In the fall 2005 semester during my internship at the SUNY Potsdam Charles T. Weaver Museum of Anthropology, I gained a greater appreciation of the difficulties of running a small university museum. I got to experience and learn about many aspects of museum work, including collecting, accession, inventorying, and photo digitizing, but the most interesting part of my internship focused on research and the creation of two different non-traditional museum “exhibits.” I created a display case about the role of bridewealth and marriage among the Tetela people of the Congo, and a website for the Weaver Museum. I encountered some of the curatorial problems that the theoretical museum classes, Museum Studies and Cross-Cultural Approaches to Art, described, including the impulse to relegate indigenous cultures to the changeless past and the need for balance between providing enough information and providing too much information for viewers to process.
I particularly enjoyed conducting an inventory of the Weaver collections, because I got the opportunity to view and handle the objects up close. This is always a special experience for an archaeologist who is interested in the material culture of the past. It was also nice to get some tactile experience, because I spent most of my internship on the two computers in the Weaver work room, researching the Tetela, writing my labels, and scanning images; conducting the inventory felt more like “traditional” museum work to me, so I enjoyed it for that reason. In Museum Studies, we discussed how museums often only preserve the unique objects, or objects that have "value" according to Western cultures. I was impressed with the Weaver collection, because in addition to the carvings, jewelry, and intricately decorated items, it also contains several plain hoes, axes, and other everyday items.
I learned some new skills during my internship that will probably be applicable to some of my future work. Because I did half of my internship work on a Macintosh computer and half on a PC, I became comfortable with using both of these operating systems. I learned how to scan pictures and documents into the computer. I became very familiar with Adobe Photoshop, using the program to straighten and clear up images scanned from slides, as well as resize, clarify, and enhance pictures. I also used this program to create composite photo-montage images as “banners” for the Weaver Museum website. I became familiar with the SUNY Potsdam Content Management System (CMS), its limitations, and how to work around them to create a reasonably professional website. To create the look I wanted for one paragraph, I had to manually fix the code.
For the academic component of my internship, in addition to applying the theoretical background on museums that I learned in Museum Studies and Cross-Cultural Approaches to Art, I read some new materials that my faculty advisor, Dr. Morgan Perkins, recommended. I read "Guide to Field Collecting of Ethnographic Specimens," a Smithsonian leaflet by William C. Sturtevant, to learn how to describe objects when accessioning them. I entered a Mohawk kasto'weh into the Weaver Museum database, and I learned how to fill out the various fields for this object in FileMakerPro. From the article as well as other Museum Studies materials, I learned how much information a responsible collector should learn about an object's provenance in order to donate it to an ethnographic museum. A collector should record everything from the local name of the object to the local categorization of the object. Although it would seem easy to categorize an object without knowledge of its culture of origin, many cultures conceptually group objects differently than we do. It is more meaningful to try to group objects the way their makers would, rather than following Western notions of relatedness. I did not get the chance to experience collecting myself, but I will be more aware if I do in the future.
I also researched the Tetela people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose objects comprise the greater part of the Weaver’s collection. It was difficult to find any information about the Tetela, given that they have not been the focus of many major research projects and most of the relevant material is in French. I found several articles that mentioned them in passing or focused on a very specific aspect of their culture, such as "The Debt of the Maternal Uncle: Contribution to the Study of Complex Structures of Kinship" by Luc de Heusch, but I was frustrated at the Tetela’s elusiveness. I contacted a professor who reviewed Dr. Weaver's book, Dr. Michael Kasongo, in hopes of learning of more academic sources. Dr. Kasongo gave me the name of another professor, Dr. Antoine Dimandja, who turned out to have known the Weavers when they were in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They suggested several leads, and I hope that we will learn more from them in the future. I read Dr. Kasongo’s book, The History of the Methodist Church in the Central Congo, and I found it to be interesting and informative, focusing specifically on the relationships between Methodist missionaries and the Tetela people, and providing some insights into their lifestyles and customs. However, it presents all of the information about the Tetela in the light of their conversion or resistance to Methodism, and this focus makes it less relevant to my research.
