International collaboration helps connect Museum of Northern Arizona to Hopi community
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) is working with the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) in Osaka, Japan to improve the depth, quality and authenticity of each museum' ethnographic collections.
Minapaku's curator, Dr. Atsunori Ito is visiting MNA to document and photograph the museum's 450-piece Hopi overlay jewelry collection. Ito is a specialist on Hopi overlay. Reviewing MNA's early pieces is one of his research priorities. The style of jewelry that Ito studies has its origins at the museum in the late 1930s through the influence of its cofounder Mary Russel Ferrell Colton and art curator Virgil Hubert. Once photographing is complete, Ito will work with Hopi artists to document the cultural information on each piece.
"Museums must deepen and enrich information about the cultural context of objects within their collections," said Dr. Robert Breunig, MNA's president and CEO. "Ethnographic information about objects within our and other museum's collections is lacking. One way to deep the understanding of objects within our collections is to deepen our relationships with source communities."
For Ito that relationship started in 2003 when he first came to Arizona as a doctoral student. He knew about MNA, its history and its relationship with the Hopi people. His first feeling, when he knew no one here, was that he could do something for the museum and the Hopi people.
In the past 12 years, he has been back to Flagstaff and the Hopi reservation about 15 times. With the funding his museum has received from the Japanese government, he has taken on the project of photographing the collection. His doctoral thesis subject was the intellectual property right of Hopi jewelry. He decided that he wanted to do something practical with that community and MNA.
"That was my dream," Ito said. "I want to do something, then I got funding from the government. I felt this was the time to start this project."
Ito said that Minpaku's collection has about 300 Hopi kachina dolls, about 50 pieces of overlay jewelry, textiles and pottery, which were collected back in the late 60s and 70s. He said the documentation he is working on now is important because the Japanese market has many fake items and imitations of Hopi jewelry. He is creating a digital database that can be used by people who cannot come directly to Japan to see the collection in person. He hopes to share the pictures of the jewelry with the Hopi and to find out from them who made the piece and what the design may mean to the people who made it - information like individual, family and tribal history.
"It is sharing information and correcting our wrong description in the catalog," Ito said. "Sharing to me, that is very good, because our museum is in Japan, far away from the source community, far from this museum."
MNA's goal is to update its records too.
Kathleen Dougherty, MNA's anthropology collections manager, said that like Minpaku, MNA has a lot of technical information about the pieces but the cultural information from the communities where the pieces came from is missing.
"We don't necessarily have information like what does this figure represent in Hopi culture," Dougherty said. "We have things more like, silver bracelet with turquoise."
Dougherty said the database that Ito is compiling will benefit MNA by adding information to its records along with copies of the photographs that will add color and scale to everything MNA has.
Ito said it is important to do this project now because some of the people who made the jewelry are still alive or have relatives who are alive and able to share the information about the pieces.
"If it is 30 years later, maybe they forget or not have a good memory," Ito said. "So this right now is kind of our last chance to start this kind of project.
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