Why do museums exist? What can we learn from them? And how can a modern museum make a difference?
For generations, we thought of museums as places that store and display items from around the globe. Over time, we realized that those items have much to teach us about the variety and richness of cultures throughout the world.
Today, many museums — including the Fowler Museum at UCLA, thanks to grants from the Mellon Foundation — are taking a new look at their collections. Curators, collections experts and researchers study how and why an item was made, left its place of origin and became part of a collection. By tracing how these art pieces have traveled and been viewed differently over time, a modern museum shines light on our past and current relationships with their communities of origin.
Listening to the Voices of the Past — and the Present
When businessman and avid collector Sir Henry Wellcome died in 1936, he had more than one million objects from around the world. In 1965, the Wellcome Trust gave part of its collection — more than 30,000 works of art and cultural objects — to UCLA.
Now, experts at the Fowler are reconsidering the African works from that gift. They draw on insights from the cultures that created the items as they combine conservation, material science, archival work and curatorial methods.
For example, examination of a brass and wood arrangement from the Dahomey Kingdom relies on oral history from local artists as well as origin information from the Wellcome Trust. A study of copper alloy works from coastal West Africa questions whether they were created as weights for gold dust — as many long thought — or souvenirs.
As the Fowler team dives deeper into the work, they build a new understanding of how some African makers changed their designs to appeal to the tastes of colonial buyers. They also address how some European sellers created false collection histories to assert objects’ authenticity.
Imagining the Future
The Mellon Foundation grants, which were provided in two stages and total $1 million, make this work possible by funding:
- New staff positions.
- Online open access to the Fowler’s collection.
- Exhibitions and publications on topics such as African art markets and the effects of collecting.
- The development of procedures for returning looted items and those that include human remains.
Additionally, the research has inspired public programs and digital StoryMap resources that share the knowledge with many audiences and connect scholars around the world.
The Fowler continues to move beyond traditional views and purposes of museums. It transforms the way we think about and learn from cultural objects. And it tells not only the story of what has happened so far, but helps decide what happens next.
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