I wanted to find a way to exhibit the results of some of my research. When conducting the inventory of the Weaver collection, I took the objects out of a display case tucked away in a corner of MacVicar hall. As I was noting down the inventory numbers of the objects, almost everyone who passed by asked me, “Are you going to change the display?” I decided to create a new display for the display case, given the amount of public interest in giving it a fresh look. The frame of the display focused on Tetela marriage practices and the factors that stabilized and destabilized marriage in their society, particularly bridewealth. As described in the Museum Studies class, I got my idea from the Weaver collection itself. I drew my inspiration from the number of objects in the Weaver collection that the Tetela would have used as bridewealth gifts. I wanted the display case to represent a comprehensive sample of these types of objects, including fabric, copper cross ingots, anklets, and a photo of livestock, as though a bridewealth negotiation had just taken place.
For the display case, I wrote five labels about the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women’s role in Tetela society, bridewealth, polygamy, and the mythical origins of bridewealth. I initially approached these labels like an academic paper, but I found that I had to drastically cut the text to make my labels readable. Even after making the text more concise, the labels filled a large portion of the small display case. After consulting with several people, I decided to remove the label on polygamy among the Tetela, because even thought it was interesting, it was less thematically relevant than the other labels. I learned how to dry-mount the labels, which will be useful when I take the Museum Archives and Exhibits class. My little printed labels instantly looked like professional museum placards once they were mounted.
One of the hardest parts about making the display was replacing the old patterned fabric lining with black fabric. This was to cut down on the visual busyness of the case, as well as to remove the patterned fabric (a piece of Belgian trade cloth used by the Tetela) from the display case to prevent further damage. In Museum Studies, we discussed the balance between preserving objects and displaying them, and I felt that it was time to protect the fabric from light damage. I could not figure out how to prop the lid of the case open, so I balanced it on my forehead as I laboriously folded and pinned the fabric to the display case, to the amusement of the inevitable onlookers. Even in the small format of the display case, I had to rearrange the objects several times to make the exhibit attractive and easy to read.
WEAVER MUSEUM WEBSITE
I spent most of the time during my internship working on creating the new Weaver Museum website. I edited the website extensively in order to give it a unified, professional, user-friendly look. I initially wanted to provide as much information as possible, but with each new iteration of the website I pruned more unnecessary text away, at the suggestion of my site supervisor. I looked at a number of other university anthropology museum websites, such as the Arizona State University Museum of Anthropology website, for ideas about which pages to use for the Weaver website and how to present them. One of my main concerns in creating the website was that it be easy to maintain and update with new exhibitions and announcements. I was originally going to make the "Current Exhibition" page on the website far more elaborate than it is now, with links to a page on each section of the exhibit with a curator's statement from the student who designed it. After showing the page to my site supervisor, we decided to make it a single page like the "Past Exhibitions" pages, so that it is easy to transfer to that section once a new exhibit is installed. I want to make sure that the website stays current even after I leave school, so I gave my site supervisor the Potsdam CMS booklet I used and a brief orientation in how it works.
During my internship, I wanted to create an online exhibit for the Weaver Museum centered on the Tetela culture. I have become very interested in museum websites and online exhibits since I began researching them during the section in the Museum Studies class about the future of museums. I think that this format is exciting, and I think that this is the area where many museums will experience the most growth in the near future. Online exhibits can allow small museums like the Weaver to reach a much wider audience than otherwise possible. I developed a grand vision for what the exhibit could be like, based on major museums' online exhibits, created by multi-disciplinary teams of people or even independent contractors. I soon encountered a number of decisions to make about format, presentation, text, and images. I decided to create a main page with about a dozen small pictures of objects from the Weaver collection, with each picture a link to a page with a larger picture of the object and text relating it to an aspect of Tetela culture. I believe that designing an online exhibit is as challenging and requires as much preparation as a traditional exhibit, if not more so, and I did not have any experience with exhibit design. Still, I developed a detailed plan for the exhibit and created all of the pages for it. Currently, I view the online exhibit as a work in progress. I plan to continue editing it and contributing to it in the future, hopefully making it public early in the spring semester when I can get the pictures for it.
