Tucked away in the third-floor gallery of the IU Art Museum is a small installation featuring a type of Polynesian cloth made from the inner bark of trees, known as tapa.
A beautiful example of the cloth hangs on the wall, while a nearby case holds two examples of the implements used to pound bark into pulp before it is melded into the heavy cloth, which is often painted with various designs. Created throughout the Pacific, tapa cloth is used in ceremonies, dances and funerals.
While such cloth is itself unique, the distinctiveness of this particular IU installation lies in its creators: a group of students enrolled in the course “On Exhibit: The Pacific Islands.” Taught by the museum’s senior academic officer, Jennifer Wagelie, it was funded through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“This class represents part of a drive by the Mellon Foundation to integrate students more deeply into museum functions, and to further their studies using original works of art,” Wagelie said. “And it was perfect for me — the Pacific Islands is where my research heart lies. Plus, what we’re doing here is, in the broader context, experiential learning, which I strongly believe in.”
Many of the 11 undergraduate and five graduate students in the class took “Art of the South Pacific,” a course taught last fall by Diane Pelrine, associate director for curatorial services and Raymond and Laura Wielgus curator of the arts of African, Oceania and the Americas, giving them a base of knowledge about the area.
But they also received a crash course in art of the Pacific Islands from Adrienne Kaeppler, curator of oceanic ethnology in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Kaeppler is Wagelie’s mentor, and she visited IU to work with the students.
That included poring over a book containing swatches of tapa cloth collected during the 18th century on Capt. James Cook’s voyages, part of the collection at IU’s Lilly Library. Kaeppler’s extensive knowledge of the cloth even enabled her to correct misinformation contained in the book itself, including sites identified in its index regarding various samples. The book is on display as part of the installation.
Kaeppler also allowed several of her own pieces, including a clutch-style handbag made of tapa cloth, to be displayed as part of the installation.
Students researched the works of art and wrote all of the text for the installation’s placards, created essays for a website that can be explored online as well as via an iPad as part of the installation and even planned an opening reception, including special-ordering flowers indigenous to the South Pacific.
Senior Kenzie Carlson, who just graduated with a major in political science and minor in art history, admitted she didn’t know much about the area’s art before the class.
“It’s so cool to see our finished product, and know that I’ve gained knowledge about this area and their art,” she said. “Plus, we were able to exercise leadership skills and function more like project managers, doing everything from setting up the installation’s opening reception to squeezing all the information about these items into 150 words for the informational placards.”
Fellow spring 2013 graduate Virginia “Ginny” Martin, who created her own major in special event management with a concentration in art and entertainment, agreed.
“This felt more like an internship than a class,” she said. “We had back-up, but we were granted the responsibility to do things on our own. It was amazing experience.”
The course also appealed to Stephanie Beck Cohen, a doctoral candidate in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Art History.
“I loved having the opportunity to do the work of art history — examining tapa up close, researching and writing about artworks in our campus museum, meeting with scholars in the field and being mentored by the museum professionals who taught us to put together a thorough, beautiful and professional exhibit,” she said. “This class was special because students do not often get to do or produce this type of work in a single semester.”
“Tapa: Unwrapping Polynesian Barkcloth” is on display through Sept. 1 in the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery of the Arts of Africa, the South Pacific and the Americas on the IU Art Museum’s third floor.
Tags: Adrienne Kaeppler, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Capt. James Cook, Department of Art History, Diane Pelrine, Ginny Martin, IU Art Museum, Jennifer Wagelie, Kenzie Carlson, Polynesian tapa cloth, Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, Stephanie Beck Cohen