Bright blue beadwork comes into view as Ramey Mize slowly pulls open a drawer in a storage room of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, revealing an intricate pattern with red and yellow on the smooth buckskin of a fringed Native American dress.
Breathtaking, but is this the right one?
Mize, a doctoral student in the history of art in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, is on a treasure hunt. She is searching for artifacts in storage to replace 50 objects currently on display in the exhibit "Native American Voices: The People -- Here and Now."
A central piece is a Lakota woman’s dress, with a symbolic blue-beaded yoke incorporating a U-shape in the center, with yellow, green, red and dark blue symbols on each side plus heavy fringe on the sleeves and the hem.
“It was thrilling when I found this one. It is so similar,” she says, gesturing to the dress carefully laid out on a storage room table. “There are many others. But this one approximates all those elements in the other dress the most closely.”
Mize, who is starting the second year of her doctoral studies, was working in a summer internship with Lucy Fowler Williams, associate curator and senior keeper of the Museum’s American Collections.
The Native American Voices exhibit of 300 items, curated by Williams, who worked closely with Native scholars and artists. The exhibit originally was designed to be on display for five years. But, given its popularity, it has been extended for two additional years, through 2021.
Mize’s assignment was to search through the Museum’s stored artifacts to find objects that might replace those that need to be rotated out for preservation purposes.
The exhibit is broad, covering hundreds of years and a vast geography, including 80 tribes, representing the deep history of the indigenous presence in North America and bringing it into the present day.
“For me it’s been invaluable as an introduction to the field of Native American art and material culture,” Mize says. “The exhibition is broadly conceived, encyclopedic, inclusive. It’s like the best version of an introductory course.”
Mize is specializing in American art from the 1800s, with a concentration on the Civil War period. It was through a lecture class by Michael Leja, a Penn professor of history of art, that she met Williams, who gave a presentation on the Native North American art.
“Ramey came up right after class and said, ‘I am so inspired by your talk.’ Something connected for her, which is terrific,” Williams says, adding that Mize is the first intern she has had on her team who is an art historian.
“It became immensely clear to me after your lecture that Native American art is a fundamental piece of studying the art of the United States,” Mize said to Williams. “It was really illuminating for me. It set me on this new course that I feel really passionate about.”
During the internship Mize could open every drawer, examine every object, getting to know the collection that numbers in the thousands.
“That’s why the internship has been a dream introduction to the field. I can take my time and pick and choose,” she says. “It was fun at first just to go drawer by drawer to gain a visual acumen for identifying what is what.”
She also accessed the Museum’s database of detailed information about each object to find its location in the vast storage system.
“We’re not just picking pretty things,” says Williams. “These objects connect very deeply to specific communities and their histories and to Native individuals and families living today.”
Many of the objects are accompanied by interpretations by indigenous people. The Lakota dress, for example, is exhibited with an accompanying essay by the late anthropologist and scholar Beatrice Medicine, a renowned member of the Lakota Nation. The U-shape, she says, represents the turtle, a symbol of longevity and protection; the long lines that follow the contours of the bodice signify the rainbow, a symbol of luck and health, and the blue in the beaded yoke represents the sky.
“Every symbol and aspect of the dress is saturated with meaning,” Mize says. “We thought about certain aspects she highlights to help guide our decision on which dress to choose.”
Another item to be replaced in the exhibit is a pair of moccasins. In her search, Mize found a pair that belonged to Chief Friday of the Arapaho tribe in the mid-1800s.
“That was exciting, since connecting to named individuals helps bring history to life” she says about her discovery of the worn buckskin moccasins, trimmed in white quills and red beads.
A modern item designated for rotation in the exhibit is a carved wooden figure of a man eating watermelon.
“Many Kachina carvings are being made almost as fine art objects now,” says Mize, “but they connect to an incredibly rich tradition of Hopi religion and ritual that is also part of this past and present interlocking.”
Mize completed a tutorial on the proper handling of artifacts before exploring the collection, she says. She was also able to draw on her experience last spring in an object-based learning class covering Renaissance bronzes led by Penn professors and curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“It’s great to get more exposure by handling all different types of objects,” she says. “So many of these objects are made of organic materials, different animal parts and pigments, and wooden containers and fabrics woven of plant fibers with porcupine quills, feathers and shells. The approach is different than with a painting or a bronze.”
Mize entered the doctoral program after working for a year as an administrative assistant in Penn’s School of Design, when she took a curatorial class taught by Leja.
She had a “stellar first year,” Leja says. “It’s fair to say she was universally appreciated by her instructors.”
Previously she had been a curatorial fellow at the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine, having earned her master’s in the history of art from the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London and her undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Mize says her interest in art came from many visits to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, close to where she grew up in Athens, Ga. When attending an exhibition tour there, the curator of the installation described his job, and she decided that was the career for her.
While pursuing her academic degrees Mize has had several positions in museums, starting with the High and continuing at the Ackland Art Museum, the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Colby Museum.
Last year she was a summer research fellow at the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, helping to research the blockbuster exhibition "American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent" and catalogue, working with Kathleen Foster, a Penn lecturer and the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Curator of American Art and director of the Center.
Mize’s Ph.D. studies at Penn build on work she did at the Courtauld, where she focused on 19th-century French and British art, with a concentration on gender and materiality.
“How were these accessories bound up in meanings and constructions of gender, whether femininity in a fan or masculinity in an umbrella,” she says.
Her interest in the representation of masculinity and firearms, brought her to America’s Civil War, when machine guns were used for the first time in a non-colonial context, she says. It is also when the camera was first used extensively to capture war images.
This fall at Penn, her doctoral studies are focusing on the United States in the 19th century, specifically 1860 to 1865 and will include war artists and photographers and how those images were used in mass media.
“My dissertation will probably center on the theme of visual culture around the American Civil War,” she said. With a nod to her internship at the Penn Museum, she says, “I’d love to include a chapter on Native American art.”