The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis Gilcrease Museum

Entrance to Curtis Exhibition

An early design assignment at the Gilcrease Museum was organizing an exhibition around a collection of photographs owned by The Capital Group Foundation. The images, while new, were printed from original negatives captured by photographer Edward Sherriff Curtis. The collection of seventy-five photographs had been utilized to illustrate a new publication entitled The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis written by Steadman Upham and Nat Zappia. The newly matted and framed collection arrived without interpretation. The easiest task was deciding on a title for the installation.

View of Gallery 1

Fortunately, I had the new book to draw upon for clues to organize and interpret the show. Even more fortuitously, the Gilcrease Museum owned a complete set of the books and portfolios making up Curtis’ major opus The North American Indian, published in installments over a thirty-year period during the early Twentieth Century. The new publication featured the written text of traditional tribal stories, which were also a major feature in Curtis’ original publications.

The North American Indian became my primary source for direct quotes by Curtis and insights into the creation of the original photographs.  In the end the gallery interpretations centered around excerpt from the new book, quotes from Curtis, and interpretive panels relating the traditional stories of the tribal groups represented in the photographs. In a divergence from the new publication, I ordered the photographs in the gallery by regional tribal affiliation – Plains, Puebloan, Pacific Northwest, and Alaskan – rather than from youngest to oldest.

Gallery 3 with Inuit artifacts

Two very interesting aspects of this exhibit occurred by pure happenstance. After reading that we were developing an exhibition devoted to Curtis’ photographs, Eben Tonsing, a music instructor at Oklahoma State University, contacted me regarding the wax cylinder recordings of traditional songs Curtis made while in the field. Mr. Tonsing was a collector of Curtis’ photographs, but even more importantly he was an expert on these recordings made in the early Twentieth Century, and which now rest in the archives of the University of Indiana.

Mr. Tonsing had been cataloguing the sound tracks and also repatriating CDs of the songs to the descendents of the original singers. With Mr. Tonsing’s guidance we were able to create a background soundtrack for the gallery, in addition to a listening station with additional information concerning specific cuts.

Mr. Tonsing also led us to the silent movie – In the Land of the Headhunters – written and directed by Curtis in the nineteen-teens. We ultimately utilized a loop sequence from the film in the gallery. It showcased a traditional masked dance ceremony from the Pacific Northwest tribe with full regalia.

Gallery 3 with video kiosk

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