On November 7 at 4:30, Inspired by Nature, Influenced by Trade will be opening at the UNI Museum on the 1st floor of Rod Library with a gallery talk by student curator Emily Schroeder. This exhibit is an extension of UNI Museum’s Cultural Impressions: Identities Molded in Clay exhibit, and it explores Sioux and Meskwaki identity in material culture.
In our first “Inside the Exhibit,” we are featuring senior studio art major Emily Schroeder. Emily graduates this coming May and is hoping to work in the museum field. She first realized that she wanted to work in a museum when she began volunteering for the UNI Museum three years ago as a photographer. In this role, Emily quickly learned that she “loved working with history, with objects directly from history, educating others and that museums need fine artists to fill important roles.” Emily went on to intern for UNI Museum and now, thanks to the experiences she’s had working on this exhibit, would like to work as an exhibit preparator, designing and installing exhibits for a museum. She says, “A position as an exhibit preparator would allow me to utilize skills I’ve harnessed as part of my degree in Studio Art as well as facilitate learning and curiosity.”
Read on to find out more about how Emily developed this exhibit and about the valuable lessons she learned along the way.
How did you come up with the topic for your exhibit?
"I was given a few guidelines by Nathan Arndt, the UNI Museum assistant director and chief curator, when I first began brainstorming ideas for the exhibit. The most important guideline was that it needed to relate to the larger exhibit, Cultural Impressions: Identities Molded in Clay. In Cultural Impressions, there are several objects created by Native American artists or cultures. I knew that the UNI Museum has a collection of Native American objects, so I began considering Native American cultures and their expressions of identity as one possible theme for my exhibit.”
"One night, I was discussing my ideas with my mom, and she asked what I knew about Native American tribes from Iowa and the Midwest. I had to honestly answer that I knew nothing. The fact that I knew so little about the people who originally inhabited this area was part of what helped me make my decision about my topic. If I knew so little about the tribes that had called this area home, I knew there were others that were just as uninformed as I was.”
What was the process of curating this exhibit?
"To begin my exhibit, I started with research. I spent about three months reading every book, article, and website that I could about Native Americans from the Midwest. I talked to the historic preservation officers from the Meskwaki (Johnathan Buffalo) and the Santee Sioux (Duane Whipple) to gain some insight from these tribes regarding their history and culture. I became somewhat obsessed in my search to find information, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any important details.”
"At first, I was focused on how the location of a tribe influenced its identity and material culture, but the idea evolved to focus on how trade influenced the way the tribes expressed themselves. Of course, geography and natural resources still played an important role, but trade with white settlers more directly changed life and material culture for tribes across the Midwest.”
"In regards to displaying the objects, I was conscious of the composition for the objects in the case. I sketched out a couple of different layouts before deciding on the current placement of the objects. I was conscious of the lines the objects were creating and how a viewer’s eyes would travel through the case and over the objects so that they would always be engaged visually and their gaze would continue around the exhibit.”
"The exhibit explores why objects from the Sioux and Meskwaki look the way they do and how geography and trade influenced the appearance and mediums of their material culture. In these tribes’ material cultures, we can see individual identity and the opportunities and pressures that arose from the arrival of white settlers as well as how the tribes responded to these changes.”
"There’s so much more about the exhibit and process that I could talk about, but you’ll just have to come to my gallery talk to hear more about that!”
Who were influential people in helping you to accomplish your goals with this exhibit?
"Ellie Akers, another student employee at the UNI Museum, is familiar with the museum’s Native American collection and helped me locate items for the exhibit.”
"Jess Cruz, the exhibit preparator for the UNI Museum, assisted me in creating mounts for the objects and preparing the case for the exhibit. Some of the objects, like the pipe, bowl, and roach, were tricky to display in a way that would be safe for the object but also give the audience a clear view of it. Jess explained different options and told me what she might try in certain situations but ultimately let me find the solutions on my own.”
"Nathan Arndt, the assistant director and chief curator for the UNI Museum, was instrumental to the success of all of the writing I did for the exhibit. While I was doing research in the preliminary part of the development of this exhibit, I also wrote an exhibit proposal, which he edited and approved. Nathan also edited the exhibit’s labels so they are more streamlined and convey the theme and message clearly. In addition, Nathan helped Ellie and I find objects in the museum’s collection to help support my exhibit’s theme.”
What did you learn throughout this process?
"Honestly, I learned so much from this experience. I’ve worked on exhibits before, but curating one myself was an entirely new experience that gave me a new level of appreciation for every aspect of creating an exhibit. It makes me thankful and relieved that most exhibits are not done alone! It is very difficult to do all the work alone, even for a small exhibit.”
"I also learned things beyond what I found in books or by going through the curation process. By that, I mean that I learned how to have difficult conversations with native peoples to learn more about their history and viewpoints. Those interviews and conversations are something you don’t learn how to do in a classroom or in a book. I was very nervous to talk to Johnathan Buffalo and Duane Whipple, but they were very gracious with their time and patient with me. I discovered that an open mind and a willingness to learn are important tools to bring to any conversation, especially between two cultures with a turbulent history.”
"Through my research and discussions with Johnathan Buffalo and Duane Whipple, I learned for the first time about the many ways white settlers wronged the Native Americans. Did you know that the Meskwaki were tricked into giving up their land in Iowa when representatives (not tribal leaders) were pressured into getting drunk and signing a treaty they couldn’t even read? That is just one example of the many times when Native Americans were taken advantage of by white settlers and politicians. I didn’t understand or even know how poorly Native Americans had been treated, and therefore didn’t have a clear view of Native American and white relations in the present. Now that I know more about the history between natives and whites, I feel I can better understand current events like the Dakota Access Pipeline. While I will never completely understand because I am not Native American, I at least know more about the struggles and treatment of Native Americans and can help educate others.”
To experience Emily’s exhibit for yourself, plan to attend her gallery talk on November 7 at 4:30 at the UNI Museum on the first floor of Rod Library.