By: Elizabeth Sutton
Through the Looking Glass: Obsidian Travel and Trade in the Great Basin, Recipient of the 2012 Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Award for Exhibition Excellence
The Utah State University Museum of Anthropology was honored at this year’s Western Museums Association Annual Meeting in Palm Springs as the recipient of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Award for Exhibition Excellence. The award was presented in recognition of the museum’s exhibit, Through the Looking Glass: Obsidian Travel and Trade in the Great Basin. This award is particularly meaningful to the USU Museum of Anthropology as we are a small teaching museum and committed to offering free admission and programming to the community.
Fifty years ago, our museum was unofficially founded in the basement of the Old Main building at Utah State University, as anthropology faculty began displaying archaeological artifacts and ethnographic items in cases in the hallway. Very much a labor of love by the anthropology faculty, the museum evolved over the years and was granted exhibition and curation space by the university, which was then filled with collections obtained by faculty during their course of their research and by select donations from community members. Currently, the Museum of Anthropology employs one full time Deputy Director who teaches courses in museum studies and anthropology, and oversees approximately thirty part time students each semester with program design and management, exhibition design and evaluation, and curation. The museum serves not only the students, faculty, and staff of Utah State University, but also the 100,000 residents of Cache Valley in Northern Utah. Our popular Saturdays at the Museum of Anthropology, funded by an IMLS Museums for America grant, provides free cultural programming almost every Saturday throughout the year. Students majoring in Anthropology and enrolled in USU’s interdisciplinary certificate in Museum Studies design each Saturday’s program around a theme, and engage audiences in hands-on activities and presentations by local scholars, artists, and experts.
As a university museum, we often struggle with the task of interpreting current scholarly research in relevant and engaging ways for our patrons. Interpreting academic journal articles for the general public is clearly not easy, but when it is successful, it has the power to bring the community together to appreciate and enthusiastically support academic pursuits and initiatives at the university. In the fall of 2010, former Museum of Anthropology curator, Monique Pomerleau, and a group of anthropology and museum studies students began to plan the Through the Looking Glass exhibit as a vehicle to garner support for archaeological research conducted by Utah State University faculty. Everyone knows that archaeologists like to study rocks, but though this exhibit we hoped to educate people as to WHY archaeologists spend so much time with rocks. Using case studies of current archaeological research, the Through the Looking Glass exhibit explores the science and technology of obsidian studies, what obsidian was used for in the past, and how archaeologists use data from obsidian studies to reconstruct the behavior and movements of ancient peoples as they moved across the vast landscape of the Great Basin.
Under the mentorship of Ms. Pomerleau, students researched current articles on obsidian studies, wrote exhibit text, and agreed on the design of the exhibit. The success of our museum projects always relies on the collaboration of students, staff, faculty, and the community. A community member hand-built the base of the main exhibit structure and students spent hours sanding down the extremely treacherous edges of obsidian cobbles so that patrons would not be inadvertently injured. Maps and other visuals were prepared in the Utah State University Spatial Data Collection Analysis and Visualization Lab as a joint project between museum and Geospatial lab staff and students.
Through the Looking Glass: Obsidian Travel and Trade in the Great Basin opened on January 22, 2011 with much fanfare. Community support was high and patrons turned out to see the new exhibit and enjoy flint knapping demonstrations highlighting the obsidian tool manufacturing process. Community feedback from the opening and subsequent exhibit tours has been extremely positive. The new exhibit is located next to our permanent exhibits on Ancient Life in the Great Basin which is frequently visited during school group tours. Local teachers consistently relate that they believe the Through the Looking Glass exhibit is a wonderful addition to our museum, and a needed contrast to the permanent cultural history exhibits. After learning about the history of human occupation of the Great Basin, students acquire knowledge as to specific methods professors at the university currently employ to continue to make discoveries as to how people lived in the region in the past.
The Utah State University Museum of Anthropology is grateful to the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Award for granting us this award for exhibition excellence. This recognition is especially meaningful to our museum because we are committed to providing our students with professional skills and confidence in their ability to successfully compete in the museum employment market after graduation.
Elizabeth Sutton received her B.A. in Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles and her M.A. in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently a Ph.D candidate in Anthropology at UCSB where she specializes in household archaeology. With over 12 years of experience in education and 7 years of museum experience, Elizabeth has trained countless students and volunteers in curation and museum management and held curatorial positions with the John Cooper Archaeology and Paleontology Center at Cal State Fullerton, the National Park Service, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and the UCSB Repository for Archaeological and Ethnographic Collections. She currently serves as deputy director/curator of the Utah State University Museum of Anthropology where she also teaches courses in anthropology and museum studies and directs the interdisciplinary certificate program in museum studies for both undergraduate and graduate students.