Whitney Helm
January 04, 2018

Attention to Detail

Frances Bristol assembled an important textile collection that documents cultural changes, especially in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her chance meeting with a Beloit professor led this rich resource to the Logan Museum of Anthropology.

It was always about the details for Clara Frances Bristol. A Rochester, N.Y., native, Bristol was diagnosed with tuberculosis at a young age and couldn’t attend school regularly. Her education came through being outdoors and visiting museums with her receptionist mother, Marcia Moffett, and her actress grandmother, Frances Carter.

C. Frances Bristol, left, and her mother, Marcia Moffett near Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca, Mexic... C. Frances Bristol, left, and her mother, Marcia Moffett near Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1965.
Credit: Logan Museum of Anthropology

It was only after the family moved to England to take advantage of lower-cost healthcare that Bristol, an only child, began to develop her keen sense of observation. One hobby she developed was figuring out the rank of military officers, based on the regalia and armbands they wore.

“She became really interested in drawing and documenting these different orders and deciphering what they meant,” says Nicolette Meister, curator of collections at Beloit’s Logan Museum of Anthropology.

Bristol’s attention to detail eventually served the Logan well, when she unexpectedly gave her collection of meticulously documented objects to the museum. Her gift included 373 textiles from Guatemala and 16 Mexican states (290 from Oaxaca), plus ceramics, baskets, jewelry, 8,700 color slides, and 34 field notebooks. All of it came to the Logan Museum between 2006 and 2014. Bristol died in 2012 at 103.

Meister first became aware of the collection in 2005, when she received a handwritten letter from Bristol.

“I would like to give my textiles, notes, and artifacts to Beloit after hearing so many good things from Dr. + Mrs. Godfrey (sic) and Miss Mina Winslow—all of whom I met in Oaxaca [Mexico],” wrote Bristol, then 97. “My mother and I spent roughly two months there each winter from 1952-1994, with a gap in the ’80s.”

William Simpson Godfrey, a legendary professor of anthropology at Beloit College, conducted archaeological excavations and vacationed in Mexico. He and Bristol often stayed at the same hotels. They met and struck up a working friendship, with Bristol occasionally asking him for help in identifying materials in some of the pieces she had collected.

Meister was intrigued by the letter, which led to more correspondence between the two women, often occurring through Bristol’s friend, Sherry Truss. Within a year, they arranged a meeting.

Frances Bristol collection at the Logan Museum Beloit College Oaxaca Aug. 1, 2017, in Madison, Wi...

“The photographs of Frances’ catalogs are astounding, truly wonderful!” Meister wrote in an October 2005 email to Truss. “It’s the sort of documentation that museums dream of receiving with every donation.”

Despite the number of items she owned, Bristol didn’t consider herself a collector. She started buying pieces at the urging of Oaxaca Courts hotel owner Anita Jones, who collected textiles.

Jones, according to Bristol, was “the real collector” and as such, Jones always got first pick. Along with her mother, Frances Bristol and Jones traveled dirt roads and the mountainous terrain to remote villages and markets using local guides. Walking, riding donkeys, or driving in “Chula”—their beloved teal-colored Jeep—they visited villages throughout Mexico and Guatemala.

A leading producer of arts and crafts, the state of Oaxaca provided a culturally rich and biologically diverse area for collecting. Bristol collected in 18 Oaxacan districts, with the majority of the textiles coming from Tehuantepec and Jamiltepec. She collected 34 of the Tehuantepec textiles in San Mateo del Mar, most of which are servilletas (translates to napkin, but these textiles serve multiple uses). In total, Bristol collected over 70 servilletas and 17 huipiles (blouses).

Collecting excited Bristol’s detailed eye for deciphering patterns and images, skills she’d honed as a child in England. Always concerned with accuracy, she read the works of early scholars Frederick Starr, the University of Chicago’s first anthropologist, and Donald and Dorothy Cordy, leading experts on textiles, to understand more about the materials, patterns, and uses of the pieces.

Bristol compiled her notes in what she called “The Book,” three-ring binders that allowed her to organize information and add to it without disturbing the order. Each notebook was organized by district and then by municipality or town.

Using her training from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the renowned fine arts school, she illustrated detailed maps showing the routes she took to the various communities. Each book also contains Bristol’s sketches of indigenous clothing—how items were made and worn—along with photographs and documented field notes that include research on the region and stories about the many people she met while traveling.

