Art Notes: Hood Museum Digitizes Its Holdings of Native American Art

Published: 8/8/2016 12:27:03 PM
Modified: 1/8/2015 12:00:00 AM
In 2013, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College received a nearly $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to digitize its holdings in Native American art, nearly 4,000 objects from regions throughout North America, including the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Plains, Northwest, California, Woodlands and Great Basin, and Plateau.

The goal, said Katherine Hart, senior curator of collections, is to put every object in the collection in a computer database so it is publicly available to students, anthropologists and curators worldwide.

Given that one of the Hood’s primary roles is that of a teaching museum, and that it lacks at present a curator of Native American art, the digitization is “a further way to share information, and create a deeper, better knowledge about these objects,” Hart said in a recent interview.

The expectation is that digitizing the collection will stimulate online discussion, in particular among Native American communities, about the objects’ history, design and any personal or familial connections to them, thereby adding to the larger body of knowledge.

The museum has invited scholars familiar with each region to visit the museum to assess a given collection after it has been digitized . The scholars are shedding light on the objects and the people who made them, as well as ensuring that the identifications and cataloguing are correct. To date, some 3,200 objects have been evaluated, and there are roughly 1,000 more items to be looked at, Hart said. The museum expects to finish the digitization this summer.

Megan Smetzer, an art historian from Vancouver, British Columbia, spent close to a week last month at the Hood examining its collection of some 400 objects made by the First Nations, which include the Tlingit (pronounced Klinkit), Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly called the Kwakiutl) along the Northwest coast of the U.S. and Canada.

Smetzer, a scholar specializing in the art of the coastal Northwest, wrote an essay on Expressing Identity in an Intercultural World for the museum’s catalogue Native American Art at Dartmouth, published in 2011.

She is the second art historian associated with the digitization project to come to the museum. An art historian was at the museum last spring to examine the Arctic collection; the next historian will look at objects from the Southwest this March, Hart said. After that the museum tackles its Southeast and Plains collections. Currently the museum has a small installation dedicated to some of the Arctic art up in the Kim gallery.

On a Monday afternoon , Smetzer and Hart were in a storage room going through objects set aside on shelves and in drawers. Earlier Smetzer had caught one misidentification: two baskets probably made on the Northwest coast had been attributed, probably years ago, to the Eskimo, now more commonly called the Inuit. Smetzer had also, through online, archival photographic research in university collections, had the good fortune to match a button robe in the Hood collection to images of the same robe in pictures taken at the turn of the 20th century, the scholar’s equivalent of striking gold.

The two historians also were looking at a number of hand-woven baskets dating from the early 1900s made by Tlingit artisans. The Tlingit live in coastal southeastern Alaska, and northern British Columbia and the southern Yukon in Canada.

Smetzer grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her parents worked with native communities, and Smetzer was exposed from an early age to the history and societies of those communities. After receiving a B.A. at Smith College and an M.A. from Williams College, both in Massachusetts, she earned a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia, and now teaches at Capilano University in North Vancouver, among other colleges.

Smetzer had long been interested in the complexity of the “politics around the U.S. government and native peoples and decided it was really important to engage with that issue. Art is a way in to understanding some of those tensions.”

A number of objects in the Hood’s Northwest collection were made between the early and mid 20th century for the tourist trade, as visitors to the Pacific Northwest coast bought baskets, carvings, beaded objects, and miniature totem poles and paddles small enough to fit in a suitcase to bring home with them.

It was part of a craze to amass anything having to do with, or made by, the so-called “vanishing races,” a nostalgia perhaps best exemplified in Edward Sheriff Curtis’ famous 1904 photograph The Vanishing Race , which shows a long line of Navajo on horseback riding down a shadowy trail into darkness, implying that the people he photographed were never more noble or heroic than when depicted as on the verge of extinction.

Until relatively recently, these curios were dismissed as trinkets not truly expressive of a nation’s history or society; ersatz culture directed at European and North American stereotypes about the American Indian rather than bona fide artistry.

Smetzer is one of the scholars arguing for a re-evaluation of such objects because there is much information to be gleaned from them, she said.

Part of the condescension directed at the tourist era bric-a-brac stemmed from the idea, which found currency in some artistic and anthropological circles, that indigenous peoples were more “authentic,” more “pure” before contact with the Europeans.

In fact, Smetzer has found that the people making the curios were “carrying their culture forward” in subversive ways by incorporating artistic motifs and themes, as well as practices, that were otherwise banned or frowned on by the American and Canadian governments in their efforts to bring the numerous nations under their control.

Because the colonial powers, and the Christian missionaries who had come west to convert the Tlingit, Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly called the Kwakiutl) approved of indigenous nations turning to capitalist ventures as a way to assimilate to life under colonial power, they overlooked the fact that the artisans making the objects for sale were weaving their culture into baskets or chiseling it into argillite, a hard, dense black shale used to make portable carvings .

“What is the sense of continuity and resiliency in art even when religious and cultural practices were banned?” Hart said.

Further, artisans, who were often women, were often able to bring in more money to the family by making artististic objects for sale than by relying solely on income from, say, a cannery, where many indigenous people, as well as Chinese and Filipino immigrants, were employed, Smetzer said.

“It was lucrative, and a huge part of a family’s economic livelihood,” Smetzer said.

That the hundreds of nations in North America still exist, thrive and carry forward, albeit in sometimes challenging conditions, is often overlooked by those who have consigned the first nations to the past, rather than coming to grips with how they live, and what they contribute, in the present. The Hood’s Native American collections also contain numerous works of art made by contemporary, internationally-known artists.

So the array of Northwest Coast objects in the Hood that show an engagement between, say, the Tlingit and the Americans and Canadians, said Smetzer, “reveals a much richer history, or a more realistic understanding of the effects of colonialism.”

Openings and Receptions

Winter has started in earnest, and so, too, has the winter art scene. Local galleries and museums, which took a short nap over the holidays, are reopening and new shows are going up.

AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon has an opening reception tomorrow evening from 5 to 7 p.m. for three exhibitions. “Bits and Pieces in Bronze” features the sculpture of Maine artist Sumner Winebaum; Harry Bernard, from Walpole, N.H., shows his paintings in “WasHere”; and Gail Smuda, from Concord, exhibits her artist’s books in “Historical Fictions.”

AVA will also screen two films by the late Clifford West on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. B ronze: River of Metal, made in 1972, looks at the history of bronze, from its discovery to its use in monumental sculpture. Harry Bertoia’s Sculpture looks at the career of Italian sculptor and designer Harry Bertoia. The Sunday screening kicks off a winter series of free films and talks at the nonprofit art center.

The Norwich Library, fittingly, is showing works celebrating winter. If you can’t beat a northern New England winter — and you can’t — then you might as well revel in it. Winter scenes by painters Kate Reeves and Jennifer Dembinski, which remind us of the season’s stark and often delicate beauty, are on view in the exhibition “My Winter World” through Feb. 27. There will be a reception for the artists on Friday, Jan. 16, from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

In South Royalton, Royalton M emorial Library displays drawings by East Barnard artist Jo Levasseur. Levasseur works in a variety of media, including chalk pastel, colored pencil, pencil and acrylics. There will be a closing reception on Jan. 30, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Of Note

The Library Arts Center in Newport is asking its patrons to pick a board, any board. As part of the effort to refurbish the gallery, the LAC is going to be replacing the wall-to-wall carpeting with a new hardwood floor. Hard wood floors can be pricey though, so, in addition to funding it has already received from the Oliver S. & Jennie R. Donaldson Charitable Trust, the Library Arts Center has launched a campaign in which people can donate the cost of a single board (or more). More than 125 patrons have already signed on. While the Library Arts Center undergoes the renovation it will be closed for the month of January. For more information on the project call the LAC at 603-863-3040 or go to libraryartscenter.org

Ongoing

Arabella, Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

Big Town Gallery, Rochester, Vt. The collages of Varujan Boghosian and the paintings of Ben Frank Moss are on view through Feb. 14.

Billings Farm & Museum, Woodstock. “Frederick Douglass,” an exhibition about the orator and writer that includes letters, images and broadsides, can be seen on the weekends through January, and also on the Martin Luther King holiday on Jan. 19.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. Acrylic paintings and monotype prints by Patty Castellini continue through Jan. 31.

Great Hall, Springfield. “Fibrations! New England Fiber Art & Mixed-Media Invitational Exhibition” runs through spring 2015.

Hartland Library. The paintings and sculpture of Abraham H. Oort can be seen in the show “The Miracle and Beauty of the Living Earth and Its Awakening,” through Feb. 15. For information call 802-299-5083.

Hood Museum of Art, Hanover. “Allan Houser: A Centennial Exhibition,” a show of sculpture by the late American artist, in honor of the centennial of his birth, continues through next May.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. Sue Bridge’s pastels and watercolors are on view through Jan. 31.

Howe Library, Hanover. Hanover High School students are exhibiting their art work in the library’s Ledyard Gallery through Jan. 28.

Long River Studios, Lyme. The work of painter Meg McLean is on view through January, as well as art and hand-made crafts by a wide range of Upper Valley artists. The gallery is open only by chance or by appointment until Tuesday, when it resumes regular hours.

Main Street Museum of Art, White River Junction. David Fairbanks Ford’s homage to Peter the Great’s ethnographic and anthropological museum, the Kunstkamera, with new exhibits and acquisitions, is on view through Jan. 15.

Marian Graves Mugar Gallery, Colby-Sawyer College, New London. The annual faculty art exhibition, with works by Jon Keenan, Loretta Barnett, David Ernster, Bert Yarborough, Nicholas Gaffney, Mary Mead and Hilary Walrod, runs through Feb. 13.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. “Superman 3,” new work by the assemblage artist Dave Laro, continues through Feb. 6.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. Art by Two Rivers members is on view and on sale through Jan. 31 .

Tunbridge Library. “Tunbridge: Then and Now” compares photographs of Tunbridge from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to photographs of the same places today, taken by Valley News photographer Geoff Hansen. It runs through Saturday.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.




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