Cultural Interpreters

Students tell the story of an Amazon tribe through artifacts and texts in this class on exhibition design

Photography by Allison Corona and Patrick Sweeney

A new exhibition, “The Ese’Eja People of the Amazon: Connected by a Thread,” opened fall 2018 on the Boise State University campus, giving visitors an intimate look at the lives of one of the last indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin of Peru through an array of elegant silver-toned photographs, objects, drawings, text and video.

Perhaps as importantly, it gave students in art professor Stephanie Bacon’s course on exhibition design the chance to install an entire exhibition — one that comes to Boise State from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

“Connected by a Thread” represents a departure from traditional ethnographic exhibitions, said Bacon. Those often are curated from an outside, academic perspective in which objects are “on display” without any ties to their original context. In this case, the Ese’Eja (EH-see-AY-ha) people worked alongside project team leaders and photographers — Jon Cox from the University of Delaware and Andrew Bale from Dickinson College — to create the exhibition, select its treasures and write interpretive texts. A book that accompanies the exhibition, “Ancestral Lands of the Ese’Eja: The True People,” also is written from the Ese’Eja perspective with explanations of history, practices and folklore.

Students in Bacon’s class represent a range of departments — from art to public history to anthropology.

“We’ve felt a duty to present objects in a way that does them justice,” said Aimee Rollins, a first-year graduate student in the applied historical research program and in Bacon’s class.

Students have faced challenges like how to place daguerreotype portraits so that light sources don’t wash them out and how to hang a trio of arrows as tall as a grown person, but delicate, too, tipped by spirals of iridescent Macaw feathers. They have studied sources like Japanese garden design to help anticipate how viewers might move through the gallery’s space. They have had to think conceptually — deciding how and why to group certain objects — while honing their basic carpentry skills. They have had to consider, said Rollins, how objects from the Amazon might play off the banks of the Boise River, its vegetation visible through the gallery windows.

The class also will help her build her professional resume, one of its main attractions.

“This class has been a learning experience in more ways than I thought it would be,” said Rollins. “We’ve learned the proper care for artifacts, fixing the lights properly, yes, but also how to work with students from other disciplines, to see how other people think. It’s been refreshing to get outside of my bubble.”

Rollins appreciates that the Ese’Eja are at the center of this exhibition and had such a critical role in creating it. “They invite the viewer into their world,” she said.

Students who encounter objects in museums or in texts often see themselves as observers outside of a cultural discussion, said Bacon.

“But here, students are handling objects, seeing themselves as researchers with points of view. You can’t get that experience from looking at a photograph. We want students to have the best opportunities. To galvanize the idea that they are themselves cultural interpreters.”

The Boise State exhibition is the first time the collection been installed by anyone other than its curators, said Bacon. This is the second time she has taught an exhibition design class. The first class centered on Shakespeare’s First Folio, the 400-year-old, first-published collection of Shakespeare’s plays that came to Boise State in 2016.