As the first undergraduate student to curate a major exhibit at Penn's Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, College senior and graduate sub-matriculate student in Anthropology Abby Seldin is in a league of her own.
Along with Chief Bob Redhawk Ruth and Shelley DePaul, Seldin is co-curator of "Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania." Two years in the making, the exhibit about the Indian tribe is on display at the museum until Sept. 13, 2009.
Seldin, a native of Florida and New York, initially became involved with the museum as a sophomore through its Research Experience for Undergrads program, which gives students the chance to work on exhibits in the museum's Native American collection. Seldin chose the Lenape people as her subject and was granted a one-case exhibit to curate.
"Everything I read guaranteed that there were no Lenape left in Pennsylvania," said Seldin.
So she was surprised when a member of the tribe contacted Anthropology professor Robert Preucel, curator of the museum's North America collection, a little over a year ago to inquire about borrowing a maple paddle in the museum's collection for a tribal ceremony.
According Preucel, the museum plays an active role in the repatriation and lending of artifacts. Seldin, Preucel and several other museum members attended the ceremony.
"At the ceremony, I said to them, 'You're not in any of the history books,' and they said, 'We know; we've been hiding for 200 years,'" said Seldin.
It was then that the idea for a major exhibit blossomed.
"Very rarely does an institution like Penn come to a group of people and ask, 'How would you tell your story?'" said Chief Ruth, part of the Elders Tribal Council to whom the Penn team presented their idea for the exhibition.
The result is a show that, through film, audio stories and displays of artifacts and family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation, "is so much more than a regular exhibit," said Chief Ruth. "People are letting you into their families and lives."
He added that the exhibit's goals were to protect and offer access to the artifacts and to introduce young Lenape members as well as "our neighbors in Penn who may not know us" to the tribe's history.
Chief Ruth and DePaul are unique in their own rights, being the first Native Americans to have a curatorial rather than consulting role on an exhibit at the Penn Museum.
And Seldin is hardly a novice at curating. The Lenape exhibit is her fourth show, following her stint as student co-curator of two previous exhibits at the museum and another at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology in Massachusetts as a freshman.
Of her experience as a trailblazer for future student curator hopefuls, Seldin said, "There was an initial period when I felt I had to prove myself, but . I was actually encouraged by the museum."
"Her background, enthusiasm and willingness to listen has helped us to articulate our story," said Chief Ruth.
Seldin's next project will be a program to encourage other students to curate single-case exhibits at the museum - and perhaps to find a successor to continue the tradition she has begun.
*This article was updated on Sept. 15, 2008 at 11:15 a.m. It originally stated that the Lenape tribe contacted Seldin to inquire about borrowing an artifact; the tribe actually contacted Preucel. A clarification was also added that Chief Ruth and DePaul are the first Native Americans to curate an exhibit at the Penn Museum.Comments powered by Disqus
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