Thursday, May 10, 2012

UIS student designs African art video exhibit for masters thesis

University of Illinois Springfield graduate student Stephanie Birch started interning at the Illinois State Museum (ISM) last August with a goal in mind. She wanted to study the extensive African ethnographic collection. With the support of the museum and her master’s history thesis committee, she started to review the inventory of the collection, the goal being to improve the quality of information in the museum's database.

“I knew right away that the collection needed to be shared with the public,” said Birch. “Few people know of its existence, and even fewer know how vast and remarkable it is.” The collection has been featured in seven museum exhibitions, but is not currently on public display.

The Illinois State Museum has the largest collection of African objects of any state museum in the country. With approximately 2,500 pieces, the ISM African ethnographic collection is comparable to those at world-renowned institutions, such as the Field Museum and the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution.

“I was able to learn about the collection on an intimate level. I really got to know the pieces individually and hear the story they have to tell,” said Birch.

As her study progressed, Birch worked with museum staff to develop a video exhibit highlighting several incredible pieces of the collection. The idea was to complete a master's thesis, as well as to promote awareness of the collection, educate the public about African history, and demonstrate the importance of preservation.

“The experience was wonderful,” said Birch. “Everyone was helpful and excited about the work I was doing. While I did most of the work independently, I gained a better understanding of how to collaborate with other professionals within a museum, as well as with volunteers contributing to the project.”

The video exhibit, “FolkFusion: Functional African Art at the Illinois State Museum,” developed for her masters thesis will be reviewed for potential inclusion on the museum's website. The project gave Birch invaluable experience.

"For a public historian, it is important to find the balance between scholarship and public interest; developing this video exhibition gave me first-hand experience in harmonizing the two elements,” said Birch.

A native of Mason City, Ill., Birch graduated from Springfield High School in 2006. She attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she earned a BFA in Art History in 2010. During her undergraduate career, she studied art of Africa and the global Black Diaspora, with a particular emphasis on religious art. It was at UIUC where she first discovered the existence of the state museum’s African ethnographic collection.

In addition to her work at the Illinois State Museum, Birch is currently working for the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Preservation Commission. Following her graduation from UIS, in May, Birch plans to pursue a history related career and possibly earn a doctorate in Anthropology.

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