Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Do Universities Need Museums?

A thoughtful short essay by Stan Katz, at Princeton University's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, asking why universities need museums. He points out that few anthropologists base their research on museum collections and the days of "heoric" collecting are done and gone. What purpose, then, if not for research and not amassing scientific specimens? The default answer seems to be teaching, but then, one might ask whether university museums are effectively engaging with students and the faculty. Katz doesn't quite answer this question, leaving room for debate.

Of note, Katz highlights the success of a recent exhibit Gifts from the Ancestors, now at the Princeton University Art Museum. Just opened, this exhibit looks fantastic, presenting the fascinating, beautiful, and controversial ivory pieces from the far north. According to the website:

Gifts from the Ancestors highlights the unique and compelling archaeological art over past millennia from the Bering Strait region. The objects included on this website served as tools used for hunting, play, ritual, and domestic activities. They also reveal in their fine modeling and incised decoration a passion for embellishment. Contemporary Yup’ik people, whose lifeways and beliefs share many similarities with those of the ancient peoples of Bering Strait, explain this penchant for “dressing” artifacts in beautiful design and decoration as an outgrowth of their belief that all objects, natural or man-made, had personhood and possessed a sentient spirit or yua and therefore deserved respect as individual beings. Ancient ivories embody cultural knowledge and continue to inspire Native artists today.

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