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Current Exhibits (at the time of our visit)

Housing the Spirit

Drawing on the Museum's outstanding and rapidly growing collection of African art, Housing the Spirit examines the spiritual or religious aspects and contexts of African material culture. For example:

· For the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the ibeji--a carved wooden figure--is believed to house the spirit or soul of a deceased twin so that it will not call its brother or sister to the spirit world;

· The Baule people of Ivory Coast believe that a spirit spouse, present in the form of an idealized, carved wood figure, "connects" the living individual with his or her spouse from the other world so that it can be appeased and pleased by its spouse in this world.

The exhibit, a class project that sixteen students in a Museum Studies class at Brown University's Department of Anthropology developed during the Spring 1999 semester, includes more than fifty African art objects, ranging from masks and carved figures to terra cotta sculptures and cast brass objects. As they studied the many African cultures represented in the exhibit, the students were particularly interested in examining the connections and transformations between the material and the spiritual worlds. The new exhibit is an expression of their extensive research and discussions.

Photography and the Art of Ethnography:
Photographing the Kujamaat Jóola of Senegal, West Africa, in the 1960s.

J. David Sapir

What is the role of photography in ethnographic fieldwork? During the 1960s, University of Virginia Anthropology Professor J. David Sapir conducted anthropological and linguistic fieldwork among the Kujamaat, a division of the Jóola people of southern Senegal. He compiled grammatical and lexical entries, carried out interviews, and tape recorded conversations and ceremonies. He investigated social categories, religious symbolism, and other complex abstractions—typical anthropological inquiries.

Away from the interviews and the tape recorder, Sapir, a “shutterbug” since high school, found the opportunity to photograph the people, places, and events around him. Sapir’s photographs were an exercise of artistic avocation and not integral parts of his data-gathering. Some will view them as art because they combine the photographer’s eye, stylized black-and-white medium, and privileged exhibition context. But because of Sapir’s “ethnographer’s eye”—his intimate knowledge of the Kujamaat and their trust of him—his photographs are also valuable ethnographic observations about the community and culture.

Photographs are never unbiased records of people, places, and events, no matter how hard the photographer tries to be clinical or casual. The viewer’s prejudices and the context of the viewing also affect what is perceived. But field notes and other ethnographic documents are no less susceptible to bias and misinterpretation, and Sapir’s photographs communicate to us about the Kujamaat in ways ethnographic texts cannot. Even when artful, an ethnographer’s photographs serve a range of important documentary ends.

Sapir's early field work with the Kujamaat Jóola of Senegal established the basis for his interest in West African languages, folklore and social symbolism and his broader theoretical concern with the centrality of symbolism in human thought. His current research interests and teaching areas concern the nature of still photography as a unique form of communication and its value for ethnology. He is editor of the journal Visual Anthropology Review and creator of Fixing Shadows, a World Wide Web site devoted to unmanipulated photography (the Web address is

Passionate Hobby: Rudolf F. Haffenreffer and the King Philip Museum

Passionate Hobby occupies the Museum's largest gallery. It features several hundred objects collected by Rudolf F. Haffenreffer for his King Philip Museum, which formed the core of the current Museum collections. In place since 1994, this massive display educates the visitor about both the objects in the original Haffenreffer collection, and about the culture of collecting itself, especially in the early twentieth century when Rudolf Haffenreffer was most actively assembling his museum. By taking early twentieth-century collecting as a topic of research appropriate to the exhibition, rather than side-stepping this problematic issue, the Museum has sought new insights into ways that museums have contributed to knowledge of culture, as well as obscured it, at specific historical moments. As such, Passionate Hobby is a contribution to knowledge of Native American cultures, as well as the history and philosophy of U.S. museums, and the history of southern New England, where Rudolf Haffenreffer was an influential civic figure. The exhibition was curated by a team of Brown University faculty and graduate students and Haffenreffer staff, headed by David Gregg, and benefitted from consultation with leaders of local Native American groups, especially the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council.

Hopi Katsina Dolls: Ancestor Spirit Carvings.

This exhibit draws on the Museum collections and loans, speaking to the production of and historical changes in Katsina doll carving, as well as issues of cultural and intellectual property. The exhibition included katsina dolls from different historical periods, encouraging discussion of cultural and aesthetic change in the traditions and objects. The exhibition was curated by guest curator Barry Walsh, parent of a Brown University student, and long-time researcher of Hopi culture, assisted by Peter Lape, graduate student, and Nanobah Becker (Navajo), undergraduate student, both in anthropology.

Prior to the exhibition, carver Manfred Susunkewa (Hopi) came from his native Arizona to demonstrate the art of katsina doll carving. His presentation stressed the importance of the dolls in children and adult learning about their own Hopi culture. Several of his dolls were included in the exhibition when it opened several months later.

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