Mathers faculty curator reinvigorates museum research with Senegalese ‘wish books’

Assistant anthropology professor Beth Buggenhagen jumped at the chance to take on one of three faculty curator positions created last year at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, located on the west side of the Bloomington campus.

The position gives her time to focus on her own research, and reinvigorates the museum’s role as a research institution by granting her access to its vast collections. Founded in 1963, the museum is home to more than 30,000 artifacts from around the world, including collections of African and Native American cultures, Indiana history, Latin American cultures and musical instruments.

Buggenhagen’s most recent work focuses on the photography of Senegalese women, who often create elaborate photo albums that don’t represent their actual lives. Rather, images are used to create an illustrative life, something like what a Westerner might think of as a “wish book.”

Beth Buggenhagen

Beth Buggenhagen

“Instead of their album being dedicated to their family history, it’s more forward looking,” Buggenhagen said. “It’s more about creating a representation or an idea of themselves. Often, they’re better looking than in their real lives, something very much like those ‘glamour shots’ that were popular here in America in the ‘80s, and there are no babies, no husbands, no parents included.”

What prompts Senegalese women to create such albums? It’s their response to a deeply fractured society, a community that is scattered overseas due to, among other reasons, the West African country’s economic crisis.

“These pictures circulate along migratory networks,” she said. “It’s how people continue their community, and how women come into their adulthood.”

As a faculty curator, Buggenhagen will speak about her work this fall at the Mathers Museum. The newly launched lecture series aims to draw together faculty and students on campus that would be interested in a particular curator’s work, and give them a chance to discuss that work collectively.

For example, the most recent lecture was given by former faculty curator Jason Jackson, an associate professor of folklore who was recently named director of the museum. He spoke about his ongoing study of the museum’s Eastern Cherokee collections, a significant series of items collected during the 1970s among the Cherokee living in western North Carolina.

“Many faculty members don’t have a lot of time, so this lecture series is an opportunity to get together and have really interesting conversations,” Buggenhagen said. “It’s just so cool for us to all be able to get together in a room and talk about this issue or research area, all looking at it from different disciplines. It’s a wonderful interaction, and it’s great for the students too.”

The Department of Anthropology is part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

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