MSSU department awarded $10,000 grant for African Art Collection

·4 min read

Aug. 28—Missouri Southern State University's African Art Collection, which features more than 300 works from various tribes throughout central Africa, will continue to be preserved with a grant recently awarded to the Department of Art and Design Administration.

The $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for Humanities will go toward equipment purchases, disaster supplies, security upgrades, a consultation with a conservator and training in emergency preparedness. The department was notified it had been approved earlier this month.

The MSSU African Art Collection features masks, statues, weapons, clothing and textiles and more.

Christine Bentley, director of the MSSU Spiva Gallery, said she gets to live out her dream every day working as both the curator of the African Art Collection and a professor of art history at the university.

"Teaching is my first passion, and this has become a close second," she said. "I love taking care of the collection, and that's why I felt so passionate about this project. That's also why I love teaching because I can share that passion and talk about objects all day."

The African Art Collection is housed in the Spiva Library in Room 109 and has to be kept at a certain temperature and humidity level to safely store around 300 fragile pieces of art and artifacts. It also includes an immersive museum studies classroom space to provide firsthand experiences in cataloging, researching, preserving and handling museum-quality objects.

Bentley said it's significant to keep the humidity at a certain level to ensure the delicate artifacts and items are not damaged by moisture. Several of the items are made from wood, as well as raffia, rope, paint, iron, copper and other materials. Gloves are worn by handlers when touching the objects.

"We have dehumidifiers in this space that are constantly running, and we have air purifiers to help with mold," said Bentley. "The students also come and log the humidity every single day, and we want the humidity to stay between 55 and 65."

The African Art collection was assembled by a former assistant professor of art from pieces donated by John and Pam Finley in 1997, along with several other contributors. In 2020, it was selected as one of 75 institutions in the United States to participate in the Collections Assessment for Preservation program, which provides small and midsize museums with partial funding toward a general conservation assessment.

The former grant funded a visit by both a conservator and historic architect to study the collection, building and building systems as well as policies and procedures related to the collection and its management in order to develop a prioritized set of recommendations to improve the collection's care.

"We successfully completed that program and then were immediately referred to the Museum Assessment Program funded by the American Alliance of Museums, which we did in 2021," said Bentley. "This was a little different because we had an assessor come out who was more specific in terms of what we needed to do for preservation and how we could develop into a small museum."

Bentley said the recent grant funding will be used to ensure the collection is stored in proper and stable archival conditions. The funding will go toward the purchase of light monitors, fans, storage supplies and furniture, disaster supplies, dust and UV filters, security, as well as consultation with a conservator to write a collection care policy, update a disaster plan, and receive training in emergency preparedness.

"The assessor who came out for the Museum Assessment Program will help us work through the program that we've established with the NEH, in terms of what items and equipment that we're purchasing and how we'll install and use them in the collection," said Bentley. "She's also going to do a couple of workshops for us, one being a disaster preparedness workshop. She's also going to help us create some administrative documents that are needed. The ultimate goal is for this to be categorized as a museum in its own right at some point."

The $10,000 grant will also help purchase display cases because the objects and pieces cannot be on display permanently. Bentley said the collection allows students to gain real-world experience of what it's like to work in a museum setting.

"I have a gallery settings class where they act as assistant curators, and they fill out collection care reports," she said. "Students get a lot of hands-on experience doing things that you would as a curatorial assistant."

Weapons were made out of mostly metal and can include feathers and other decorative elements. Bentley said a majority of the weapons in the collection are ceremonial, but there are indications that some had been used.

"It's a pleasure to care for these objects and knowing that we're doing what we can to support them for the longevity of the life of the object, and that we've done our best," said Bentley. "I'm so grateful to have an administration that supports us and sees the value in this collection."