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Object Lessons

Annette Cravens collected an astonishing array of art objects in her travels, including these African figures.

Annette Cravens collection at UB Anderson Gallery

Cravens World, the new exhibit at the UB Anderson Gallery, is a cabinet of curiosities with a difference.

An innovative circle, or near-circle, of stacked clear plastic display boxes permits unusual visual access to about 130 of the more than 1,100 ethnological and archeological items, grouped according to a handful of basic human usage categories.

The items include pots, masks, human figural works, religious ritual objects, status and prestige items, and personal adornment items.

Annette Cravens

Some of the more eye-catching items include animal-form gold jewelry from pre-Columbian Central or South America. The most lethal-looking item is a throwing knife with about a dozen different points and cutting edges from the Congo from the 19th century. The oldest item in the collection is a small female figure statuette, probably a fertility idol, from Asia Minor from about 8,000 BC.

The places of origin of the objects include just about everywhere. The collection has been given to UB by the collector and inveterate world traveler and student of cultures Annette Cravens. The exhibit also features a corridor of modern artworks from Mrs. Cravens’ personal collection. Works of artists of the stature of Paul Klee, George Braque, and Robert Motherwell are on display, as well as works of a representative line of local or locally associated artists from Martha Visser’t Hooft to Brendan Bannon.

The near-circle of transparent display boxes, familiarly called the Globe, permits viewing the display items from inches away and from every angle. But the most novel and interesting design feature of the Globe is that it creates a kind of interaction among individual items and usage categories. Objects are seen—literally—amid the array of other objects and different categories, suggesting interconnections and possible new interpretations regarding the materials.

Against or in the walls behind the Globe are glass-covered display cabinets and storage drawers the visitor is encouraged to open to examine hundreds of more items, further categorized usually by place of origin and/or type of material.

Every item is numbered, and a touch-access computer screen on an adjacent wall allows the visitor to quickly retrieve current research data on any item.

The term used to describe the innovative display principle of the exhibit is “open storage.” Traditionally, museums or galleries containing such materials in such numbers—partly because many items were not sufficiently researched to merit open display, partly for want of ways to display such a wealth of materials—kept the bulk of them in storage drawers in the basement or attic, awaiting, first of all, proper scholarly research.

The idea here is not just to put the bulk of the items on display, but to make them accessible as part of an ongoing plan or project to get students—UB students, but official or unofficial students from wherever with interests in anthropology or archaeology or art—to tackle the research job, usually a piece at a time, to establish where and when an item was made, by whom, and why.

Another feature of the Globe display unit is that it allows objects to be readily moved from one category to another as more information is garnered about it. The idea is also to regularly exchange objects in the Globe with other objects, such as those in the wall display cases, to provide new viewing experiences to repeat visitors, as well as suggest new interconnections among the materials.

The modern art works include Louise Nevelson’s memorably sly small terracotta block sculpture called The Cat, and Robert Motherwell’s seminal-looking (considering his overall body of work and artistic obsessions) abstract etching called simply Window. Photographer Brendan Bannon, who grew up in Buffalo, now is based in Nairobi, Kenya. On display are three of his photos of varied African subject matter: one of what looks like some of the hard work of a mining operation; one of refugees on the march; one of kids at play.

In a niche area as you enter the exhibit is a re-creation of a display wall in Mrs. Craven’s home where she places the two types of works—ethnological and modern art—cheek by jowl. The ethnological works—including several human figure statues—have a predominantly vertical character. The modern art works include an abstract lithograph by Antoni Tàpies featuring vertical slash marks in the lower portion, titled Verticales en bas, and a tall cedar and burnt-cedar totemic-looking sculpture by Kate Ritson, untitled.

And what’s the difference between the ethnological items and the modern art?

Both are art. But as Elizabeth Poyer, a UB graduate student and head researcher on the collection over the past year, put it, the ethnological work is not “art for art’s sake, but artifact for artifact’s sake.” The ethnological works, she said, “are cultural materials. They are different from fine art in that the point is the object itself, and how it speaks about the culture that made it.”

The point is the object itself. For the maker of the object, as well as for the audience, that is, the intended user, but also for the audience of Cravens World.

Credit for the design of Cravens World goes to Mehrdad Hadighi, Studio for Architecture, with Christopher Romano and Jose Chang. All are faculty in the UB School of Architecture and Planning.

The project director for the exhibit was Dr. Peter F. Biehl of the UB Department of Anthropology. Dr. Sarah Scott of the Art Department of Wagner College was the project guest curator.

A “preliminary” catalog accompanies the exhibit. The thought is by about 2012 to produce an updated version of the catalog that will include the scholarly research data collected in the meantime.

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