Art of the Matter

Five Questions with Allyson Purpura and Christine Saniat of Krannert Art Museum

Christine Saniat and Allyson Purpura

World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts across the Indian Ocean, now on view at Krannert Art Museum (KAM), is the first major traveling exhibition dedicated to the arts of the Swahili coast. The exhibition offers audiences an unprecedented opportunity to view over 150 artworks brought together from public and private collections from four continents. KAM's Allyson Purpura, senior curator and curator of global African art, and Christine Saniat, museum registrar and exhibitions director, explain the steps it took to research, curate, ship, and install this complex exhibition.

What kind of preparation goes into procuring and shipping works for an exhibition of this scale?

AP: I began planning this exhibition in early 2013 with my co-curator, Prita Meier, who was at the time assistant professor of art history in U of I's Department of Art History (she is now assistant professor of art history at NYU). The research for this particular project alone took nearly five years; though between us, Prita and I have conducted over 20 years of research on the Swahili coast. For this exhibition, we began by brainstorming thematic approaches and identifying objects we thought could best tell the stories of long-distance trade, empire, mobility, and cultural confluence that are so central to understanding Swahili coast arts and histories. From 2014 to 2016, we spent summers traveling to Mombasa, Zanzibar, Lamu, and Oman, where we worked with colleagues in local museums to view and select objects for inclusion in the exhibition and to negotiate loans to KAM. We also conducted research in collections from museums in Germany, the Netherlands, England, and throughout the United States. To support all this travel and research, Prita and I co-wrote and were awarded two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to the exhibition, Prita and I have been working on an edited volume that will be published by KAM in conjunction with the exhibition. The book includes 16 scholarly essays and images of two-thirds of the objects on view.

CS: Once the exhibition object checklist was established by the curators, the process of securing loans from institutions and private lenders began. Processing the 30 loan forms took until spring 2017, and during that time, each object was reviewed for its condition and its packing, shipping, and insurance requirements. 

Shipping artwork is a specialized business using trained art handlers and drivers to transport the objects safely and securely, both domestically and internationally. As part of the process, custom wood crates are built by the art shipping companies to house and transport the works. The objects were shipped in stages, starting with those borrowed from lenders in Kenya, Africa, which arrived in June. In general, international shipments require customs documents, but shipping objects from Kenya was more complicated due to the limited crating and shipping services in that area. The Kenyan shipment was scheduled to arrive at KAM well before the exhibition opening to allow time to have some of the objects professionally cleaned by a conservator and for professional photography of objects, and KAM even hired a professional mount maker to prepare them for display. Other shipments took place in July and August; seven shipments total—three international and four domestic.

Once all of the artwork had arrived at the museum, how was World on the Horizon assembled behind the scenes?

CS: After the crates arrived at KAM, the museum's collection manager and I unpacked the objects and completed condition reports to verify the objects' status upon delivery. The installation process was scheduled over a three-week period. KAM hired a professional exhibition installation crew of six from NFA Space in Chicago to work with KAM's two design and installation specialists as well as a graduate student worker. The first week was dedicated to installing the 33 new cases in the gallery per the architect's original design. During the second week, the majority of the objects and labels were placed in the gallery, while the final week was dedicated to the seven couriers who flew to KAM to oversee the uncrating and installation of their institutions' objects, which totaled 49 pieces out of the 217 that are in the show.  

The couriers were assigned specific days/times to work with staff to unpack and inspect the objects. Due to the number of couriers and the limited time span, KAM hired two students from the Spurlock Museum to assist with the condition reports as the objects were unpacked. The group of 19 worked with a unified purpose in a systematic fashion that provided for the safety of the objects, so by the end of the third week all of the objects were mounted in the cases, which were then closed and secured. After the couriers left, KAM staff finished some wall mounts and set the gallery lighting to proper museum standard levels.

AP: I viewed the objects as they were uncrated by Christine and her team and noted any additional specificities in the objects that might need mentioning in an object's display label. The bulk of my work behind the scenes was in the thematic grouping and placing of every object in cases, on platforms, or on the walls. Working off of a layout Prita and I developed with the exhibition designers, I revised and finalized the object groupings and arranged objects with an eye to their formal attributes and conceptual content. This work was completed with all the couriers who were on site. Another important task was the design and fabrication of object mounts—a crucial detail to the visual experience of the objects. The majority of mounts—for nearly 150 objects—were made in-house by a contract mount maker, Neil Jezierski, and by KAM Exhibition Specialist Eric Lemme. The object labels and gallery text were written by Prita and me (the exhibition curators) and by Jenny Peruski, a doctoral student in art history.

