Hood digitizes Native American art

by Marley Marius | 1/27/14 3:45pm

Since the Hood Museum of Art received a $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services four months ago, the museum has begun to digitize its 4,000-plus pieces of Native American art in a slow but steady process. As the leading source of federal aid for libraries and museums across the nation, the institute awarded the Hood one of 244 grants given to museums this year, totaling nearly $30,000,000 across all awards.

The collection, owned entirely by the College, is composed of 4,273 items including drawings, garments and hunting tools. Each object will be photographed and digitized online over the course of the project.

Combining authentic 19th century works with contemporary pieces, the art draws attention to modern Native American culture, a focal point of the project.

Sharing similar goals to the 2011 “Native American Art at Dartmouth” exhibit, which included footage of Dartmouth students and alumni sharing personal anecdotes, the Hood set out to highlight Native American art’s relevance today.

“Works by contemporary artists affirm that American Indians are diverse, complex, living entities in the 21st century, not just static relics in a museum case,” Native American studies professor Melanie Benson Taylor said in an email.

The project’s associated resources will include short, descriptive videos to accompany each piece’s photograph, along with an online forum where academics can discuss their personal connections to the art. The online forum will also include elementary- , high school- and college-level curricula designed to encourage research.

Scholars specializing in Native American art will visit Hanover for a week at a time to review the pieces, meet with professors and potentially hold symposia open to students.

Senior curator of collections Katherine Hart said that 2,000 to 3,000 works are pulled from the Hood’s archives for study every year. She added that the Hood’s materials must be as accessible to students as possible.

“We can’t digitize everything at once, so we thought that we should focus on a part of the museum that’s used for teaching, is meaningful and has a relationship to Dartmouth’s history,” Hart said. “Something with resonance.”

The ongoing project, projected to be complete in 2017, has a few kinks that need to be worked out. Though the Hood was one of the first museums in the country to have an online cataloging collection, the Museum Prototype Project, meeting the demands of an increasingly Internet-savvy public remains a challenge.

People today use databases in new and evolving ways, Hart said.

“[We need] to learn what would make it the most useful and meaningful for them,” she said. “We also want to know how to encourage people to contribute the kind of information that will be useful for teaching.”

Moreover, putting thousands of images online requires much administrative work. Isana Skeete ’14 helps collections documentation manager and cataloguer Deborah Haynes organize the shelves of Native American art, ensuring that each piece is accounted for and ready to be digitized.

Though Skeete spends over two hours in the Hood’s storage facilities every day, she finds the work gratifying.

“Not only will the project update the museum’s information about its objects and be important to members of these various cultures, but the photos will also be useful to researchers from all over the world,” Skeete said.

Skeete is a copy editor for The Dartmouth.