Try telling a new acquaintance you work as a museum curator. More often than not, the acquaintance will imagine your life in the style of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.
The reality could not be more different.
Besides the fact that no one looks like Harrison Ford or Angelina Jolie, museum curators are rarely in a position to actively “collect” for the museum. Most collections are obtained by way of a donor, who is typically an alumnus. But every once in a while an opportunity presents itself for curatorial cultural immersion and collecting.
During fall break, Nicolette Meister traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico to present a conference paper about the Logan Museum of Anthropology’s Frances Bristol Collection (see this earlier story). An exposition associated with the conference brought textile weavers from various communities in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Jalisco and from Guatemala and Peru together to demonstrate their art and sell their textiles directly to conference attendees. Nicolette purchased a child’s huipil (shirt, pronounced WEE-peel) woven by Eloisa Jiménez from San Bartolo Yautepec for the museum’s collection. The huipil was selected because children’s clothing is poorly represented in most museum collections (because generally it doesn’t last), because Ms. Bristol had collected other textiles from San Bartolo Yautepec, and because a contemporary textile from a known weaver from the same town documents continuity and change over time. In addition, conference attendees visited various towns known for craft production. For example, artisans from Teotitlán del Valle demonstrated traditional dyeing techniques using all-natural plant and insect dyes and two generations of basket weavers demonstrated their craft at their home in Santa Cruz Papalutla. Nicolette purchased a basket made from carrizo, a type of giant cane, by Carlos Bernardino and she recorded video of the artist demonstrating his craft. His father, who taught him how to weave, can be seen in the background working on a basket Carlos started. The sound of cows mooing in the background provide a sense of the rural location.
Traveling to Oaxaca to visit some of the same sites and walk down the same streets as Frances Bristol, decades after her last trip to Oaxaca, was a humbling and transformative experience for Nicolette. Knowing Frances personally and working with her collection over the last eight years made the experience of visiting Oaxaca all the more meaningful and helped dissolve the disconnect that often separates the material culture collected and the people who made and used the items. The conference reinforced Nicolette’s belief that the Bristol Collection has research significance to scholars of Oaxacan textiles and to craft production in general, but also made visible the potential connections with source communities.