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Museum Monday: Revealing hidden treasures

November 4, 2016
By Carolyn Jenkinson


Over the past two months, Logan Museum staff and student assistants have been sorting and cataloging over 8,000 slides that document collector Frances Bristol’s travels throughout the Mexican state of Oaxaca between the 1950s and 1990s. The process of cataloging has revealed collecting trends, themes, and points of access to interpreting and researching the Bristol Collection. Below is a sampling of our favorite photographs that illustrate some of these themes.

Several photographs, like the slide below, show community members wearing textiles that Ms. Bristol later collected and donated to the Logan Museum. These images provide researchers with an invaluable perspective as to how these garments were worn in their original contexts.




Tracking changes over time: the Bristol slide collection documents a 50-year period of significant economic, social, and cultural change in the state of Oaxaca. The content in the photographs ranges from state-sponsored infrastructure projects and the introduction of new technologies to changes in indigenous fashion and material culture and Oaxaca’s growth as an epicenter of cultural tourism and indigenous art production.  


Regional changes in agriculture practices:(Above) threshing grain with mules on a “threshing floor” in 1969 and (below) using a McCormick threshing machine almost a decade later in 1978.

Tourism’s effects on indigenous art production:

Oaxaca, the most ethnically diverse state in Mexico, has become a popular destination for collectors and scholars interested in the production and consumption of indigenous art and material culture.

The photograph above was taken in 1954, at ceramic artist Rosa Nieto’s home and workshop in San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca.

The photograph below was taken over two decades later in 1976 “at a much bigger showroom” at her son’s home in the same town. Frances visited Rosa Nieto thirteen times between 1954 and 1982, taking thirty-five photos of these encounters. In doing so she not only documented the artist and her family’s success, but also gave future researchers a unique longitudinal view of the effects of tourism and economics on traditional craft production in the region.Changes in fashion:

In the photograph above, taken in a regional city center, Frances captured a juxtaposition of clothing styles: a family in typical indigenous clothing of the region and the silhouette of a woman in the foreground wearing a western-style tailored dress. The composition of the photo as well as its caption, “…old style and new,” demonstrate  her awareness of and desire to document the changes taking place in regional fashion at the time.


The photograph above, titled “Then and now?” further illustrates changes in style with two older women in regional blouses and skirts and two younger women in shorter, tighter-fitting tailored dresses.


The ethnographic gaze: Photographs like the one above give us a glimpse of Frances’ interactions with the community members of the places she visited. The term ethnographic gaze refers to the identity and power dynamics between the photographer and the subject. This is especially evident in tourism and ethnographic research where the photographer is not a member of the community.

The title of this photograph, “We are being watched,” is curious, as it is not clear whether Frances is speaking on behalf of the subjects or herself as the photographer. Both possible interpretations shed light on how Frances, as a tourist and avocational collector, potentially viewed herself, her photographs, and collecting practices in relation to the identity of the people and spaces she visited.


Documenting ways of life:

This photograph of a wedding party in southern Oaxaca documents both clothing and fashion trends as well as social customs and rituals of the time. While the bride wears a contemporary white wedding dress, her friends are wearing similarly iconic and contemporary Theuana ensembles, a style of the Isthmus region that is still popular for festive occasions today. This photograph is part of a sequence of photographs that shows the common wedding custom of the wedding party and guests processing through the streets of the town.


Frances Bristol as a collector:And then there are photographs that when paired with their captions – like this turkey “riding in state” on the back of a donkey – give us some delightful insights into her personality (and sense of humor) as a keen observer of the world around her.

By taking the time to document her travels, Frances created a unique record of a pivotal period in Oaxacan history.

 A primary role of museums is to establish intellectual points of access to its collections to make future research possible. By sorting, harvesting, and entering the data from these slides, and publishing it online for expanded access, the Logan Museum is ensuring that the Frances Bristol Collection and Archive become valuable resources for future generations of students, scholars, and community members from Beloit to Oaxaca and beyond.

 The Bristol Collection Reference Resources Project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence.