason for those of us caring for collections of African, Native American, Pacific, and Pre-Columbian collections to attend these conferences and share with our AAMC colleagues in the future.

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