Pre-Columbian artifacts on display at Edwardsville Arts Center

Pre-Columbian pieces on exhibit at the Edwardsville Art Center should tell the tale of a culturally diverse region, according to Eric Barnett, director of the University Museum.

“[In] Pre-Columbian cultures, there were multiple cultures that really did not have anything to do with each other, and it shows in their objects because there’s no real strong similarities from one to another,” Barnett said. “We look for causalities and we look for original sources for things, and we have a prejudice in favor of there being a single point of origin from which other things happen.”

Photo courtesy of Eric Barnett

Several decades ago, the “common thinking” among archaeologists, according to Barnett, was that the Olmec was the “mother culture and all these other cultures grew out of the Olmec.”

“People now have an understand[ing] that that isn’t the case, that these cultures are not linked that way,” Barnett said. “Some of them are, but some of them aren’t. There’s multiple descendencies. So, I really sought to represent the visual diversity.”

The exhibit, “SIUE Collections Pre-Columbian Mayan Artifacts,” opened Jan. 4 and includes pieces from the University Museum that have been accumulating since 1984 when Irvin and Margaret Dagen, of St. Louis, donated artifacts after unsuccessful attempts to donate the pieces to the St. Louis Art Museum, the University of Missouri-Columbia and other area universities.

Of the more than 1,000 pieces at the Museum, Barnett selected roughly 60 pieces over Christmas break and had three days to install the exhibit – with the help of two graduate assistants – after returning from break.

Most of the pieces in the show are ceramic, according to Barnett, though there are a couple stone pieces and “a bit of gold.”

Selecting the pieces for any show is a “creative process,” according to Barnett.

“Sometimes curating an exhibition is almost the equivalent of writing a journal article or something because the only way an exhibition really makes sense is if it represents a story of some sort and tries to make a point of some kind,” Barnett said.

For any exhibit, whether more art-oriented or historical, Barnett said the curator of the exhibit “has to have a point of view.”

“Now, many times with art exhibitions, much of that [point of view] is implicit in how the objects are arranged and what’s next to what. It causes people to think a certain way,” Barnett said, “and exhibitions that are more historically oriented, there’s much more done with text to explain the history.”

If the curator has to explain the point of view of the exhibit to the audience, “it’s kind of like having to explain a joke,” Barnett said.

“It’s a matter of making selections and arranging the selections,” Barnett said, “and almost always when I do a thing like this, I take to the venue more pieces than I can actually use. In that regard, it’s kind of like making a collage. A collage really works best if you have a wealth of material from which to draw.”

Mary McKeehan, gallery manager of the Edwardsville Arts Center, said she trusts Barnett’s judgment and knowledge of the artifacts when he exhibits them at the center.

“He knows something about each piece that he’s selected,” McKeehan said.

Some Edwardsville High School students in art, social science and social studies classes will view the exhibit, which runs through Feb. 8, McKeehan said.

The Edwardsville Art Center is open Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Barnett will speak at an Edwardsville Arts Center coffee lecture about the exhibit from 2:30 – 4 p.m. Jan. 31.

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