May 18, 2014

Making connections through Burke collections

In honor of this year's International Museum Day, I sat down with one of our curators, Dr. Holly Barker, also a University of Washington (UW) anthropology professor, to talk about some of the connections she’s seen UW students make when she’s invited them into the Burke’s ethnology collections.

Tangible connections. Students in one of Holly’s independent
study groups making pump drills, an ancient tool that’s
being revitalized in today’s carving practices.

Tell me a bit about how your UW classes work.

Holly: I’m a half-time anthropology professor and half-time curator, so my approach to curating has been to curate through teaching. I do this by offering educational independent study opportunities to undergraduate students at the UW.

Most independent study courses are an individual working with a professor, but my classes use a group format to draw on indigenous research methods, which are based more on the group than the individual—everyone has responsibility for the group. It’s been really refreshing to experience these indigenous methods in action. Often academia can be kind of individualistic, but this group approach creates a more supportive environment.
This independent study group format also means students have the opportunity to build their leadership skills, and I get to take more of a facilitator role, which I like. Students get a chance to explore their questions and research interests.

Why do you bring students behind the scenes at the Burke?

Holly: The objects in the collection create an environment that’s really conducive to the type of group independent study and the indigenous research methods I mentioned. Students from Pacific Islander communities in particular often don’t see their cultures reflected in curriculum on campus. They’re statistically pretty underrepresented here, but I want them to see their cultures at UW, and the Burke can help.

One of the goals of education should be to connect us back to our communities—not distance us from them. If we can think of our communities while we’re learning, like these students get to, all the better.

Hands-on learning with objects also helps decolonize the education system a bit. We get into the habit of thinking that knowledge comes from books—and while it’s true that there’s a lot of great knowledge in books, much of it resides in other forms too. Working with collections gives students a chance to learn in a different format and helps privilege those other ways of knowing.

What are some of your favorite “collections make connections” moments?

Orator’s whisk
Object ID: 91.0/377.
Gift of Museum of History and Industry.
Holly: There are so many! One of the first that comes to mind is a student of mine who has an orator’s whisk, or fue, tattoed across his left shoulder. When he was exploring the ethnology collection, he saw a fue and got to hold it—and you could just tell by the way he was holding it that it had so much meaning to him. He shared that his father has a tattoo of a fue in the same spot and that someday his son will too. His connection to the object had such immediacy and intimacy because of his personal connections. Providing an opportunity like that is one of the greatest pleasures in my work as a curator.

Another connection I enjoyed seeing was that of a student whose uncle and family were visiting. He texted me to ask if he could bring them to the Burke to show them what he was doing in class. He wanted them to see the collections and objects themselves. As they were all looking at the objects, the student’s uncle began sharing stories that the student hadn’t heard before. Those stories created deeper connections between his learning at UW and the Burke to his family and community.
Family connections. In the case of one of Holly's students, connecting with collections also
helped deepen family connections when he brought his uncle and other family members
to see what he was doing in class.

What about connections for you personally?

I actually knew nothing about collections or objects when I started at the Burke as a curator. In fact, objects didn’t initially speak to me, because I didn’t have a sense that they were connected to people. What brought objects to life for me was seeing these different Pacific Island communities interact with them. Bringing people into the collections makes me love objects more. It makes my job better.

On their own, objects might have cerebral or intellectual value, but as an anthropologist, I’m interested in those people/human interactions. Those make objects more important to me. And helping facilitate visitor interactions with those objects brings story and emotion back into the objects. It’s somewhat cyclical, and a process I love being part of.


We want to hear from you, too!
What connections have you made in museums?

Let us know on Twitter (hashtag #MuseumDay or #IMD2014) or Facebook—today or any day. Happy International Museum Day!


Dr. Holly Barker is Curator of Pacific and Asian Ethnology at the Burke Museum and a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington.

By Andrea Michelbach, Communications