In my Museum Studies and Cross-Cultural Approaches to Art classes, I learned how important it is to be culturally sensitive in a museum exhibit, and how easy it is to create a biased or offensive presentation. I thought that I would never make the same mistakes, but I found myself learning them again through experience. I made most of the banners for the Weaver website from photos of objects from the Weaver collection or pictures of students creating former exhibits at the Weaver. However, I made a couple of banners from pictures of artworks from the “What Are We Leaving for the Seventh Generation? Seven Haudenosaunee Voices” exhibit. I was captivated by the lovely colors and images in these works, and I did not think that manipulating these artworks would be disrespectful to the artists who created them. I removed most of the pictures from the website, because I did not have the permission of the artists to display them.
Also, in creating my display case, I could not find any recent information about the Tetela. In my theoretical museum classes, I learned about museums' former tendency to describe Western history as linear and progressive, and indigenous history as static and unchanging. I particularly learned about the issues associated with tense in museum exhibits, and the controversy over the “ethnographic present tense” used for non-Western cultures. I did not wish to create an exhibit that locked the Tetela in the past, but I also did not want to assume that this culture had not changed in any way since the 1950s. The solution that Dr. Perkins and I came up with was to place most of the exhibit’s text in the ethnographic present, given that most the exhibit is about the basic structure of Tetela society that is unlikely to change, i.e. “the Tetela are patriarchal.” I wrote an additional placard explicitly describing the reason for choosing to use the ethnographic present:
This exhibit uses the ‘ethnographic present,’ a typical anthropology practice, to describe the Tetela. The ethnographic present can be problematic when it conveys the sense that non-Western cultures are static or backward. However, this exhibit seeks to present Tetela society at a specific time in history: the 1950s and 1960s, when Dr. Charles Weaver lived and worked with them.
I also briefly summarized the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from the 1950s to the present to bring the audience to date on the conflicts that have taken place there.
I enjoyed updating the bulletin board for the Museum Studies Program in MacVicar Hall. I wanted it to be colorful and informative at the same time. I did not have access to a color printer in the Weaver work room, so I emailed the pictures I wanted to use to my campus account and printed them out in the Merritt computer center. I searched for a sample of graduate schools with Museum Studies programs in order to convey their variety in geographic location, educational focus, and degree granted. I also made a list of internship sites that students in the SUNY Potsdam Museum Studies Minor could investigate to fulfill their internship requirement. I left a space in the middle for announcements and flyers, to keep the bulletin board current.
Near the end of my internship, I had the honor of meeting Mrs. Birgit Weaver, who donated the collection to SUNY Potsdam to create the Charles T. Weaver Anthropology Museum. She was very friendly and cheerful, so I was not as intimidated as I thought I would be in talking with her. She spoke briefly about her experiences in the Congo. In the future, I would like to learn more about what life was like in the Congo during the political conflicts there.
During my internship, I wanted to make a contribution to my internship site as well as learning from my experience. I experienced some of the processes of museum work first-hand, spending a portion of my time digitizing slides and conducting an inventory of the collection. I had the freedom to choose the projects I wanted to pursue during my time at the Weaver Museum, and I enjoyed learning about the Tetela and presenting the results of my research in a display case and website. My internship has only strengthened my interest in going into the museum field. It was one of my most interesting classes during the fall 2005 semester, and I always looked forward to my weekly eight hours. I may have been slightly over-ambitious with the projects I started during this internship, but I intend to follow up on those projects during the rest of my time at Potsdam and continue to work on perfecting them.