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Student Perspectives from a tour of the Cantor Center, Stanford University

Africa gallery at the Cantor Center (photograph by C. J. Hodge)

Africa gallery at the Cantor Center

photograph by C. J. Hodge
Apr 13 2015

Behind the Scenes at the Cantor Arts Canter

On Monday, April 6th 2015, I was fortunate enough to take a private tour of Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts for my Museum Cultures class. My classmates and I arrived at the museum before its opening and were greeted by Catherine Hale, the Cantor’s Phyllis Wattis Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas. The Cantor is closed to the public on Mondays. We entered through the curators’ side entrance, received our special security passes, and walked through the halls of curator offices. Walking into the quiet, empty museum was a unique experience. Most museum visitors only experience exhibitions with crowds of people surrounding them, but today, we were given the chance to experience the art on our own and learn about what goes on behind the scenes of museum exhibits.

During our tour, we visited the Native American and Arts of Africa exhibitions to discuss the representation of peoples who have for most of history been excluded from decisions about the display of their material culture. We discussed how the idea of self-representation and the inclusion of multiple perspectives in museums are important and relatively new ways of thinking about displays, as the history of museums is filled with demonstrations of power and authority in a mostly colonial context. Museums today have increasingly begun to collaborate with the public in the hopes of making a more accessible, active, and interactive museum experience. In addition to discussing complex issues such as the ownership of material culture, the rights to representation, and the conflicts between cultural beliefs and display of cultural artifacts, we learned about the significance of seemingly minute details of exhibitions. Everything from word choices and the order of sentences on display labels, to the paint color of the room, to the lighting of the art and artifacts, affects the way visitors view exhibits. But sometimes, even curators themselves are not able to make these decisions. Objects on display at museums are often fragile and need to be protected; aesthetic and symbolic decisions about display are not always possible.

This experience gave me a greater appreciation for museums. I knew that curating a museum was not easy, but I did not appreciate how much thought goes into every decision or how many challenges, both physical and ethical, museums face in creating an exhibit. After learning about the process behind the displays, I realize that museums are more than just educational places where people can go to look at interesting or pretty things, but that they are centers of cultural exchange, places where different perspectives, histories, ideas, and beliefs can and should intersect, and agencies of social, cultural, and political change.

– Emily Kent

Attribution and Artistry at the Cantor

On Monday, April 6th, 2015, the Museum Cultures: Material Representation in the Past and Present class had the opportunity to tour the Cantor Arts Center’s Native American Collection with Dr. Catherine M. Hale, Phyllis Wattis Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas. Our tour was centered around the gallery containing pieces from the Pacific Northwest Coast region and Northern California, on the second floor of the Cantor. The gallery we explored had a mix of works from hundreds of years ago to newer works from the 2000s. Hale, who has only been with the Cantor for a short time and has not made many changes to this gallery, allowed us to look at the different pieces in the Cantor’s collection and allowed the class to address some of our concerns with the exhibit.

One concern brought up by Hale and the class was the use of the term “artist” on labels. Many of the labels in the exhibit say “Artist Unknown” and indicate where it (might have) came from and what year or time period it (might have) been created. Hale pointed out that there are some objections to using the phrase “Artist” when referring to the people who created these cultural items. Many of the older objects, like baskets and woven hats created by “unknown artists” were used every day or in ceremonial practices and call into question whether these objects are even “art.” On the other hand, works created by Salish artist Dylan Thomas in as late as 2010 serve more of an aesthetic and “artful” purpose like the works that hang in the adjacent European art gallery. A conclusion that I have come to while having time to think about it is that objects, like the baskets and hats, do have “artistic” value, but that was probably not the sole reason why they were created, but for everyday or ceremonial use. The prints from Dylan Thomas, who I would consider and “artist,” were created for their artistic value, but still draw inspiration from the older, less “artistically” valued cultural objects.

Our class tour of this Native American Gallery at the Cantor, our curiosity pertaining to the usage of the term “artist” and my sentiment only scratch at the surface of whether or not, for lack of a better term, cultural object creators should be considered “artists” or not. Throughout the course and working with the objects I hope we continue to explore this topic.

I. S. Robbins