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The ‘Threads’ that ‘Endure’

Anthropology students in last semester’s Museum Methods class didn’t just read textbooks on how to put together museum displays.

These 10 undergraduate and four graduate students put their skills to work and made an exhibit in the Social Science building showcasing the ancient, colorful and intricate textile pieces found in the Mayan culture of Highland Guatemala.

Under the direction of faculty adviser Travis Doering, the students spent the semester researching the culture and created an exhibit as part of their final examination.

Using pieces from Doering’s private collection, they decided how to showcase different pieces of Mayan textiles and produced the final exhibit, Enduring Threads.

The focus of the exhibit is on how a Mayan woman’s traje – or clothing – can represent aspects of her identity, such as marital status, economic status or religious beliefs while also depicting how the textile traditions have helped the culture to survive.

“It’s a very broad exhibit, and it covers a lot about the Maya that most people are unaware of,” Doering said.

The exhibit also shows how the culture’s weaving strategies have changed over time.

“This is a traditional culture,” Doering said. “Weaving and textiles are a very big part of the culture at many different levels, so we tried to capture all of that and at the same time show what the technologies are and how they have changed or remained the same over 2,000 years.”

Before the students could complete their exhibit they had to completely renovate the old museum room of the Social Science building.

Doering said the students painted and cleaned the room, installed new lighting systems and completely redesigned the layout of the room to give it more of a museum-like appearance.

“Our goal was to make this look like a professional museum space,” Doering said. “I think the students did a phenomenal job.”

Elizabeth McCoy, a first-year graduate student in the applied anthropology program, found the class useful.

“Museums are one way in which archaeology can be displayed to the public, so learning about display theory helps me understand what to do and what not to do when displaying a culture,” McCoy said.

Students worked during class and occasionally weekends to perfect their displays. Groups of students chose narrowed topics ranging from Mayan cosmology to the different types of looms used to create the various villages’ traje.

“I am extremely happy with the way the museum turned out,” McCoy said. “Prior to our renovations, it was dark and not terribly inviting. I feel what we created tells a great story, is visually stunning and conveys all of the information and emotion that we hoped it would. Sometimes when I walk past there I am still amazed at what we were able to come up with and create in 14 short weeks.”

Sarah Connelly, a senior anthropology student, said the labor-intensive project was completed in different stages.

“It was a test of creativity, patience and drive,” Connelly said. “This was an experience of a lifetime and I will treasure it always. Even though I practically know the text by heart, I still pop by the museum every so often and find myself lingering over the huipils (traditional blouses) and displays.”

The Museum Methods class is offered about every three years to teach students how to create museum exhibits that represent culture, anthropology chair Elizabeth Bird said.

“This is a practical hands-on course in how to do to that,” Bird said. “Essentially, how to tell a cultural story through artifacts, photographs, words, captions and all the rest of it. It’s an area that a lot of anthropology graduates become interested in.”

Bird said that this exhibit represents the essence of what the anthropology department is all about.

“I think what you can take away is a real sense and appreciation of the talent of the women who wove these designs and also an appreciation of their lives,” Bird said. “It’s not just about the weaving, but about the entire lifestyle of Mayan women. I think we can appreciate the beauty of the weaving and the work that goes into that and really understand and appreciate the richness of the Mayan.”

In addition to Connelly and McCoy, other student curators of Enduring Threads included Devan Adams, Shari Carter, Felicidad Creagan, Mimi Ghosh, Michael Hare, Laura Huber, Meredith Mantooth, Lorena Mihok, Rebecca O’Sullivan, Dina Rivera, Jennifer Scott and Sierra Snyder.

The Enduring Threads exhibit will remain open until the next Museum Methods class comes in to create its own display on a new topic. The exhibit, open to all students, is on the first floor of the Social Science building.