Penn Student Curators Explore Storytelling Through International Museum Collection
Storytelling is a uniquely human endeavor. As the newest Penn Museum student-curated exhibition, And So the Story Goes…Innovations in Storytelling, makes clear, the ways humans create and share important narratives is as diverse as the peoples and cultures of the world.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the three University of Pennsylvania undergraduates, co-curators of the new exhibition, each have their own perspectives on stories and storytelling—perspectives that influenced the selection of the 15 objects on view, and the exhibition themes they explored.
Braden Cordivari, a graduating senior, majored in Classical Studies and Anthropology, with a minor in Archaeological Science. Linda Lin, another Class of 2018 senior, majored in Art History with minors in Fine Arts and Consumer Psychology. Junior Fiona Jensen-Hitch majors in Anthropology and English (Creative Writing), with a minor in Archaeological Science. Together, they spent the year developing the Penn Year of Innovation exhibition at the Penn Museum, working closely with Sarah Linn, Curatorial Team Coordinator, and Philip Jones, Keeper in the Babylonian Section and Curatorial Advisor, as well as Penn Museum staff in collections and exhibitions.
The student curators selected a wide-ranging set of artifacts from the Museum’s international collection for their exhibition: a cuneiform tablet from Iraq, circa 1730 BCE, with the short tale of Gilgamesh written in Sumerian; a 1970s storyboard, featuring the “Deceived Husband of Ngkeklau” story from Palau in the Caroline Islands; a Neoclassical gem, late 18th-early 19th century, carved with characters from the ancient Greek poem the Iliad. Also included among the objects: a Yup’ik story knife from Alaska, a shell trumpet from Japan, and an intricate Javanese shadow puppet.
With his background in Classical Studies, Braden was drawn to objects drawn from diverse regions and times which showed the changing historic impact of Homeric storytelling: a 3rd century Egyptian papyrus fragment and an 18th century gem, both depicting aspects of the story of Homer’s Iliad, and a 6th century BCE Greek vase depicting an oral storytelling tradition set to music with a stringed instrument called a kithera. “We’re showing how these stories continued to be told, and the way in which they were told changed from being this oral tradition that was central to Greek life, to something that was more of an elite status symbol (the Neoclassical gem).”
As a Creative Writing and Anthropology major who comes from New Mexico, Fiona was drawn to one of the Museum’s more recent acquisitions: a clay and paint Cochiti storyteller figure surrounded by children. Created by celebrated artist Mary Trujillo, the piece is a physical representation of a long Native American oral storytelling tradition. “Ceramic figures have been made for centuries, millennia, but the practice of making storytellers figures specifically was invigorated by a Cochiti artist named Helen Cordero in the early 20th century. Helen Cordero was actually Trujillo’s mother-in-law, and she partially learned the practice from her.” Inspired by the figure, Fiona reached out and interviewed Mary Trujillo about the object itself and about her ceramic practice and storytelling traditions, both within her family and among the Cochiti people. The interview is featured in the exhibition.
Linda Lin, with her background in art history and consumer psychology, was intrigued by a 19th century Buddhist manuscript from Thailand. “I’m a very visual person and I think this manuscript has a lot of fascinating scenes—it’s always interesting to see how people from the past imagine or perceive life and death, heaven and hell,” she said. While the manuscript summarizes a Buddhist text often chanted at cremations, the imagery, she notes, does not directly connect.
While each object in the exhibition speaks to the theme of storytelling, they do so in many different ways, to many different ends. Fiona noted: “Several of the objects intersect multiple mediums. The (Javanese) shadow puppet, for example, is something that is used by a person in a performance, but then there is also a layer of music and a layer of narration added on top of that. And the same for the (Burmese) mask which is used in a dance drama of the Ramayana—but the dance is of something that was originally written down. These objects express how there is no one way to tell stories.”
And so the story goes.
And So the Story Goes…Innovations in Storytelling, is on view in the Museum’s first floor Elevator Lobbythrough March 17, 2019.
About the Student Exhibition Program:
And So the Story Goes is the fourth exhibition developed through the Penn Museum’s Student Exhibition Internship program and connected with the University’s annual year-long focus on a topic. Last year, students developed Objects Speak: Media through Time for the Year of Media. In prior years, Kourion at the Crossroads: Exploring Ancient Cyprus was developed for the Year of Discovery and Corn: From Ancient Crop to Soda Pop, tied in to Penn’s Year of Health.
Undergraduate students at Penn are invited to apply in the spring for two-semester curatorial internships, complete with a modest stipend, that focus on the planning, content development, design, fabrication, and installation of an exhibition. The goal is to provide students from diverse disciplines with real experience in creating an exhibition in a large museum.
Left to right, Student curators Linda Lin, Braden Cordivari, and Fiona Jensen-Hitch enjoy a moment in front of their new exhibition, And So the Story Goes…Innovations in Storytelling, at the preview celebration April 25. The exhibition is now open.
In the Penn Museum’s Collection Study Room, student curator Braden Cordivari examines a 6th century BCE Greek vase he selected as part of the new exhibition.
Fiona Jensen-Hitch looks at the Cochiti storyteller figure created by artist Mary Trujillo.
A 19th century Buddhist manuscript, heavily illustrated, captured the interest of student curator Linda Lin.