Frances Bristol collection at the Logan Museum Beloit College Oaxaca Aug. 1, 2017, in Madison, Wi...

Although Bristol had no formal background in managing museum collections, she created her own intricate tracking system, identifying items in her collection with a series of numbers and codes—consisting of the year the textile was acquired, the state it was collected in, the type of textile, and an individual item number. She kept a log of corresponding information that included the date a piece was collected, the location, the source, and the artist’s name.

Bristol also sewed reference numbers on fabric swatches that were then sewn on the textiles in matching colors. Each object also has a corresponding index card in a separate binder, which is organized by state and country. Index cards contain information on the location of the object, purchase price, a description, an illustration, and the source of acquisition.

Her photographs document nearly a half-century of social, cultural, and economic change in the state of Oaxaca, and include state-sponsored infrastructure projects, new technologies, and changes in fashion and material.

Odona Valentín uses a special loom to weave fringe. Bristol took this photo in Oaxaca in 1966. Odona Valentín uses a special loom to weave fringe. Bristol took this photo in Oaxaca in 1966.

The relationships Bristol established with artists are still benefiting researchers and communities today. In 1966, Bristol visited weaver Odona Valentín (shown at top right) in her workshop in Lo de Soto, Jamiltepec, Oaxaca. Bristol took pictures of her weaving and purchased a servilleta that is now in the Logan’s collection. Valentín was one of the last weavers to make these types of servilletas in the region. Information from the Bristol archive is helping researchers from Oaxaca study and revive Valentín’s weaving style.

Frances Bristol collection at the Logan Museum Beloit College Oaxaca Aug. 1, 2017, in Madison, Wi... By studying objects like Valentín’s servilleta, researchers will be able to detect changes in techniques and weaving materials over time. “As more infrastructure was being built and roads were connecting small towns to larger towns, there were more manufactured goods coming in, so they were able to buy ready-made threads,” says Carolyn Jenkinson, project coordinator for the collection.

The research, cataloging, and digitizing project will be completed in May 2018, when a visual archive will become available online.

Through the collection, Beloit students are learning about weave structure and how indigenous identity is reflected in material culture as they help to catalog the collection.

“The Bristol Collection offers our students opportunities to explore diverse areas of anthropological research and to delve deeply into textile analysis,” says Meister. “Frances Bristol was collecting during a period of rapid cultural change in Oaxaca. How her textiles were collected—at markets and directly from weavers—what textiles were collected, and from where, also present rich research opportunities. Visual anthropology, identity politics, economics and cultural markets, and ethnic tourism, are just a few topics ripe for investigation.”

Bristol’s collection is already inspiring a collecting tour. This spring, a group of students, along with Meister and Jenkinson, will travel to Oaxaca for 10 days to visit communities Bristol visited and to collect contemporary textiles. After they return to Beloit, they will catalog their purchases, no doubt with the same attention to detail as Bristol.

Whitney Helm is a news editor and writer in the Communications and Marketing Office at Beloit College.

Photos by Andy Manis unless otherwise noted.

Preserving a legacy

Even something as well-documented and organized as the Bristol Collection requires resources to maintain, as well as additional processing to make it accessible to students and researchers. As a collector, Frances Bristol had the foresight to establish a $50,000 endowment to accompany her gift, “for the purposes of maintaining the collection of fabrics previously donated.”

Assistant Curator Krista Barry'15 in the textile storage area of the Logan Museum of Anthropology... Assistant Curator Krista Barry’15 in the textile storage area of the Logan Museum of Anthropology.

The Logan Museum also obtained two federal grants and support from alumni that proved to be critically important to preserving Bristol’s legacy. In 2016, the Logan obtained a grant of nearly $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to catalog, digitize, and make the Bristol Collection widely accessible. Alumni support from Chris’71 and Beth Flickinger Padon’70, Allen Reed’76, and Randy’70 and Anita Bentley Williams’70 helped meet the matching requirement of the grant. This grant also funds the position held by Carolyn Jenkinson, a specialist in textile history and material culture studies, whose research focuses on Oaxacan textiles and changes in indigenous material culture over the 20th century.

A second grant of nearly $10,000, also received in 2016, was awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. These funds support the implementation of cold storage to preserve color slides and photos and negatives. Bristol’s photo archive has been scanned, and the color slides and prints are being rehoused in vapor-proof packaging in a new freezer for long-term storage.

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