New chapter opening for KU’s art museum

Casey Mesick was recently hired by the Spencer Museum of Art for her expertise in ethnographic collections. She is pictured before a set of four door panels from the Nupe culture in Nigeria.

For the past six years, KU students and staff have been documenting, one by one, thousands of pieces of indigenous art from the Spencer Museum of Art’s ethnographic collection.

For Casey Mesick, a new curator at the museum, the system is a godsend. Now, she — along with anyone else who wants to — can look up any item in the museum’s collection by its date of creation, artist or many other options. It allows her to do the work she loves much more efficiently.

“I feel incredibly spoiled,” she said. “This is my dream come true. It’s made my job so much easier and fun.”

As the museum’s curator of global indigenous art, Mesick works with ethnographic objects from the Americas, Oceanic world and Africa. The 31-year-old recently completed her Ph.D. in anthropology at Brown University. Mesick has previously done field research in Guatemala and a residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Mesick’s job consists of creating exhibitions at the museum, working with students and faculty, and growing the collection. She loves the collaborative aspect of the job and is excited to be at the institution amid its “Project Redefine,” in which staff members are trying to better inform the public about art museums. They are mixing art from different countries and time periods to give the institution a more cohesive feel.

A ceramic human sculpture from the Cochiti Pueblo culture.

“It really is a new chapter for the museum, and I think I’m coming in at a good time, a time I can be productive and contribute,” she said. “We’re encouraged to be creative and think outside the box.”

Mesick says she likes indigenous art because “it’s kind of ugly”– meaning that in the best possible way. She said the genre is just now starting to be considered art, now being exhibited at prominent art museums rather than being placed at natural history museums alongside fossils and dioramas.

Once, Mesick showed a object she considered art — a bag made out of seal intestines — to a Native American student at KU. “Why is that art?” the girl asked. To her, it was a utilitarian object, like much of the indigenous “art” was at one time. Mesick said the genre “challenges conventional notions of aesthetics and value.”

The ethnographic collection used to be housed in the Museum of Anthropology at KU but was transferred to Spencer in 2007. The acquisition has been funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

At an off-site location, thousands of objects spanning thousands of years rest in cabinets in a retrofitted climate-controlled environment, where they are protected from light and dust.

Two full-time staff members, with the help of about a dozen students and other volunteers, photograph, measure and report on the condition of each object, entering the information into an online database.

Along the way, the collection managers have been able to reunite objects that had long been separated, find items thought to have been missing and — by becoming familiar with certain colors, styles or even smells — group pieces whose associations hadn’t been known.

Their work has made the collection searchable for a mass audience. Users can narrow their inquiries by country, culture, tribe, donor and curator, among other categories.

“I’ve never worked with another institution that kept track of as much information as we do,” Associate Collections Manager Angela Watts said. “This is definitely the direction museums are going but few museums have been able to make the progress we have so far.”

The collection managers have had to be extremely careful with each of the objects, which are delicate and, obviously, irreplaceable. A lot of the pieces are made of natural materials — buckskin, leather, feathers — and thus attract bugs and mites.

“Every different object presents a different challenge for how to store it,” said Watts, who does so using pH-neutral cardboard boxes sized to fit the specific piece or group of pieces.

The museum will have catalogued nearly 7,500 objects when it finishes the project this year. Those efforts have made Spencer’s newest curator very happy.

Said Mesick: “I’ve not ever seen a museum that has made this amount of information available.”