RADTKE: Diversity in form and function on display

An important role of any museum — whether it be art, natural history or historical — is to educate. Museums allow us to see things in our community that may not be otherwise accessible; to think ideas that may not have had the chance to take root without encouragement.
Jan 25, 2013


In designing the Tri-Cities Historical Museum’s newest exhibit — "Form and Function:  Ethnographic Art of Africa, Asia and the Middle East" — the museum made a conscious decision to explore the many facets of diversity. A series of conversations with area schools and groups such as the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance indicated a clear desire for increased awareness of and sensitivity to a diverse world, a service that the museum is eminently suited to provide.

The museum’s mission statement — to “collect, preserve, display and interpret the cultural and historic record of Northwest Ottawa County for the benefit and education of area citizens and visitors” — dovetails well with such an idea. The exhibit is part of an initiative at the museum to provide art and culture along with history, of which last summer’s "Bling: A History of Costume Jewelry" was a forerunner.

"Form and Function" again combines history, art and culture to help visitors to the institution make connections with different beliefs, religions and ideas — most notably the difference between the material, “throw-away” culture we are used to and that of other countries, where scarce resources are carefully and lovingly preserved.

The exhibit is a showcase of artifacts collected during the travels of local resident David Baas, and features functional art from exotic places such as Saudi Arabia, India, China, Sri Lanka, Japan, Liberia, Morocco and Vietnam. A carefully curated selection of objects allows the visitor to experience things of everyday use, and see how the functional can be beautiful.

A trio of carrying baskets drawing from centuries-old traditions represents three different culture’s interpretation of the best way to transport common commodities such as grain. Despite difference in materials, shapes and methods of weaving, all three are well-suited to their purpose and remarkably similar in design — which helps to illustrate that while we are all different, we all can reach similar solutions to the same problem independent of one another. 

Items in the exhibit with a religious connotation, such as the African masks and the Indian shrine and temple offering vessels, give us a glimpse into methods of celebrating spirituality that may be unknown to the majority of viewers, and opens up opportunities for dialogue. Artifacts created for food service — such as a pot for the preparation of coffee, a display of betal nut crackers and a beautifully made box for the presentation of condiments to aid in their consumption — again can create a common bond between cultures (we drink coffee!) while illustrating the differences (what is a betal nut?).

During the selection process, particular attention was paid to the wear and repairs that show that these objects were appreciated and cared for, not disposable in the same way of similar things in our culture.

The use of color and texture to set off the artifacts and display them to their best advantage was another important consideration. Dark earth tones, simple fonts and formats for signage, and natural materials help to create an immersive environment where all things are in harmony with one another, much as they would have appeared while in use.

"Form and Function: is an example of what can be done in a small-town institution, which must wear many hats to effectively serve as a center for culture and history in the community. It has allowed the institution to expand upon relationships previously created, such as with area schools, and to forge new partnerships in the community.

In regards to the schools, the museum has spent years developing an excellent relationship with elementary students and teachers, but has never really reached out to the middle and high schools. Preliminary discussions with school officials indicate a great deal of interest in the exhibit at the upper grade levels, especially the lessons it has to teach about the diverse cultures it represents. We see this exhibit, specially created for this purpose, as the bridge to build strong bonds with these areas of the school systems where we have not ventured before.

An exciting new opportunity has also arisen in the museum's partnership with the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which helps to educate the public about diversity through its programs. A task force that includes representation from the museum meets regularly to help promote and discuss this essential part of any community. A strong commitment to increased awareness and promotion of cultural diversity issues is and will remain an important part of the museum’s mission.

"Form and Function" is on exhibit through August.

Steven Radtke is curator of exhibits and collections for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.         


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