Art Works Blog

Art Talk with the Missouri History Museum

St. Louis, Missouri

Katherine Dunham is a legend in the world of modern dance. A pioneer in integrating African and Caribbean dance movements into her choreography, Dunham was inspired by the fieldwork she conducted as an anthropologist, studying African ritual dance in Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, and Haiti. Contributing to the Katherine Dunham Dance Company’s image were the costumes, designed by Dunham’s husband, scenic and costume designer John Thomas Pratt. By piecing together recycled materials, Pratt created designs he described as “dynamic,”  which would not restrict the dancers but complement their movements.

In order to ensure that this part of Dunham’s legacy will be available for years to come, the Missouri History Museum is preserving its collection of costumes from the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, primarily made up of those created by Pratt. Once conserved, these pieces will be photographed, catalogued in museum records, digitized on the museum's online database, and made available for exhibition. Last week we announced a grant of $20,000 to the museum to support this project. We spoke by email with Margaret Koch, director of exhibitions and research, to learn more about the museum and its efforts to preserve Dunham’s costumes.

NEA: What is the history and mission of the Missouri History Museum?

MARGARET KOCH: Founded in 1866 for the purpose of “saving from oblivion the early history of the city and state,” the Missouri History Museum is recognized today in the top ranks of history organizations in America, in large part for its dedicated pursuit of its mission “to deepen the understanding of past choices, present circumstances, and future possibilities; to strengthen the bonds of community; and to facilitate solutions to common problems.” This mission, adopted in 2001 along with our core values, challenges us to relate historic events directly to the lives and concerns of local residents through exhibitions, community education, collections and conservation, research, publications, and public programming. We also serve as custodian for approximately 150,000 artifacts and documents that reflect the community’s identity and shared aspirations.

In 2010, more than 500,000 people enjoyed museum exhibitions, programming, and facilities. Because the museum receives tax support from the citizens of St. Louis City and St. Louis County, all visitors are admitted free of charge.

NEA: How did the Katherine Dunham collection come to the museum?

KOCH: We received this internationally significant collection of more than 1,500 costume pieces as a gift from Katherine Dunham herself in 1991, five years prior to her death. In 1964, Dunham brought her cultural and educational programs to her adopted home in the impoverished city of East St. Louis, Illinois, where, she believed, children would be inspired by the cultural pride that her dance technique evoked. Through the remainder of her life, she remained connected with the St. Louis area, so she came to see the History Museum as a resource for preserving her legacy.

NEA: How do John Pratt’s costume designs contribute to the dance company's legacy?

KOCH: John Pratt’s costumes were designed for the body in motion. When you dissect the complex fabric layers of textures, patterns, and beading in one ensemble, you can see they were meant to enhance a dancer’s swirling, floating, sensuous movements, to tell stories of seduction, fragility, death, and life. A dancer was transformed into a character through these works. Katherine Dunham once said that Pratt brought to life what was in her mind’s eye. Today, the History Museum responds to requests from dance companies around the world for photos of and information about the costumes so they can be recreated for modern productions.

NEA: How important is NEA funding to the success of your project?

KOCH: NEA funding is critical to the preservation of the Katherine Dunham costumes. In 2008, the museum funded the conservation of 45 costumes for our exhibition Katherine Dunham: Beyond the Dance. Since we are unlikely to do another exhibition in the near future, we were not likely to invest significantly in additional conservation, especially since an upcoming exhibit on the Civil War is making significant demands on our conservation budget. NEA funding, with our own matching dollars, will allow us to preserve and share an additional number of these artistic and historic treasures.

NEA: What do you see as the role of the museum in the community?

KOCH: The Missouri History Museum is defined by its civic role as a forum for conversation. Our mission statement places the institution at the center of the community, serving as a neutral territory where diverse constituents can come together to share stories about the past, to forge a sense of shared identity in the present, and to work together toward a future grounded in the common good. Our collection resources allow us to serve as the community’s memory, providing grounding for the stories we tell about ourselves, stories related to history, identity, and community.

NEA: In a previous interview with Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to museum exhibitions what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work you or other curators or the arts community are presenting that isn’t there?

KOCH: In the past few years, our exhibitions have come a long way toward highlighting not just the objects of history but also the connections between those objects and the choices made by communities and individuals that still influence our world today. Like Katherine Dunham who believed in the power of sharing knowledge about where we came from and how we are related, the Missouri History Museum sees, in its exhibitions, the power to inspire a sense of pride in a community. Our exhibitions are designed to engage visitors with humor, awe, and wisdom in a way that invites participation and self-expression. Our objects have the power to connect visitors with everyday stories, stories that set us apart even as they join us together. We have many stories left to share.

Want to learn more about recent NEA grants? Visit our website!

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