Over the past year and a half, the OSU Museum of Art planning team has repeatedly invoked the phrase, “teaching collection.” What do we mean when we say this? A couple of weeks ago I was in Alexandria, Virginia, visiting potential donors of a significant collection of African art in order to evaluate the collection’s potential for our museum. The breadth of the collection and its diversity gave me plenty of opportunities to think about what I, as a curator and professor, mean by the phrase, “teaching collection.”
When trying to build any collection, priorities are identified; Larry and Mattie Harms’ first priority when collecting African art was to collect objects from cultures they had encountered and whose aesthetics appealed to them. Another priority for them was quality — and so they enlisted the help of art dealers and friends to help them find many of the objects in their collection.
In a teaching collection, our priority is to build a collection that as far as possible represents the entire breadth of the history of art, in order to support our teaching curriculum. Art history courses at OSU cover material from medieval Islamic to contemporary Chinese art, from classical art to African modernism — and we aspire to a collection that will do the same. On a practical level, this often means valuing breadth over depth — using our limited acquisition funds to acquire individual objects that represent many different moments in art history, rather than trying to collect works from any one historical period or geographic region extensively. However, like almost all museums, we acquire most of the objects in our collection through gift, rather than purchase — and this can result in the appearance of unexpected depth.
Before we were approached by Larry Harms, OSU’s African art holdings were negligible. Indeed, one of the reasons Mr. Harms thought of us — his alma mater — was the dearth of African art in Oklahoma. What this means is that their gift will contribute substantially to furthering our goal of breadth. The Harms Collection includes objects from across the sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel, created throughout the twentieth century. It includes sculpture, ceramics, textiles, jewelry, furniture, musical instruments, and other objects in a variety of media.
A second definition of “teaching collection” was raised by our interim director last fall, prompted in part by a visit to the Mabee-Gerrer in Shawnee. A wonderful example of the type of broad teaching collection I described above, the Mabee-Gerrer also has a “touching collection” — a collection of artworks and other objects that is allowed to be handled by museum visitors. Often, their exhibitions include a selection of these objects that allow, for example, visitors looking at historic textiles to feel and examine contemporary samples of the same weaving technique — or even to engage other senses, like smell, with materials and media too often sequestered behind glass.
The Harms Collection includes a thumb piano like the ones visible in this video.
How important is the sense of touch to our understanding of how art makes meaning? There is no one answer to that question, of course, but as I explored and inventoried the Harms Collection, I was reminded that many of the objects—like masks, bowls, stools and even doors—must be handled and in motion to work as their creators intended.
As Mattie Harms and I walked around their collection, she paused in front of one piece to observe that it was less finely carved than some of the other similar sculptures nearby. “But you could let students touch it,” she pointed out. Her enthusiasm for student engagement resonated with an ongoing concern of the OSU Museum of Art planners — direct student involvement in every aspect of the museum.