UCLA – Inside the Fowler Museum

by Teresa Xu

“What’s going on inside the fancy building on the left of Janss Steps?” This question may have come into many Bruins’ minds for several seconds whenever they happen to pass by.

While you may have proudly told your family and friends that UCLA has a museum right on campus, do you know what it is about?

Photo from the Fowler Museum Website

“The Fowler Museum at UCLA” was first established in 1963 as the Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology, featuring the various collections of non-Western art and artifacts on campus, initiating research projects, fieldworks, and exhibitions on the “otherness”– the ethnic changes of foreign cultural group, not necessarily using an art-historical methodology.

In 1971, its name was changed to the Museum of Cultural History and four years later, its collections on art and material culture from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, as well as the Americas, ranked it Top Four university museums in the country. The current $22-million structure was constructed under the proposal of museum director Christopher Donnan, also Professor Emeritus in the Anthropology department to fully promote visible exhibitions instead of hoarding dusty artifacts underground. Previously located in the basement of Haines Hall, the museum has consistently struggled to re-imagine its own identity in its colonial collection. 

The Fowler Museum under construction (from Online Sources)

Since 2006, the name of the Museum has been officially changed to the Fowler Museum at UCLA, in recognition of the support from the Fowler Foundation and the family of collector and inventor Francis E. Fowler Jr, with its core to emphasize global arts and cultures and make them visible to not only western museum-goers, but more importantly, the indigenous people. The Fowler is not a mere institution which simply collects and hides its objects behind for “safety reasons”, it is part of the UCLA community to actively reflect on the history, re-narrativize the stories behind the colonial collections and call for respect for it.

From September 8, 2019, to March 8, 2020, On Display in the Walled City: Nigeria at the British Empire Exhibition 1924-1925 is on view in the Fowler in Focus Section. By inviting viewers into the well-lighted but relatively small area, this exhibition means to position viewers in a similar place to where the Nigerian artists once were nighty-four years ago in the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, England: An exhibition almost as a human zoo where artists’private spaces had consistently been invaded by reporters and curious “high-status visitors”. All the resignation they had, the injustice they faced, the discrimination they suffered from were condensed into a strikingly enlarged black and white group photo right at the entrance. 

Photo by Teresa Xu

In the exhibition, visitors will find many bronze helmets, ivory carvings on display are actually replicas of replicas which were not made of their original materials. This selection poignantly reveals the severe looting that happened in the colonial periods which makes it impossible to trace where the real pieces are right now. The causes of how and why the punitive expedition full of deprivation and exploitation happened can be found on the wall texts provided by the curator. With the comfy seats provided inside, viewers have abundant time to read and think about what has happened in the British Empire Exhibition.

Because we care so we choose to display the problematic history truthfully. The exhibition at the Fowler Museums will always leave viewers new thoughts and insights: none of them should feel guilty or sad about the past. Next time, when you pass the Fowler Museum again, remember to check it out, to feel the positivism that the world will become better.

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