MU Museum of Anthropology curator explains exhibit setup

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 | 5:41 p.m. CDT
Jessica Boldt poses next to an exhibit of Persian arms and armor in the Museum of Anthropology at MU Wednesday.

COLUMBIA — Exhibitions lodged in the MU Museum of Anthropology do not arrive prepackaged.

Every three months, Jessica Boldt, assistant museum curator, must decide how to present delicate, varied pieces of history into a digestible package for visitors.

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The foundation of the exhibit is the Persian epic "Shahnameh," poet Ferdowsi’s A.D. 1000 masterpiece. It could be compared to "Beowulf" or "The Iliad" in scope and cultural importance.

The museum will present the centuries-old arrows and reddened shields of “Persian Arms and Armor: A Hero’s Tradition” until July 30, when the new exhibit is installed that features a collection about the history of archaeology in Missouri and at MU.

The MU Museum of Anthropology is located at 100 Swallow Hall and is open weekdays from 9 a.m. t0 4 p.m.


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"Whenever you put together an exhibit, there's always something you forget about or something that takes longer than you thought or you can't get something to look right," Boldt said.

She stood in front of the three display cases housing Persian artifacts: a filigreed belt buckle, a scabbard boasting intricate gold movements, manuscript pages and several arrows, presumably for using with the massive 19th-century bow in the uppermost case.

They are part of an exhibit called "Persian Arms and Armor: A Hero's Tradition." The display runs three months, stretching from May 7 to July 30 at MU's Museum of Anthropology.

It began when Boldt wanted to connect the exhibit to Egypt, the topic of Cultures of the World, a summer class for children offered through the Museum of Anthropology.

"We wanted to have something that was somehow relatable to that," Boldt said.

She started putting the exhibit together along the yellow grasses of Rock Quarry Road inside the Museum Support Center. It houses the Grayson Archery Collection, the largest and most comprehensive archery collection in the world.

The museum has been collecting artifacts since the 19th century, even before the department of anthropology was founded in 1966.

The support center is where Boldt goes to select the pieces. She picks artifacts that fit with the theme she wants to present to visitors. For the Persian exhibit, she narrowed down her selection to 19th-century arms and weapons.

The goal is to create a "package that's aesthetically pleasing as well as informational," she said.

"Then, I pulled everything over here (the museum)," Boldt said. "That's a delicate process. It took a few hours to find all of the pieces."

There are only three cabinets worth of artifacts, so the hours spent setting up is a testament to how carefully they needed to be treated.

Next, she prepared the display cases, down to details, such as wooden walls inside the cases.

"Sometimes the wood doesn't look well with the artifacts, with the color you've got going on or with the small pieces," she said.

For this exhibit, she used black velvet, which she said "was a pain in the butt to get to stick to the wall."

Even the tiny box used to show off arrow tips had to be painted to look pleasing. In this case, Boldt had to wait a week for it to dry because the fumes could have damaged the artifacts.

One especially delicate item was the colorful Persian manuscript sheet, which required an acid-free paper placed behind it.

"Nothing can touch that," Boldt said. "Otherwise, it might damage it."

After three months, displays are taken down. The appropriate artifacts are returned to the Museum Support Center.

"We have to make sure that piece gets put in the right back with all the information associated," she said.

Then, the pieces are fumigated.

"Just in case any bugs or mold touched them," Boldt said. "The longest process is waiting for them to get fumigated."

Some artifacts might not be sterilized for a month.

"(There are) tons of little things that go in to putting these exhibits together," she said. "I didn't know it until I tried."

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