Following meticulous planning and research, the Davis Museum overhauled its exhibits in the fall of 2016, unveiling transformed galleries with special attention to context and chronology. The floors have been redesigned to show off the aesthetic diversity of the collections. As a result of the reinstallation, the Davis is now able to double the number of works on display more than 620 objects.
The African galleries, in particular, have been redone to reflect the multiplicity of cultures and regions represented by the museum’s artistic acquisitions. Previously, the exhibits showed only 20 percent of the collection at a time. However, along with the arrival of Dr. Amanda Gilvin, another 60 percent has been removed from storage. The new showcase presents a variety of material items, ranging from textiles to wood masks, allowing visitors to experience a greater selection from the African continent than ever before.
A specialist of arts of Africa and the African Diaspora, Dr. Gilvin came to Wellesley from Skidmore College in August, where she had served as a visiting assistant professor of African Art. As an assistant curator at the Davis, she restructured the African galleries during the tail-end of the redesigning project.
“I would emphasize that we have portrayed the complex ways that African art objects’ meanings have changed over time” Dr. Gilvin said. She mentioned her desire to portray both original cultural contexts of the works, as well as their history with Wellesley.
The exhibit opens simply, with a map. Dr. Gilvin was insistent that one be displayed in order to provide viewers with context for the objects they are about to view. She wanted visitors to be able to identify the cultures and regions in which various pieces were created. Around the corner, the monumental D’mba Headdress, given in 1959, entrances viewers with its dark wooden figure and intricate details. The shoulder mask, created by the Baga people of Guinea in the early part of the 20th century, is meant to be worn with a costume of raffia and cloth. The display is framed by images of students studying the work in previous decades. Gilvin was pleased that the D’mba could be viewed from all sides, instead of in a case or a corner. The redesigned galleries allow visitors to walk around the headdress, and to appreciate its carvings and significance.
Dr. Gilvin said the she and the staff of the Davis hoped to depict African social life through their presentation of the D’mba. The headdress depicts the ideal human, who is a woman. According to Dr. Gilvin, the D’mba is an example of the capacity of art history to demonstrate multiple perspectives and meanings. “The story of the D’mba at the Davis touches on Baga cultural identity, French colonialism, Islam, Guinean nationalism, the international art market, gender and Wellesley pedagogy.”
In order to fulfill this mission of showing historical contexts of the art and giving a social history, the Davis invited several scholars to speak to the Wellesley community regarding the D’mba. Curator Emeritus of African Art at the Yale Art Gallery Frederick John Lamp, Associate Curator for the Arts of Africa at the Metropolitan Museum Yaëlle Biro and the Lucy C. McDannel ’22 Professor of Art History and Anthropology at Connecticut College, Christopher Steiner all offered insights based on their own research on various aspects of the D’mba.
Along with showing the historical contexts of the art objects themselves, Dr. Gilvin was committed to showing the history of each artwork at Wellesley and the Davis.
Like the D’mba, most of the objects in the collection were donated by John J. and Halina Klejman, who were Polish immigrants and parents of a Wellesley graduate. While in Europe, they became fascinated with art from the African continent, and acquired and showcased pieces in a gallery. While the Klejmans were generous donors, they are controversial for the involvement in the transfer of the Lydian Horde, which was looted from Turkey and sold illegally to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The purchase was later returned to its homeland for violating international arts laws. In addition, there has been criticism surrounding their dealings in African art.