Since the 1960s, more than 195,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 host countries. For Mollie Denhard ’10, all it took was one—her dad—to spark her interest and, ultimately, an exhibition.
George Denhard served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Pensa, Burkina Faso from 1971 to 1973. Mollie grew up surrounded by the items he brought or sent home during his time of service in Africa. Now her long held interest in the objects has led her to curate an exhibition that includes some of the pieces. The exhibition titled Collecting in the Peace Corps: Tangible Memories of the Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love opened October 18 and continues through December 11 in Beard Gallery. It focuses on objects collected by Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Burkina Faso.
“The prospect of another culture halfway around the world fascinates me,” said the studio art major. “Nearly two years ago I wrote a paper for a museum studies course titled “Basement Wonders: Bringing a Peace Corps Collection Out of Obscurity,” in which I examined my father’s Peace Corps experience and collection of items, and began to see correlations between the Peace Corps and collecting. My museum studies professor, Leah Niederstadt, suggested that we turn the idea into a gallery exhibition.
“I was, and still am, fascinated by the concept of the Peace Corps and collecting. All volunteers must have brought at least a few things home from their country of service. I am exploring what they brought home and why they chose what they did.”
Denhard is one of three Wheaton College students curating art exhibitions in the Beard and Weil Galleries this academic year. The other two are Kayla Malouin ’10, who is working with Niederstadt on a show on the history of the Permanent Collection, and Carrie Peabody ’10, who will work with Professor of Art Ann Murray on an exhibition of the work of Mansfield artist Tina Beecher. Both shows will run from Sunday, March 7, 2010, through Friday, April 16, 2010.
Wheaton has been featuring student-curated exhibitions at least since the mid-1970s, noted Murray. One of the first was done by students in a seminar she team-taught. “Now that we have courses in museum studies and a collections curator to supervise students on projects in the Collection Study Room, the frequency of student-curated exhibitions is increasing rapidly,” she said.
Students who curate shows in conjunction with seminars, independent study courses, or other courses receive course credit. Other exhibitions are curated by students as part of their work-study jobs with the Permanent Collection. A third variant is for students to curate exhibitions as faculty research assistants.
“I think that the most important aspects of students curating shows are that they are able to combine their classroom learning— readings and discussion and, at times, hands-on exercises—with real world experience, even if that ‘real world’ is still on Wheaton’s campus,” said Niederstadt. “What impresses me about the students with whom I’ve worked so far is their dedication to their projects and their willingness to go the extra mile. For example, Mollie spent hours in the Collection Study Room and in the Mars studios conducting research, designing plans and layouts, and building mounts for her show. Kayla has worked on her research into the history of the collection for three years. Carrie took an off-campus internship and used the contacts she made and the skills she gained to develop an exhibition by a local, well-known artist.”
Collecting in the Peace Corps features items from Denhard’s father as well as five other volunteers, including a large equestrian statue loaned to Wheaton’s Permanent Collection by Julian Garberson ’09 and his family. Garberson’s father, the late James Whitney “Whit” Garberson, was a Peace Corps staff member and the Acting Country Director in Burkina Faso, where he collected the statue. He also met and married Julian’s mom Linda Garberson, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso.
Denhard is hoping that the exhibition will educate viewers about the country of Burkina Faso and the Peace Corps, and get them thinking about various concepts of collecting.
Her favorite pieces in the exhibition include a leather and metal necklace and a wooden statue of a woman and small wooden buffalo, owned by her father, because of the simple but touching stories behind them.
“The necklace was a gift from a Bella woman [the Bella are a nomadic peoples] who would pass through his village every couple of months. He would give her any tin cans or scrap metal he had, and in return she once brought him a fresh gourd that contained goat’s milk. Another time she gave him this necklace, which has a 50-centime coin from 1917 as the centerpiece.”
The two wooden items have a shared history, she noted. “At the end of his service, my dad needed to leave before the rainy season began and the roads became too muddy for travel. The townspeople kept asking him to wait, but of course, eventually he had to depart. Once back in [the capital city] Ouagadougou, a soldier found him and gave him those two objects as parting gifts from the villagers of Pensa. The villagers sent them to the capital and had a soldier track down my father.”
Denhard has worked as an intern at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and has worked as a Collections Study Room Monitor for the past year. Since September 2009, she also has served as an intern in the Beard and Weil Galleries. She was in Niederstadt’s “Exhibition Design” course last year and worked on the collaborative Making it Modern exhibition, but this is her first solo experience as a curator.
“Figuring out how to create an exhibition from the ground up—everything from soliciting participants to writing labels and creating the show’s overall design—has been a challenge. With Making it Modern, there were 14 of us. With this show, it is just me,” said Denhard, who is pursuing minors in art history and French studies.
This exhibition has taught her a lot. “With this project, I’ve made a number of connections with former Peace Corps volunteers, learned how to interview participants and organize information, care for loaned objects, improve my ability to write labels and introductory text, and expand my exhibition design and installation capabilities,” she said.
“This project has certainly added to my educational experience at Wheaton, giving my museum studies courses an added dimension. Those courses now seem more practical and applicable to my future career plans, which include grad school for museum studies or public humanities. I plan to pursue a career in exhibition planning, exhibition design or collections management. And though it may now seem out of reach, I would love to travel the world helping countries and communities create exhibitions appropriately representing their cultural history.”