This exhibit required a great deal of collaboration across institutions—how did you coordinate with other museums, government agencies, private lenders, or other entities involved?

CS: There are 11 private collectors and 19 institutions lending objects to the exhibition. The curators initially reached out to potential lenders with their exhibition proposal, and once loan approval was obtained, I began communications with them about the loan documents and logistics. In general, private collectors were eager to share their works and were flexible with the planning process. As for the institutions, the museum community understands the importance of using objects to educate us all. Working with the various museums here and abroad reinforced the collegial commitment to share knowledge and enjoy the interactions that stem from creating a project that is bigger than one museum or one community.

AP: In addition to the daunting coordination required to approve, conserve, pack, and ship objects from 30 collections across four continents, realizing this exhibition relied significantly on the collaborative spirit of all our lenders. This was especially true of our colleagues at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and the Bait Al Zubair Museum in Oman, neither of which had ever before loaned objects to an American museum. Thus, the objects from these institutions are making their debut appearance in the United States. We worked closely with our colleagues who assisted us in securing both the loans and the export permits from their respective governmental ministries. Our NMK colleagues assisted us with research in their collections and contributed an essay to the exhibition's companion publication. We hope this unprecedented collaboration will invite further research on the extraordinary collections of the NMK and the Bait Al Zubair Museum and call attention to the Swahili works in all our lenders' collections.

How is World on the Horizon being integrated into classrooms and other learning opportunities on campus? How will alumni in other places be able to experience the exhibition?

AP: The exhibition has been integrated into at least seven different courses so far this semester. Faculty in the Departments of Comparative and World Literature, History, Asian American Studies, English, Art History, Anthropology, Linguistics, and Geography and the School of Information Sciences are all teaching segments of their various courses with me in the exhibition gallery. In addition, there are two workshops based on the exhibition—one in conjunction with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and another in conjunction with the annual African Studies Association meeting in Chicago. We have also organized several gallery talks involving graduate students and faculty from across disciplines to give them the opportunity to engage with the exhibition through the lens of their own research. As for our alumni, the exhibition will travel to two venues on the East and West Coasts, so we're hoping we'll reach alumni in those regions on the exhibition's tour. And one can always visit KAM's website for blogs, images, and exhibition updates.

Can you talk about the significance of this exhibition both for KAM and for American museums overall?

AP: World on the Horizon epitomizes KAM's commitment to projects that are global in reach and that broaden our understanding of diverse cultural and artistic achievements. It is the first major traveling exhibition dedicated to the arts of the Swahili coast and their reach across eastern and central Africa and the port cities of the western Indian Ocean. It concretely demonstrates what it means to bring a "global perspective" to the visual arts—not only by focusing on transoceanic histories of cultural confluence and exchange, but also by engaging with the broader implications of these histories today. As mentioned, it is also the first time many of these objects have been on display in the United States and the first time Swahili objects from so many collections have been brought together to tell the provocative, many-stranded history of Swahili coast arts. This is also by far the largest and logistically most complicated loan show KAM has ever mounted. Offering an exhibition of this breadth and depth to our home campus has provided exciting learning opportunities for students, faculty, and staff and speaks loudly to the power of the arts at Illinois. Furthermore, traveling to both the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and to the Fowler Museum at UCLA, the exhibition will reach wide and diverse audiences.

The exhibition represents the curatorial team's defining commitment to exploring pressing themes of global relevance from a comparative and interdisciplinary vantage point. Taking its inspiration from Swahili cultural history, the exhibition also asks how the arts express the fundamental human need for connection with others. World on the Horizon emphasizes the affective power of objects to create networks of affinity across different cultures and asks visitors to ponder how artistic practice and human creativity can lead people to remap their relationships to seemingly distant places and societies.

CS: World on the Horizon was a significant achievement for KAM staff. The scope of the project extended beyond any other exhibitions I have experienced during my 11 years at the museum. Curators Allyson Purpura's and Prita Meier's vision and recently retired Director Kathleen Harleman's support of the project, along with the skills, dedication, and flexibility of KAM staff, resulted in a stunning display that can speak to many visitors. The exhibition also helped forge new connections between KAM and the American, Kenyan, and Omani museums, which we hope will continue to be fruitful in the future.

World on the Horizon is on view at KAM through March 24, 2018.