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The arts of daily life.
These might be the carved spoon passed down from your ancestors or the kimono on the wall of your neighbor’s house, the painted chairs you can see in old photographs of your grandparents or the urns dug up from the ground in some exotic archaeological dig.
At the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park, these quotidian crafts have recently been on full display: Native American art, British iconic punk fashion from Zandra Rhodes, Romanian folk art and the beckoning cats of Japan.
Overseeing such a sundry global buffet is Christine Knoke, the museum’s exhibitions director. Knoke worked at Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena for about 15 years before coming to San Diego last June, and she’s still pulling out drawers in the museum’s storage room to check out more and more of the vast collection of treasures, cutlery and tapestries.
Not to mention combing through the massive bead collection the museum just inherited from an Arizona museum that closed and pulling threads together on an upcoming exhibition of quilts from the American South.
And, working in a museum that was implicated in an investigation into stolen Thai artifacts, Knoke said the pressure’s on even more to research the stories in each of those drawers.
She sat down with us this week to talk about “mingei” — the arts of the people.
How do you get your mind around a collection that is so vast — 20,000 items?
It takes time. One of the fun parts of moving to a museum is learning a new collection.
How do you do that?
You just go in and you start learning. We have a database — every item gets a unique number so you can track it. So you can go in the database and type in “Mexico” and see what ends up coming out. Really, though, it’s going and looking. We have a wonderful collection storage with drawers, so you can literally go in, open a drawer and kind of look in there. I try to spend a little bit of time in there every week.
It’d probably take a good 20, 25 years to really lay eyes on everything.
This bead collection you just got contains more than 11,500 beads. I’ve seen it billed as the biggest bead collection in the world. How do you go about fact-checking a statement like that?
That’s a good question. There are a few other important bead collections.
And it’s your job to just kind of know that?
Yeah, I mean you kind of know what the other museums have. We’ve accepted that. Authorities have said that, too. The director and I spent a day-and-a-half in Glendale when we were negotiating for the donation. And we spent a couple of hours opening drawers there. It was overwhelming, I have to say. They have these wonderful cabinets with drawers and you might open a drawer and have just bags and bags of beads in there, necklaces. It’s going to be a big job for us to organize and familiarize ourselves with them. But it’s really a wonderful collection.
How do you let someone down gently if they think you’re going to love their collection and you don’t?
You do have to be careful. Being a craft and folk art museum, people want their collection of, you know, buttons or whatever to be shown. They really do come out of the woodwork sometimes. But I think it’s important to give them respect. We ask for images, or if they’re local we’ll go take a look at their collection.
I know you weren’t here when the whole illegal trading ring hit the news, but how does it impact your work now? Do you question who you trust to provide leads on obtaining collections?
It’s a scary kind of situation but as a museum employee, you have to respect if there’s some chance to make things better.
It gets really complicated, but basically there’s a word called provenance, which means the history of a piece. So if you go to Macy’s and you buy something, maybe its provenance was that it was made three months ago. If you go into a gallery and you buy a piece of furniture, maybe its provenance was that it was made in Pennsylvania in 1600 and you know that it went maybe from one family to another family to another family. So provenance is a very important concept.
It’s basically learning the history of your collection. It’s tricky because you might not know where it came from; you might not know exactly when it was made, who was its first owner, who was its second owner. So provenance is one of those ongoing projects that all museum staff, curatorial, exhibitions-related, are doing. You make sure that if you had references, if there are important books on a subject matter, that you are looking at those. Just so that you felt like you were doing all you could to learn about the history of your pieces.
In terms of the Ban Chiang material (the Thai artifacts in question), it gets complicated because different countries have different rules about what is considered patrimony. In this case, they were items that were probably excavated. So that gets into a whole layer of ownership of something that gets dug out of the ground. One of our biggest mandates is to protect and preserve and care for our collections. We’re not out to get anything untoward or to do anything illegal.
There’s a huge emphasis at the Mingei here on cultures from all over the world. What about San Diego arts of the people?
When I think of art of the people, I think about all kinds of people. We think about San Diego as being kind of a binational town. We’re so close to Mexico. The Mexican voice is very important. But there are so many other communities here. We’ve been working with a lot of those organizations. The local Italians and the Finns and the Romanians — this is a very diverse area. Everybody’s voice matters. And almost every culture has some kind of artistic creation, whether it’s pottery or weavings, that they’re proud of, that they feel has power. So I feel like we have this wonderful opportunity to exhibit those wonderful, cherished parts of their lives.
Correction: A caption on this story identified Christine Knoke as executive director of the Mingei Museum. This post has been updated to reflect that she is, in fact, exhibitions director. We regret the error.